It was a celebration of music and art. Photograph by Eddie Boy Escudero 
Culture Music

“You can’t keep a good thing small”: Looking back on Fete de la Musique, the early years

The 90s and early 2000s were truly a different time.
Jam Pascual | Jun 29 2019

The year was 1994. NU Rock 107 dominated the airwaves. Rivermaya was about to set off the Philippine rock explosion with their self-titled debut album. Grunge was god. The Fidel Ramos administration was laying the ground work for its Philippines 2000 development plan. Fax machines were a pretty big deal.

It was also June of that year when Alliance Francaise de Manille and a scattered bunch of promoters, bands and talent handlers organized the very first Fete de la Musique in Manila. The idea of holding such a large scale event in the country was practically unheard of—Malasimbo didn't exist, and Wanderland was still waiting for a particular specimen of hipster to emerge. It hadn't been done, but there's a first for everything.

It all started as an “intimate” street party.

 

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The very first Fete was held in the streets of Malate, the scenester’s watering hole that modern day Poblacion wishes it could be. “The festival covered almost the whole area of Malate,” Bing Austria recalls. From the church, the whole circle, and then you go to the Mabini area. The streets were packed.” Austria didn’t know yet, at the time, the phenomenon that Fete would eventually become, pulling up with the rest of Put3ska to Hobbit House, a bar whose edgy-by-90s-standards gimmick was midget waiters. It was a different time.

Austria, now frontman of the soul band Flippin’ Soul Stompers, remembers the very first Fete as an otherwise intimate affair, at least compared to the titanic, citywide Fete shows the late 2010s have spoiled us with. “All the artists and all the bands, we knew each other,” he shared. This was before the days of social media, when word of mouth was the main messenger. Newspapers, radio spots, and flyers on telephone poles were the pubmats spreading the Fete gospel. Theater performer and former MTV Asia VJ Jamie Wilson was also there, watching what must have been Alliance Francais hard-selling what was once an extremely novel thing in the Philippine music scene.

 

Cementing the spirit 

“They would have these French blues and jazz artists coming in, but they would do their own sets. And then the finale of the Fete festival, they would jam with the local artists.” This was a small segment slash tradition that would go on for a few years in the 90s. “That jam I think cemented the spirit of Fete, because it really is a celebration of music and arts.”

Malaya and Billie Bonnevie.

The theme of community is one that comes up again and again as I’m gathering firsthand accounts of Fete’s halcyon days. Wilson would go on to gain a sort of bird’s eye view of the festival’s growing audience as host of Fete 1997, which took place in J. Nakpil Street.

“J. Nakpil Street was pretty much the place to go to in Malate. They had all these bars. The first bar that went up there was Blue Cafe, owned by John Glenn Sunga, and they sort of put together like a Nakpil street bar owners association,” the theater veteran remembers. “And that’s when they contacted Fete, and they shut down the street, all the bars, which was great, because basically you could take your beer from one bar to another bar.”

Wilson wore many hats during Fete’s early days. He was a host, and also played for Fete in recent years as a member of Blue Rats, but he was also a stage manager. 

Logistics are enough of a challenge to handle for any prod, but imagine planning your schedule specifically around one musician. “We had to all run our stages on time, primarily because of [Razorback bassist] Louie Talan. He’d play with all the bands. So we would structure the festival around Louie’s schedule. Cuz he would be playing with multiple bands on different stages,” he says. “This guy would be playing all night because he’s playing with everyone.”

Another thing that factored into the intimacy of Fete’s early shows was how few the pocket stages were. This year’s Fete had a staggering 52, spanning multiple genres and prods and expanding beyond Manila’s borders. Back then, the stages were rock, blues, jazz, and the stage that fell categorically under the umbrella term of world music, which had accommodated ska and reggae groups. Even the term “alternative” had a different kind of currency then. “‘Alternative back then, they did not mean ‘alternative music. It was just, ‘Oh, we don’t know where to fit you.’ You’re not jazz, and you’re not rock,” Wilson says. “So we had some very eclectic musicians. Cynthia Alexander with an Indian group that I had to set up. Like, they had sitars and tablas and electric guitars.“

Cookie Chua taking a break with friends.

These unique setup can be traced to Fete’s artistic mission, which wasn’t just to promote French culture or merely throw big street parties. It was, to some degree, designed to lift the artistic sensibility of the local communities. The writer and publishing veteran Apa Ongpin, who was in Alliance Francaise’s board of directors from 1992 to 1996 and travelled to France after, valuated Fete as a deliberate, curated experience.

“The interesting thing about the Fete, which is never stated, is it wants to promote all forms of music. For that reason, they don’t emphasize mainstream pop music. It rarely is featured at the Fete. They really looked for alternative bands,” he states. “Why promote mainstream pop music? It’s alreadypromoted.”

 

“The spark plug of the event”

Ongpin’s unique position as a fly on the wall granted him a unique perspective. There were various social and economic forces at work making Fete that most people on the ground wouldn’t be able to see. For Ongpin, two key figures were essential in making Fete possible.

Bing Austria onstage.

