The Way of Dharma

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Mention the words Philippines and musicians in the same breath, and the world reflexively thinks of jobbing balladeers and journeymen lobby trios. Like most stereotypes, these are both true and untrue. Filipino hotel entertainers proliferate across the globe, but they are merely the workaday exports of a culture that, on its home turf, plays louder, harder and in more diverse ways than just about any other. Head out most nights in Metro Manila, and you'll be spoiled for original live sound, be it R&B, indie pop, electro-fusion or punk.

In a scene this vibrant, it's hard for any act to rise above the clamor, but Up Dharma Down might just be doing so. Beloved of air-punching fans and chin-stroking critics alike, this genre-defying quartet was pegged by BBC radio DJ Mark Coles last year as the Manila band most likely to cross over to the lucrative Anglophone market of North America. Its internationally viable sound shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows the environment it sprang from. "The Philippines is used to following global music trends," says Toti Dalmacion, Up Dharma Down's manager and the man who owns its label, Terno Recordings. "Bands here sprout out of all [kinds of] genres."

"All" is not a casually chosen word. "We're influenced by so many things that we're able to balance and combine everything," says 23-year-old vocalist and keyboard player Armi Millare. "We would get bored if we got stuck within a certain style." She, along with guitarist Carlos Tañada, 25, bassist Paul Yap, 25, and drummer Ean Mayor, 23, cite eclectic musical reference points, from the fey electronica of Zero 7 to the studied cool of David Sylvian. It makes for music that manages to be both thoughtful and sensual. "A band like this doesn't come around more than once in every 10 years," says Rock Drilon, founder of Manila's influential live venue Mag:net Café. Adds Andrew de Castro, program director of MTV Philippines, "When everyone else was doing rock, [the band] came out with fresh electronic-based neo-soul, with a drum-and-bass rhythm section and an ambient guitar sound."

Manila got its first taste of Up Dharma Down in 2004 at a bimonthly showcase for untried acts. That sensational evening at Café saGuijo—a proving ground for Manila's young bands—immediately caught the attention of local cognoscenti, and the next time the band played, the venue was packed. Since then, Up Dharma Down has won national music awards for its debut album, Fragmented, and it was nominated for Best New Artist at the Philippines' 2006 MTV Music Video Awards. It was also the first Filipino band to appear on MTV's Advance Warning, a showcase of up-and-coming international artists that has featured the likes of the U.K.'s Bloc Party and Canada's Arcade Fire. That's solid progress for a band that had its genesis at a college poetry reading in 2003, and once had to beg venue owners for bookings.

Will the wider world be as receptive? Of the 15 tracks on Fragmented, eight are in English, so language isn't necessarily a barrier. But resources and market perceptions might be. Chris Sy, chairman of the Philippine Association of the Recording Industry and managing director of EMI Philippines, is cautious. "Not being from one of the traditional repertoire centers of the U.S. or the U.K., it takes a lot for a label to ... risk time and money on a Filipino band," he says. "A Filipino act has more of a chance to break [overseas] in a niche genre like jazz, dance or classical than in pop. Niche genres are generally more accepting of diversity."

Marketing and distribution opportunities presented by the Internet and other digital technologies may help Up Dharma Down overcome the problems posed by location and limited capital, however, and the industry is certainly keen to ensure such opportunities are exploited. MTV is working with local music companies to stage the provisionally entitled Philippine Music Congress in January 2008. The three-day forum will include discussions on making and selling music in a borderless digital marketplace. Channel V's online initiative, the AMP website, has already helped a handful of acts, like Rivermaya in Singapore, make regional headway. It also raises the possibility of a pan-Asian audience for new bands—something that would enable musicians to have remunerative careers closer to home.

For now though, Up Dharma Down needs to deliver that all-important follow-up album, and continue building its fan base. Millare certainly hasn't let the kudos go to her head; in fact, she has set a straightforward goal for the band's immediate future. "The most important thing," she says, "is to be heard." She could be speaking for young musicians in bars all over Manila.