SILONG Songs Issue 1: Eraserheads’ ‘Toyang’
Eraserheads’ ‘Toyang’ is not just a “silly love song.” The second single from their debut, Ultraelectromagneticpop! (1993), is whimsical and tongue-in-cheek, right from its title alluding to worldplayfulness and interpolations of English ballads and Filipino folk verse. It’s sonically just as dynamic and liberating, weaving noisy Pinoy rock with the sounds of surf and reggae. And it’s charming and sentimental, like a tipsy Tatay regaling of when he too was once wildly broke and wildly in love.
If there is any band that could be ‘The Beatles of the Philippines,’ it’s The Eraserheads. Ascending in the 1990s, the upstart group of UP lads became the pinnacle of OPM rock. Yet, that core undersells a band filled to the brim with intrigue within and outside their music.
‘Ultraelectromagneticpop!’ established the ‘Heads’ deftness in commanding, bending genres. The debut’s tracklist navigates a spectrum of softer acoustic balladry, anthemic pop-rock, and unabashed punk, all spiced with reggae and folk. Their later discography further embraced the experimental. They crafted concept albums that confused as much as delighted. They tinkered with esoteric instrumentation, genre, and lyricism. That sonic exploration could have been as much about the disaffectedness with the fame brought upon by their college rock origins as it was the ambitions of artistic growth.
Ultraelectromagneticpop! was also a harbinger. It set into motion a band that embodied the highs and lows of perpetual Pinoy melodramatic, whether Quezon City’s Fab Four embraced it or could not escape it. The EHeads were beloved, to the point where they became the first Filipino artists to win the ‘International Viewer’s Choice Award for MTV Asia’ in 1997. The honor spoke to a mania outside the Philippines, even reaching the States.
Yet, like the Liverpudlians, they were no stranger to controversy. The band had to re-record ‘Pare Ko’ to scrub away explicit lyrics deemed unfit for Filipino radio. They had to deny allegations of the subliminal. ‘Alapaap’ did not celebrate drug abuse, contrary to a Senator’s claim. Nor did ‘Spoliarium’ draw upon, immortalize a national scandal.
The band endures in the Filipino imagination, not the least because of their downfall. Frontman Ely Buendia catalyzed simmering tensions into a catty breakup. Buendia, about as temperamentally Lennon a lead-man you could ask for, simply quit over text in 2002. Even today, he still fields questions on the band and the split.
The Eraserheads truly earned the honor ‘The Beatles of the Philippines,’ with all the artistic success and mess that could come with it.
‘Ultraelectromagneticpop!’ is the album that led me to start SILONG. It was the first time in my life I heard OPM, or really much else Filipino media, that resonated. I wanted to explore why it did, why it never had the opportunity to resonate before. I wanted to discover more media from the homeland that made me feel that way. And I wanted to share that feeling, that love.
‘Toyang’ is a great starting point for those endeavors. The song epitomizes a vibe familiar to any Pinoy: the flavor of story-telling that seemingly every Manong, Auntie, Lolo infuses into every anecdote. The song carries that visceral feeling of youth, optimism, whimsy buoyed by good humor even, especially in hardship. The song conveys that nostalgia that is a tinge bitter but always unbridledly sweet.
‘Toyang’ is ostensibly the pet name of the lover to which Buendia sings. It’s also a pun on ‘Too Young,’ a 1951 love croon made famous by Nat King Cole that Eraserheads interpolates right at the start: “They try to tell us we’re too young / Too young to really be in love.”
And it’s not the only English reference the EHeads make in this song. The harmonies of the bridge borrow from Paul McCartney’s ‘Silly Love Songs,’ with the sweet repetition of “How can I tell you about my loved one?”
As a microcosm of the Pinoy experience, OPM is inseparable from foreign influence. But make no mistake, ‘Toyang’ is ultimately and decisively a Filipino affair. The instrumental teases a confluence of genres that, to my ear, are hard to pinpoint. Rhythmic riffs and walking bass lines carry more surf, reggae, even ska vibes. The punchy, lo-fi tone and driving drums skew rock and punk. But the core of the song, according to Buendia, is Pinoy. Specifically, it’s inspired by what the frontman believes is a Bicolano folk song played by his cousin.
Buendia also employs Filipino nursery rhymes to cheekily accentuate the thrill of young love in QC. The first verse references ‘Bahay Kubo’ and remixes ‘Pen Pen de Sarapen.’ The former allusion makes light that, despite the appearance of the home of Toyang and the singer, it is a home filled with love. The latter is more of an eccentric transition priming us to understand the playful relationship the song extols. As the instrumentation runs and swells, an excited heart in anticipation, the couple engages in cute-sy bartering, bantering for a date that, even if frugal, is charming.
Pengeng singko pambilbi ng puto
Sa mga tindera ng bitsu-bitsu
Sky Flakes, Coke 500 pahingi ng kiss
Ang bayad mo sa jeepney kulang pa ng diyes
Give me 5 change for the Puto
From the Bitsu-Bitsu seller
Sky Flakes, Coke 500ml, please give me a kiss
Your fare for the Jeepney is short 10
The seemingly puppy-love relationship belies an earnest devotion that waxes and wanes within the spaces of their humble home, their empty pockets, their song. By the chorus, the vocals and backing track belt in equal measure.
Mahal ko si Toyang
Pagkat siya’y simple lamang
Basta’t kami ay magkasama
I love Toyang
Because she’s pure
Even in difficult times
It’s enough that we’re together
The second verse simmers, shimmers with intensity, matched by my favorite lines in the songs, melodramatic as they are.
Madalas man kaming walang pera
Makita lang ang kislap ng kanyang mga mata
Ako ay busog na
We often don’t have money
But just looking at the sparkle of her eyes
I am content
An explosive guitar solo recedes into a reggae-centric bridge supporting a graceful Ilokano stanza, a meditation after monsoons of emotion.
Ti ayat ti maysa nga baro
Ken balasang natalna
Uray man, uray man, uray man
Haan unay nga nadonya
The love of a gentleman
And a lady is harmonious
it’s not that extravagant
In the end, that abundant love is bursting out of the seams of the piece, crescendoing into the coda. The band triumphantly declares true love is never too young. Simultaneously, they bring the song about full circle, back to the interpolation of Nat Cole King: “We were not too young at all!”
After finding the cassette for Ultraelectromagneticpop!, after listening through the album, after listening to ‘Toyang,’ I had this wild thought that this helped me understand my parents. To their credit, they’ve become more forthright with their story. But the story of their relationship, especially their relationship before immigrating, always had a “you had to be there” quality to me. Feelings as intense as love inevitably lose luster moving between differing first languages, circumstances, generations. Songs like ‘Toyang,’ allow me to be there, at least more so than I’ve ever been able to.