Katumbal: Art without limits

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By Hannah A. Papasin and Julius D. Mariveles

Eight years ago, beside a Koodiyattam classroom in Dempsey Hill, Singapore, T. Sasitharan listened quietly as he was asked a question about art and politics.

Influenced mostly by 90s rock, vocalist Elcid Elumba refuses to compromise the band’s image and sound.

Too often than not, Sasi, widely considered as a guiding light of theater and the arts in Singapore, believes the message gets diluted in the form.

The message lost in the abstraction. Last night, we listened quietly inside the private studio of Matt Montalbo as Elcid Elumba, Deaux Magbanua, and Jestoni “Tonton” Gonzaga, vocalist, drummer, and bassist, respectively, responded to our questions.

We were on the western corner of busy Rizal Street, snuck inside a travel agency office. Elcid sat on a low-slung folding leather stool, behind him Deaux with a reversed baseball cap, also on a leather stool surrounded by Zildjian cymbals and manual drums.

To his left, sitting on a speaker was Jestoni or Tonton, long-haired, bearded, tattooed.

We were feeling woozy from listening to the metronome but were not about to give up quizzing Elcid and his seemingly carefree band of musicians on philosophy and music.

“I don’t have to agree with you to be able to interpret your song.” This is the underlying artistic philosophy of Jestoni “Tonton” Gonzaga, Katumbal’s bassist.

And art. If it should be for a greater cause or a cause, an ideology by itself.

Free. Limitless.

“We are faithful,” Tonton says, a phrase that became a running gag up until we had dinner with them.

That easy banter, the chemistry, the seemingly psychic connection that translates well to their performances are what make Katumbal a compelling watch.   Tonton’s bass, Deaux’s drumming Elcid’s distinct vocals come together in a seamless, almost flawless act that could send anyone within the 10-meter radius with a badly-shattered eardrum.

Think Pantera.  Think Metallica.  Think Led Zep or AC/DC or Kiss without the dubious makeup and haircuts.

And it’s honest-to-goodness music.  No raging against the machine.  No songs wanting systems to go down.  Whether it’s an ode to the ubiquitous pancit canton, or the song of rebellion against college education, Katumbal makes every performance matter.

“I don’t think there’s ever an artist who says upon waking up: I want to create music that makes a political message,” Elcid philosophizes, “I believe it is the audience who interprets the message of any song.”

They are there for the music, a commitment all three musicians share, having played with each other – or with others – for more years than they can care (or dare) to count.

Reticent. Reserved. Deaux Magbanua plays a heart-stopping, eardrum-shattering set with his instrument.

It is the kind of commitment that would make them meet despite their busy skeds, even in-between gigs (all three are employed; they’re not succumbing to the starving artist trope, thank ye gods).

And it does not matter, too, that they come from different backgrounds, from different mindsets.

“I don’t necessarily have to believe in your philosophy to interpret your song,” Tonton says, explaining further, “I don’t have to be an anarchist to sing about anarchy.”

They talk about stereotypes and tropes.  The bassist as the anarchist-loner.  The vocalist as the people’s man. The drummer as the chick magnet.

And here, the teasings start as everybody was ragging on Deaux and his girlfriend. 

The teasings stop when it comes to talk of female fans, strangely enough.

“How are your female fans now that you are already taken?”

The question was directed at Deaux, reticent, reserved.  And furiously blushing.

It was Elcid who answers.

“We don’t think of the fans when we perform.” A chuckle, then, “I don’t think we even have any.”

Tonton seconds.  “When we perform, we perform because we want to.  Our performances are for us, not for so-called fans.”

It is that uncompromising stance towards their music that defines Katumbal’s sound.  It’s heavier than grunge, more metal than the synthetic kind woven in chemical romances. 

And they are happy playing that sound, that distinct Katumbal flavor that heavily channels 80s rock.

And there is no other way that the band wants it.

It’s art.

It’s limitless. 

It is tatak Katumbal.

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