The first was French then-ambassador Olivier Gaussot. “This guy was amazing. He was extremely intelligent. Highly educated. He was the main spark plug of this event. He wanted to bring it here. The French Minister of Culture said, ‘Look, if you can start it in the country where you are, we’ll give you a subsidy.’” Gaussot would work together with then Chair of the Alliance Francais de Manille, Josie Lichauco, who would go on to become Undersecretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications. “She presided over the liberalization of the Telecom sector,” Ongpin says, painting a picture of a time when PLDT was king and barely anything could challenge it.

"[Lichauco] and Gaussot worked together to make it happen. It's not a joke, organizing this thing. It took money, resources, time, and most of all, management," Ongpin says. After all, prior to 1994, such a thing had never been done. 

 

Queen organizer 

If the 90s was when Fete was learning to walk, the early 2000s was when Fete could truly run. The turn of the century brought about many changes, from the calming down of Malate to the quickening rise of mobile phones, which presented new possibilities in communication and the rise of new gig spaces. But one could trace Fete’s pivotal moment to Len Francisco, who was the crowned queen organizer of Fete in the early aughts.

Francisco’s Dovetail Solutions outfit had been, since 1997, mounting jazz and blues events, equipping her to handle Fete’s large scale endeavors. It was in 2000 though when Philippe Bosquet, the former Deputy Director of Alliance Francaise, approached her to take the reins of Fete.

An early clipping of Fete. From Len Francisco’s Facebook page.

Through email correspondence, Francisco would detail the nuanced cultural shifts of the aughts. “In the 90s, ‘alternative’ gig venues Club Dredd, Mayric’s, 70s Bistro, Freedom Bar and Kalye were homes to really great local bands, whose diverse music didn’t exactly fit into sales-driven label preferences, nor the dominantly pop formats of most radio stations back then.”

That slowly began to change. Sponsors started biting, and corporate contracts and brand endorsements were abundant. “Alternative” became marketable.

“The early-through-mid 2000s saw the birth of even more great Pinoy acts, more alternative venues for them to perform live at, like Saguijo, 19 East, later Route 196, among others. Later, by 2005, the labels were signing them up, they were getting radio airplay and TV appearances, creating teleseryethemes and ad jingles, and performing at many major music events (from mall shows to big outdoor concerts, to themed shows and tours produced by megabrands of apparel, telcos, beverages, etc.) At this point, you could say the scene was booming more than thriving.” Francisco offered, “Most of these groups, if not all, were Fete veterans!”

The street situation during Fete nights.

The festival would move its oasis from Fete to The Fort Strip, which was, at the time, the only happenin’ thing in Bonifacio Global City. Seven stages filled the space, as acts from Grace Nono and Cynthia Alexander to Slapshock and SPY figured into the lineup. Later years would see Fete expanding territory to El Pueblo and the Podium. Wilson, who worked under Len, got to see Fete strut its stuff in new geography, with a parade featuring percussion collective Brigada. "They would start off in Podium and do the whole march to El Pueblo,” recalled Wilson, “and that was the opening ceremony of Fete." Looking at Fete as the traffic-making, street-filling monster it is today, it is no surprise that even back then, it was steadily growing.

The aughts also changed the game in terms of promotion and marketing. Francisco drops names like a true producer. “This being before the advent of social media, our promotions involved a lot of alignments with media entities (for TV, primarily MYX and ABSCBN, for print primarily Inquirer’s 2bu and Super; radio—NU107, Magic, KLIte, RT, Crossover, RJFM, LSFM, among others), and physically promoting among university colleges, orgs and frats.” She doesn’t take all the credit though. Among those in her team were Prod Head Ricci Fedelino ("She literally knew allthe bands," Wilson stressed), and music events veteran Julie Pacanas. As Francisco put it: “It really took a village!”

 

“Agent of unity”

It is difficult to draw a straight line between the revelry of then and the Fete of today, but there is still a sense of continuity at work. Bing Austria continues to play for Fete—he's been doing it every year since 1994—as vocalist of Flippin' Soul Stompers. B-Side Productions' Giselle Tomimbang, Fete's head organizer du jour, earned her stripes as a part of Francisco's team in 2005. Malate may no longer be a hotbed for young gig-goers, but an extremely commercialized BGC still sees some action as a space for unbridled festival cacophony. And to this day, stage managers and prod heads offer eggs to Sta. Clara to pray for the rainy season's mercy.

Jamie Wilson. Photo from his Facebook page

One can't help but feel nostalgic for The Fete That Was—a gritty, DIY, ramshackle production that brought the community together by making music, as Francisco would put it, "an agent of unity." The festival has grown into such a colossal thing that nobody nowadays can say that everybody knows everybody. The stages now number the double digits. Genre-specific scenes don't really cross-pollinate. And good god, Lord knows it's harder now to take your beer from one bar to another.

But as Velasco puts it, "You can't keep a good thing small. It's just impossible. And if it was kept small, it would die." Oh, to have been young and wild when the show was small. Still, what a thing to be alive now, to see what Fete has become, and hear the stories of what made it.

 

Photographs by Eddie Boy Escudero