“Music is serious business.”
My grandfather used to say that. In fact, one of my clearest memories of Lolo Teo was of a tremendous roar, followed by the alarming sight of him bearing down on us, eyes blazing, teeth bared, wooden cane raised, ready to beat my three-year-old brother and me away from the piano. We’d been banging at the instrument and pretending we were Mozart and Billy Joel combined, and the racket must have proven too much for Lolo Teo’s refined sensibilities. He swept us off the bench, and proceeded to set us straight about the Andrada family’s duties.
“Music is serious business, and it is our business,” he roared while we cowered in a nearby couch. “Music is sacred. Music is spirit! And music—not this infernal noise that passes for music nowadays—music demands respect. Do you understand? Discipline and respect! If you have no such commitment to our craft, then you have no place in this family.”
Needless to say, Lolo Teo’s words made a lasting impression on me. It helped that half the time, my cousins and I were terrified of him. The other half, we were in awe of him. Lolo Teo was a small, wiry old man, but his status as legend was much bigger than he was. He was our church organist and conductor of our marching band and church choir. In fact, he was the one who came up with the idea for our family to give a free musical concert every Christmas as a thanksgiving gift, a practice that soon grew into a grand tradition not just for our family, but our parish and our town as well, as the Christmas concerts began to draw audiences from far and wide.
He was also one of the country’s greatest composers, for which he was given the title of National Artist, the highest honor in the land. The day he died, newspapers and TV shows ran stories about his life, and during the days that followed, the country’ best musical performers gave tributes to his work, important personages came to pay their respects, and soldiers in resplendent dress uniforms stood guard at his wake. One of my cousins muttered that they were there to make sure Lolo Teo didn’t sit up in his coffin to critique the performances being given in his honor. His parents shushed him, and the rest of us spent the rest of the time avoiding eye contact with one another for fear of dissolving into giggles and calling down some dire punishment upon us. After all, my cousin had simply said out loud what we’d all been thinking.
Lolo Teo may have been a cross between a boogeyman and a deity, but for me, my dad is my hero. He’s the third oldest among Lolo Teo’s eight progeny, and while every one of those eight are talented, my dad Jose Conrado outshone them all. JC, as he’s called in the industry, most closely followed his father’s footsteps—conductor of a leading symphony orchestra, music professor, and composer of so many of the country’s best religious music and pop hits that it’s likely just a matter of time until another Andrada joins the ranks of National Artist.
Luckily, Dad’s teaching style turned out to be very different from Lolo Teo’s. My childhood memories are filled with happy hours spent in the music room, with Dad playing some of his songs on the piano while Ray played the melody on his violin and Jess sang the lyrics with patchy accuracy. Sometimes, Mom would join in, her soaring voice harmonizing with my sister’s high-pitched one. And I’d be sitting on the piano bench beside Dad, watching his hands move across the keys, turning the pages on the music sheets, and singing along while he smiled encouragingly at me. It was Dad who made music fun for us, who taught us that while it required plenty of discipline, music also gave us—and everyone else—plenty of joy in return.
After a while, Mom would shoo us out so Dad could work in peace. I’d stand in the doorway for a moment longer watching him work, and vow to myself that I’d never disappoint him.
In short, saying that ours is a musical family is like saying the ocean is slightly damp. My aunts and uncles are concert pianists, cellists, classical guitarists, vocalists, founders of bands and choirs and orchestras, music teachers, composers and arrangers, studio owners, sound and music directors, and talent agents. We even have our own music store at the mall in middle of town.
And my cousins? From lead singers, guitarists and drummers in rock and jazz bands, to choir members, to song writers, to sound technicians. We learn to read notes before our ABCs, and learn our ABCs as musical scales. We confuse our preschool teachers by babbling random Italian words. Our family reunions can get as loud as anyone’s, but ours are way more pleasing to the ear. And when we sing karaoke, the neighbors never complain, ever.
It’s like Lolo Teo said. Music is our family business. Our legacy. The reason everyone held us in such deep respect. And if one of us refused to—or couldn’t—be a part of that legacy, then that person became invisible.
Like Uncle Manix, who owned a hardware and construction store. Or Auntie Amor, who was assistant vice-president of an insurance company. Or my cousin Sherwin, a mining engineer. Sure, they were invited to family reunions. Sure, the family relied on Uncle Manix to help with the backdrop and props for the concerts. Sure, we liked them just fine.
But they were invisible to us. We didn’t talk about them, and if anybody brought them up, it would be in quick and careful tones before somebody else changed the subject. We bragged about everybody else’s accomplishments, but when Kuya Sherwin topped the licensure exam, or when Auntie Amor got the promotion, hardly anyone mentioned it. They were outsiders, treated with friendly but distant courtesy, never spoken of—or spoken to—unless necessary.
They were the ones with no place in the family. The invisible ones, whom I rarely even gave a thought to before.
Until that early December night when I learned I was as invisible to my family as they were. The night I realized that the only one who heard me, or saw me, or believed I had worth…was me.
It was a long way to fall, and when I finally hit the ground, morning had come.