Original Pilipino Music’s Bright Spot

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

One word to describe Christine Bendebel’s house is bright, bright with color, and bright with the light of many suns. The award-winning composer of hits for Regine Velasquez, Ariel Rivera, Rachel Alejandro, Jamie Rivera, Jaya, and Martin Nievera usually shares the cheerful space with her mom and her sister’s family, while her dad and brothers are frequent visitors and habitual tenants. The close-knit Bendebel family divides its time (and family members) between Mandaluyong and Cebu. Their cozy Mandaluyong compound resounds with the antics of her pets Diana, Whoopie, and Pusing, and her nephew, Jarrod. Their quirky sala is anchored by their beloved pianoforte and two sinuous sofas in salmon and yellow. An old wooden trunk acts as a coffee table, and an immense ceramic elephant serves as a telephone stand. The most intense space in the house though has to be the psychedelic kitchen, painted in neon colors dazzling enough to cook food and cause seizures.

Upon entering Christine’s domain, the solar motif is inescapable. The sun shines down from her cabinets and walls, even her electric fan has a sunray centerpiece. Christine gathered the pieces for her sunny collection from Vigan, Baguio, and Cebu. Scattered among the sunspots is an eclectic collection of knickknacks, her favorite piece being a miniature mask with musical notes gracing its frilly collar and peaked cap, a friend’s gift from Turkey. Her vividly patterned curtains match her sheets because they used to belong to the same set, but after a bit of creative alteration, they now also cover her windows aside from her bed. From the cherubs peeking in through the window to the maps that tile the floor, her room never lacks for visual stimulation, all the better to stir the creative juices.

Tucked away at the back of their house is Christine’s music studio. A sign proclaiming “tunesmith” greets you at the door underneath a Zagu lightbox, and a license plate saying “songwriter” perches on top of her computer monitor alongside assorted cartoon characters. One wall is completely taken up by rows of cassette tapes. If you wonder where all the CDs are, Christine admits that she mostly skipped the CD-buying stage and went straight from cassettes to MP3s. A cabinet top is laden with all her plaques and trophies from various songwriting competitions and award-giving bodies. The walls are peppered with Christine’s stamp collection, sheet music, posters, prints, photos, calendars, and collages. A Picasso fan, Christine has several framed reproductions of his works scattered about, and even has one of his sketches patching over the hole of her exhaust fan. The studio also acts as a mini-museum for her family’s small collection of vintage cameras and recording equipment.

Christine’s has been making melodies ever since she can remember. “Since elementary school, I was already known in my school for songwriting. I continued doing it all through high school and college. I got my start from Ronnie Henares, he was the one who chose my material for Regine Velaquez. Actually I first submitted songs for Janno Gibbs, I didn’t know Regine yet then, she was still Chona Velasquez. When they heard the songs I submitted, they got interested and Ronnie called me. He said that he wanted to use my songs for Chona. I asked,’Who’s Chona?’ She would turn out to be Regine,” recalls Christine. The songs and the singer turned out to be a perfect match, and it didn’t take long for both of their budding talents to be recognized.

“In a way Urong Sulong and Kung Maibabalik were breakthrough songs for both of us. Since then, the record companies started calling me already. After that, I only got to work with Regine again after 6 years for her Christmas album.”

Like all composers, Christine continues to pursue the elusive goal of a hit song. “Now I want to have a new hit. I never stop writing but it’s really hard to make a hit. Which is why I truly admire Vehnee Saturno, because even if he disappears for a while, when he comes back, he has a hit right away. He really knows the feel of the masa.” Among foreign songwriters, she looks up to Diane Warren for her seemingly effortless ability to pen hit after hit.

All the new uses other people appear to find for her old songs never fail to amaze her. “Undoubtedly my biggest hit is “Kung Maibabalik Ko Lang”. Up to this day, just yesterday, I have people negotiating with me so that they can use it again. They go on using it for TV, VCDs, DVDs, Magic Mike, and ring-tones.” She admits to being very appreciative of the income she gets from these workhorses of hers. “It’s great if you have a lot of hits, you can just relax. Like last year, I was able to rest a bit. There wasn’t a lot of pressure to come up with new songs. With the money I made, I could take a break.”

And yet her most successful songs aren’t necessarily the ones she’s most proud of. “Of the songs that were released, my favorite is “I Still Believe In Love”, which I wrote for Jaya. It was released as a single, but didn’t become a big hit. I also did a song for Ariel Rivera entitled “In My Life”. That’s also a good song,” she discloses. “But basically the songs of mine that I really like haven’t been released yet. It’s really hard to market those songs because they’re not the type that sell here. I feel that I’ve grown somehow, that I can’t go on writing the jukebox-type songs anymore. But I still enjoy it, so I still go on writing.”

