That’s the word that summarizes each trip I make to the Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival in Puerto Galera ever since its inception in 2011. I missed it last year when intense training for my second full Ironman triathlon did me in. A weekend festival of fun preceded by months of hardcore workouts door-stopped by the flu is far from my coach’s recommended recovery modes.
But that absence plus a 2019 lineup that includes Grammy-award winning American pianist and bandleader Robert Glasper (with Derrick Hodge) and his soul-moving, groove-inducing house/jazz/world music are enough reasons to get me excited for Malasimbo 2019 this weekend. Apart from Glasper, there will be Montreal-based keyboardist Anomalie; the Filipino funk-rock, Manila Sound-inspired band IV of Spades; the returning Filipino-American rapper Ruby Ibarra; The Blue Rats (probably the most enduring blues band I’m raring to catch after missing them for so many years); and DJ Danny Krivit (whose “Body & Soul” parties fed my craving for dancing on a Sunday when I lived in NYC). Imagine listening to these acts in an all-new location on Puerto Galera—a jungle clearing just off White Beach—their sounds coming from Funktion One speakers. This music festival could easily become a spiritual experience as well.
Peer pressure and curiosity brought me to Malasimbo in 2011. My gal pal Francesca told me about the festival and my first reaction was skepticism (“Mala-what?”)—not to mention my last visit to Puerto Galera (PG) in the early 90s didn’t really leave a good impression. But when the rest of the friends I knew from Thursday nights at M Cafe (my hangout in its heydays) had bought tickets, FOMO set in.
That very first Malasimbo was the start of the pilgrimage. Each piligrimage begins with a five-minute tricycle ride from my PG resort to the shuttle station, followed by a crowded, slow, 10-minute jeepney chug on a winding, narrow path from the national road to Mt Malasimbo. Next is another five to ten-minute climb to the festival location—a natural amphitheater carved into the mountainside looking down into a copse of coconut trees. These trees were lit up by ground lights in different colors, and they cast a magical glow. That coupled with the visual installations throughout the venue always made me catch my breath (based on my fitness level at the time and out of amazement at the vista and musical setup below).
Malasimbo is held in February or March when the weather’s cool enough and perfect for a light jumper or a snuggle on a picnic blanket. Or dancing like nobody’s watching, or a sweet swig of whatever floats your boat.
When I’m asked for my best memories of Malasimbo, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling—and a bit melancholy that I don’t have a photographic memory to keep them all in. Here are some that’s stayed with me: A then-pregnant Badkiss dancing to her own DJ set on stage at the inaugural Malasimbo. It must have been early in the morning, but here was this hot momma grooving in her element.
The small crowd of several hundreds that made it to this first-ever weekend went wild. No small thanks to the ethereal Joss Stone in 2013 keeping the crowd enthralled under a full moon. The squeals of surprise and how she carried on singing after a wayward moth slinked into her dress made us love her more. Inky de Dios and his indefatigable, rhythm-infused Brigada band whipped the crowds into a sweaty, pulsating frenzy of Afro-Brazilian beats in 2012, 2015, and 2016. British soul singer Omar Lyefook took us 30- to 40-somethings down memory lane in Malasimbo 2014 with “The Man” and “There’s Nothing Like This”.
Omar singing “There’s Nothing Like This”
I spent time picking up colorful beads, amulets, and woven baskets made by the indigenous Mangyan tribe as souvenirs. A unifying force of peace and good vibes was palpable when the Malasimbo crowd spontaneously stood on rows of the amphitheater to dance in unison to the infectious beats of eclectic Australian reggae band Kooii.
Kooii dancing with crowd
When I wanted to keep dancing until early morning, I got a second wind at midnight just by scarfing Tita Ara D’Aboville’s specially marinated kesong puti on warm pandesal, or a hefty serving of her bestselling D’Abodobo (scrumptious pork and chicken adobo with white rice sprinkled with roasted garlic bits served in a coconut shell).
With my brother TJ in 2012, and my twin sister Scho in 2015, I did my pre-festival dancing to DJs Kristian Hernandez and DJ Complex from 3 p.m. onwards on the “Malasimboat” moored off White Beach. My happy feet shuffled to drum ’n’ bass/hip hop/Latin-infused funk all in one session, thanks to the DJ showdown at the Silent Disco. I fangirled over British musical prodigy Jacob Collier; was awed by the energy, vocals, and scintillating appeal of jazz singers like Kat Agarrado and June Marieezy. R&B artist RH Xanders and members of the Manila Symphony Orchestra engaged the crowd in a rhythmic, free-flowing jam with Brisbane-based R&B/funk musicians Laneous (back once again this year) and Golden Sound in 2016. International Blues Band finalists and our very own Brat Pack were so fired up by the reception they received they had to capture the moment with a wefie.
