Malasimbo, the summer music and arts festival that has helped Puerto Galera shed its once-seedy image, and establish the locale as a cultural hub, nearly failed to happen this year. Fans were already surprised that the 2019 edition was relocated— from its breezy, breathtaking perch on the foothills of 1,200-meter high Mt. Malasimbo to a jungle clearing about four football fields large on the less populated tip of touristy White Beach — the possibility of moving the event out of Galera altogether, or even an outright cancellation made things worse.
“Dear Festival Goers, partners and friends,” the February 22 @malasimbofestival Instagram post read, “We are aware that there have been rumours that Malasimbo will be moving to Manila. But we’ve worked our #MalasimboMagic and we’re happy to announce that this year’s festival will still be at our jungle paradise in Puerto Galera’s White Beach thanks to our new partners @flashglobalmedia.”
Had the festival moved from Mindoro to Manila, the festival’s mystique would have eroded. Over 3,000 ticket buyers heaved a collective sigh of relief at the Instagram announcement.
While part of that #malasimbomagic came from its location, a natural amphitheater carved from the mountainside, there were many other elements that make the festival what it is: the costs of hauling equipment like state-of-the-art sound systems weighing several tons, plus cases of alcohol and food from concessionaires. There is also the hiring of jeepneys to ferry festival goers and artists up and down the mountain. Putting all these together on its eighth year proved too prohibitive owing to lack of sponsors.
“It was just too high,” says Miro Grgic, Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival’s founder and director of Vue Entertainment Corp. He’s a sound engineer by profession, and he’s worked on festivals in Australia and his native Croatia, a country known for its massive music and dance performances. Of Malasimbo, he’s reluctant to give out figures for the record.
A leading event producer I interviewed placed a ballpark figure of P5 million to P8 million to stage an out-of-town, multi-day event like Malasimbo. Despite the venue rescue this year, the cost of staging the festival remained daunting with few sponsors coming in. “I get it done for less, because I do most of the jobs,” says Grgic with a self-deprecating smile.
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It’s a beautiful, windy Friday afternoon in the jungle clearing, Day 1 of the festival. Filipina-Japanese pop singer Ena Mori and her band are on sound check. Grgic is roving the grounds clad in an orange shirt, khaki shorts, and sneakers—an outfit he put on since waking up and will probably be wearing until the festival ends Saturday morning.
He brings up the low-profile venue owner’s understanding of Malasimbo. “He gets it, he sees it, he feels it,” Grgic says. “He’s like, ‘Dude you know if you can’t do it on the mountain anymore, you can use my backyard.’ It just happens to be on White Beach and artists could walk over here,” added Grgic.
I worked with Grgic on Malasimbo in 2016 (Year 6) handling public relations. I first met him in 2009, through DJ Kristian Hernandez, who invited Grgic to guest-DJ at the Sofitel. With his then-partner, now wife, Filipino-French artist Olivia D’Aboville, the two parlayed their connections in music and the arts to conceive of Malasimbo in 2011. With the exception of 2018, I have attended every Malasimbo festival since it began.
Working with Grgic on Year 6 gave me a first-hand look at his drive, his love for music and the Philippines, his belief in the wealth of talent in the Filipino music scene, and how it could juxtapose well with the under-the-radar or household-name headliners Malasimbo managed to bring in on a shoestring budget each year.
I joined Grgic on the organizing committee a month after finishing my first Ironman triathlon. I thought I’d get a respite. Boy, was I wrong. Festival organizing proved as grueling as Ironman training. That year, there were two Malasimbo weekends—a Music and Arts weekend, and a Lights and Dance weekend. When all was over, I was exhausted. I kept thinking: 1) I could not do what Miro was doing. 2) Malasimbo is a festival with a cause worth supporting and pursuing. 3) Why did it have a hard time getting sponsors?
In Year 9, those three thoughts still swirled in my head.
Risk of new venue, perception of drug use
As the festival approached, sponsors, including a high-profile alcohol brand that had pledged over a million pesos in cash and products, lowered their commitment before completely backing off from the project, therefore inflating costs.