Jingles, she says, are where the money is at. “But if I’m not working directly for a client, they can be a headache. Because if you go through an advertising agency you have to go past all these people who are supposed to approve your jingle. So you can be ok for the first two stages, then in the end you’re out.” Christine has done jingles for such corporate giants as Palmolive, San Miguel Beer, Purefoods, Triple V, and Kodak. Because of the ubiquity of her commercial work, she gets to hear her music in the most unlikely places. “I did the theme for the Sta. Lucia Mall. So it’s very familiar among those who live in Cainta and Antipolo. I was surprised once when I heard some kids singing the jingle. I asked them why they were singing it, and it turned out that they were from Cainta.”

Tune-smithing isn’t all fun and financial gain, she explains. “The competition is very tough when submitting songs for an album. Sometimes, there are 50, even 80, of you competing and only 12 or 14 songs will be included. So every time there’s an album, that’s what we songwriters have to go through, unless maybe you’re really asked to do a particular project. Like what I did for Jamie Rivera’s Seasons album, every month has a different occasion and I was assigned to do the father’s day song. That was a good project.”

Christine believes that the talent for songwriting is a blessing, and one has to be grateful for every break that comes your way. “You’re not always sure where your income will be coming from. When you feel that your funds are about to be depleted, you just have to write and submit your songs again. But before I get to that stage I have to go through a lot, writing songs everyday, because here in the Philippines you need to be prolific if you really want to earn. Unlike abroad, one big hit and you’re set. Over here, Vehnee Saturno and Odette Quesada are already like that. They just continue to write songs because they enjoy it. But sometimes you can’t help but get the urge to write“.

She encourages all those who feel they have it in them to try their hand at it. “It’s a good career as long as you set your heart into it. I didn’t have any equipment before. I’d just play on my guitar and piano. To make my demos I’d have to hide inside the cabinet to get some quiet. Those starting to write songs now are really lucky because we now have computers. But you really have to love what you’re doing. If you do it’s impossible for you not to break into the industry because it’s really small. So if you really want to write, it’s really fast. If you’re really serious about songwriting you’re sure to get somewhere. Maybe it’s easy for me because I’m not supporting a family so I don’t have a lot of problems.”

She reveals that the business of writing love songs has its own share of heartbreak. “There are also a lot of heartaches in this industry. There are intrigues and politics. Everybody knows each other. I’ve been in the business for the past 17 years so I’m used to it. I remember in my early years if the singer didn’t thank me, or I was left out of the recording, I’d feel really hurt. You find out that someone is using your song without your knowledge, and it’s almost like stealing. These days, I don’t mind anymore, because now I look at my songs here as material for my demos abroad.” Christine has already managed to get her food in the door to the bigger foreign markets. “Last year and in 2001, I had a few recordings in Taiwan, not for F4, but another band named IPIS. They used a few songs of mine and translated them to Mandarin. Up to now I’m still trying to get into the US market.”

Christine declares that she can get her inspiration from anything, from movies, and from friends who talk about their relationships and romantic escapades. “Urong-Sulong” is a true story, what the song says really happens. I had a classmate in college who didn’t know if he should ask me out. It was embarrassing when the song became a hit because he knew that it was about him. “Kung Maibabalik Ko Lang”, was inspired by a movie, that’s all I’m going to say. I can also get inspiration from my nephew Jarrod, my pets, my family, but mostly from my friends.”

Christine is currently in a curious stage of her long and fruitful career. “I haven’t written any new songs in a while. Now I just get songs from my stockpile and recycle them. It’s because I have a feeling that there I already have too many songs that haven’t been marketed. So now I’m concentrating on marketing the songs I’ve already written, and I’m taking a break from songwriting creation.”

Her participation in an international competition is what Christine considers to be her biggest achievement. “100 songwriters competed, 15 got in, then I was the one chosen to compete for the Philippines. That was the highlight of my career, to get into an international competition, and winning.” But Christine’s best work may still be ahead of her, and she’s already sitting on a treasure trove of unreleased material. Good songs never go out of style, and sometimes time is all it takes for underappreciated gems to get a second chance. As the world of popular music pushes onward in its never-ending cycle of hits and misses, Christine is rolling right along and enjoying the ride.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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