Whether at sunset or the deeper evenings, the semi-permanent, seemingly spiritual, art installations like Agnes Arellano’s sculpture of a woman in the throes of childbirth (“Haliya Mantra”), and Wawi Navarrozza and Ling Quisumbing Ramilo’s giant fluttering pieces of bright blue fabric (then orange a year later) woven into one (“Sa Langit Mong Bughaw”), enhanced the magical atmosphere of the festival. Olivia D’Aboville’s enchanting “Giant Dandelions” made from recycled plastic, and Sam Penaso’s “Baleleng” were majestic counterpoints of artistic talent on the Malasimbo grounds.
I remember dancing for hours to DJ sets by Osunlade in 2014 and drum ’n’ bass maestro Goldie in 2016, and switching my Garmin on to track mileage while grooving to my fave DJs Abdel Aziz, Manolet Dario, and Samantha Nicole. While eating my D’abodobo, I watched with amusement as Goldie, an avid Bikram Yoga practitioner, and MC Shureshock from Australia, also a yoga instructor, traded tips and demonstrated perfect form for asanas while backstage.
In 2015, my twin sister and I had the chance to catch Malasimbo headliner American jazz and funk trombonist Fred Wesley, who played with James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic in the 60s. Wesley and his band The New JBs were so moved by the Malasimbo experience that they didn’t refuse an invite to give an impromptu morning performance to former street children being cared for by the Stairway Foundation in Puerto Galera.
I remember feeling pride and privilege seeing Bronx-based legend, the “King of Latin Soul” African American-Filipino Joe Bataan and his band serve up electrifying performances in 2012.
I love this story about Joe Bataan from Tribo Manila percussionist and Malasimbo performer Marcus Maguigad. He says he’ll always be thankful for waking up at sunrise to a knock on the door of the homestay they were in, despite having had a long night. “As soon as I saw the person at the door, I woke up everyone else in the room. ‘Hey guys, Joe Bataan wants to have coffee with us!” Maguigad tells me. “Joe Bataan is just an amazing person. He just really wanted to have coffee and share. He was telling us about his experiences, living in the Bronx in the 50s and 60s; talking about Afro-Cuban music and how it changed his life; being Filipino. It was just such an unforgettable experience.”
A FESTIVAL WITH SOUL AND PERFECT SOUND
In 2016, I had the opportunity to help Malasimbo founder, Croatian-born Australian sound engineer Miro Grgic with communications and public relations for that year’s festival. It was then I fully realized the enormous challenge of staging a music festival of international standards outside Metro Manila without commercial and business support. The Department of Tourism once highlighted Malasimbo in its “Its More Fun In the Philippines” videos. Not anymore. Even as international and local acts perform each year and the event serves as a highlight reel for tourism in Mindoro. I wonder what keeps Grgic going after all these years.
“I keep it alive because I choose to keep it alive. Most people would have given up when they realized it wasn’t a cash cow. The event has heart and soul and people feel that,” Grgic tells me.
If there’s one important aspect of the Malasimbo festivals that keeps me coming back, it’s the sound quality. We all know how a lousy mic or defective speakers can dampen party vibes or annihilate a performer’s act. Music has the powerful ability to evoke strong emotion, and it all comes down to your experience of it. Crafting the listener’s experience of sound to near perfection is one thing that Grgic is an expert at. “I still love what I do. Having total control to showcase to people what music should sound like, live. I think I get a kick out of that the most,” says Grgic, who calls the Philippines home for now with wife D’Aboville and their 3-year-old son. “So many people are exposed to sound incoherence, that they respond so well when they hear music sound really good live.”
My excitement for Malasimbo 2019 came flooding back during a recent morning run as I listened to one of my favorite podcasts. “The interesting stuff happens when different groups come together; work together; collide,” said National Public Radio host Shankar Vedantam in an episode on creative differences. New York-based social psychologist Adam Galinsky was also in the podcast. Galinsky studied how openness to other cultures leads us to be more accepting of diversity and how it inspires innovation. "There's something about deeply understanding and learning about another culture that's transformative," says Galinsky. That too can be said of Malasimbo.
The fact that Malasimbo has reached Year 9 is a testament to Grgic’s belief in the huge talent there is in the local music scene, and his sincere desire to introduce to a bigger audience different genres of music. It is also a testament to the power of collaboration. These have made Malasimbo one of the underrated musical events that do make you feel special to just even be there.
Even as Malasimbo moves from its magical mountain home to a jungle clearing by the beach, I understand that its the vibe I bring—open mind, curious spirit, a respect for nature, an appreciation for music and dance outside what I normally see or hear, and a love for diversity—that rewards me with Malasimbo Magic. It’s not Coachella; it’s forever an under-the-radar buzzword for adventurous souls. All I know for sure is Malasimbo has changed me, and that’s why I will return.
Check out the Malasimbo 2019 lineup here.
Buy tickets here.
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