The change to a more accessible venue—from mountain to lowland—could have been to blame. “I think there was a bit of a fear that this Malasimbo might lose some of its magic, because it’s not up the mountain,” said Malasimbo’s marketing manager Ashleigh Rye. “It was a risky new venue where no one had done a festival at yet. They [sponsors] needed the numbers to release budgets,” said Rye, an experienced marketing and brand activations specialist.”
Sponsorship of music festivals have also taken a hit following the deaths of five people due to illegal party drugs obtained during a rave in May 2016. In January 2019,a teenager collapsed from a suspected drug overdose at a concert on the sidelines of the Sinulog festival in Cebu.
In a bid to curb illegal drugs throughout the island, Puerto Galera officials in July 2018 shut down three ports on White Beach, Muelle, and Sabang and centralized all entry into and exit from Puerto Galera via a newly expanded Balatero port. Since the festival’s inception, the Malasimbo organizers have worked closely with local government officials to crack down on drug use. “We have a very good relationship [with local government and law enforcement officials. I think PDEA [Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency] do what they have to do. And we do whatever we have to do to help,” says Grgic.
Local government have given support to the Malasimbo Festival since 2011. "Puerto Galera is again being put into the world map of tourism industry, that is why we are supporting this festival," former Puerto Galera Mayor Hubbert Dolor said in 2014. The current Mayor, Rocky Ilagan, has provided police presence and emergency services on standby.The municipal police, boosted by a team of event security forces brought in from Manila are in and around the festival grounds. Tempt fate, and you could end up like four festival goers who were arrested for marijuana use and possession in Year 7.
“It just comes down to the most important principle, which is the safety and well being of all our guests & participants. It helps that we attract an older, more conscious crowd, some of whom may be past their more experimental party days,” says Grgic.
The Malasimbo Festival, now a contemporary cultural magnet for the island of Oriental Mindoro, alongside the indigenous Mangyan tribes and their traditions, received support from the Department of Tourism (DOT) from 2012 to 2017, said Undersecretary Art Boncato. In 2014, scenes from the festival were highlighted in one of the DOT’s viral videos under its wildly successful “It’s More Fun In the Philippines” campaign.
Oriental Mindoro, along with Occidental Mindoro, and its neighboring provinces of Marinduque and Romblon are one of 20 priority clusters under the National Tourism Development Plan, a masterplan pooling together government agencies in a bid to synergize efforts —from infrastructure to education—to boost tourism.
The Tourism Department allocates financial assistance to worthy projects like Malasimbo. But a sponsorship proposal for support in 2019 took a hit, no thanks to the ongoing 2019 National Budget impasse and government’s audit of the Tourism Department’s two-billion-peso spending on questionable travel and dubious disbursements during the tenure of former Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo.
Because of the “DOT’s limited budget, and the increased vigilance and advisories/observations from the Commission on Audit because of past management practices, the DOT has become more selective and limited in giving financial assistance and sponsorships,” said Boncato in an email reply to ANCX’s questions. The DOT said it remained open to receiving another proposal for 2020, subject to the department’s Special Project Review Committee.
It’s about content: corporate sponsors shift focus
A top executive of one of the country’s leading creative agencies ventured an interesting explanation on the dearth and lack of enthusiasm from major corporate sponsors when it comes to festivals and concerts: It’s the changing landscape of advertising, from traditional to digital, from event to content-based. “The big brands are doing things in-house. They’re more focused on creating their own events,” said the executive, who hasn’t been to Malasimbo but is aware of the buzz surrounding it. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in Philippine food and beverage on their branding campaigns. “It’s all about content. Clients want their own content, and to have total control over it,” he said, adding “Why will they spend on sponsoring another event when they can create their own?”
He noted Malasimbo’s wealth of content from the big-name musical artists that have performed in the past. Jimmy Cliff, Joss Stone, Fred Wesley, Joe Bataan, Jacob Collier are among the legends to grace the Malasimbo stage. “They should leverage on that content,” the executive suggested.
Flash (Global Media) to the Rescue
The ones that did appreciate the festival’s magic were small homegrown brands. Blending in with Malasimbo’s Bohemian-jungle vibe was a colorful juice truck run by Locally. “We thank them for trusting us. It was their first time to work with us and be present. They did cash sponsorship and also supported us with products for our artists and VIPs,” says Malasimbo marketing manager Rye. Joe’s Brew, a popular craft beer haunt in Poblacion owned by a trio of siblings pitched in support as well.
Grgic gives credit to a “loyal set of people” who’ve worked with him in every Malasimbo festival. He names a Calapan-based lights and sounds crew, DM Force Lights and Sound, for example, along with other “music lovers, bands, DJs, festival goers who’ve experienced Malasimbo Magic and are eager to give back by helping out just to make it happen.”
But the white knight that saved Malasimbo’s Year 9 was one of its media partners, a little-known, Makati-based social media company called Flash Global Media. At its helm is 32-year-old Chelsea Yu who moved from China to the Philippines 10 years ago. In her unassuming getup of jeans, sneakers, and a white t-shirt with the company logo on it, she’d pass for one of the 20-something festival-goers.
”I love it here,” she says of the Philippines. Her Filipino project manager Vince Mimay had told her about Malasimbo and broached the idea of being a media partner as a means to introduce the company and its services. “Vince introduced me to this big festival and I was interested in that,” she told ANCX on the sidelines of the 2nd day of the festival.
Grgic recounted that moment it seemed the festival in Puerto Galera could be cancelled. “Seven days prior to Malasimbo 2019, I received news that a large amount of financial sponsorship that we were depending on, was not pushing through. As a result, was forced to discuss moving the event to Manila where the production cost is much lower and revenue potential is much higher,” he said.
When Yu received the news that Malasimbo would not take place in Puerto Galera, she offered for the company to step in as co-producer. “I want it to continue [in Puerto Galera], because it’s a good festival,” said Yu. Flash Global and Grgic met. Grgic left with a check that saved the coming weekend.
Yu declined to share the company’s investment and downplayed the help that saved Year 9. “I think the old audience already expects it every year, they really want it to happen,” she says. “We hope we can try our best [to help], because we have the same vision.”
Looking Forward to Year 10
Long story short: Malasimbo Year 9 did not disappoint. Was the mountain location better? I liked this new one, too. And that’s not a copout. From 2011 to 2017, I enjoyed the reward of lying on a blanket or dancing with wild abandon under multi-colored spotlit coconut trees after having made the slow jeepney ride up to the hillside amphitheater. In 2019, I got an easily accessible, breezy, spacious, well-laid out jungle clearing close to the beach and my bed in a homey resort nearby (staying up for the headliners and dancing until 3 a.m. requires a mid-evening disco nap).
Considering everything Grgic’s been through for nine years, staging a 10th Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival in 2020 seems to be a foregone conclusion. Though he loves what he does—curating the creative aspects of the festival and perfecting sound quality—he can’t hide the weariness in his voice. “So many years later, and with a family, I have to work smart and not burn myself out.”
The significance of a decade of Malasimbo isn’t lost on Yu, who said Flash Global Media is committed to supporting it in 2020. “I want for next year to be more successful, because they’re 10 years,” she says. “If I can try my best to help, I will be willing to.” She hopes the lineup next year includes more Asian music and art. “We want to mix many more cultures in this one. I hope there will be more Asian [acts] like Korean, Japanese, Chinese,” she added.
When I speak to Grgic days after the festival, he tells me that other locations for Year 10 are under consideration: “While we ended up pushing through with Malasimbo 2019 in Puerto Galera, we did get some great venues offered in both Manila & Cebu, which are now on the table & being considered as part of our 10th-year anniversary in March 2020. Of course, we hope to keep the event in Puerto Galera also, if we can find partners for the event.”
There’s no denying there’s magic in the Malasimbo brand and that it’s set another benchmark for music festivals in the country. Grgic, Flash Global Media, and their supporters have their work cut out for them in staging Year 10 of the festival, a proof of triumph over adversity.
“More than anything, I proved to myself that I can do this Malasimbo production anywhere, as long as I have nature to work with,” says Grgic.
Now all we have to do is show up at Malasimbo 2020, wherever it may be.
Photographs by Andre Drilon