Up Close with a String Magician

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Noli Aurillo performing Dave Grusin’s “Mountain Dance” with Jun Latonio at the Tago Jazz Cafe

Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin once differentiated between two types of writers as follows: “The architect, before he drives a nail into a plank, has all the blueprints and knows what the house is going to be like and where the pipes are going to run. Then there are the gardeners, who dig a hole in the ground and plant a seed and water it – with their blood sometimes – and something comes up. They know what they planted, but there’s still lots of surprises.” (Rolling Stone Magazine, May 24, 2012) Martin’s vivid differentiation comes to mind after listening to acoustic fingerstyle guitarist extraordinaire Noli Aurillo on three different occasions over a period of one month. Twice at Tago Jazz Café where he plays regularly and once at The Last Home where he participated in the Beatles Night. For one thing, this string magician never repeats the cover songs that comprise his acoustic set list preferring as he does to focus on what the moment will bring. For another, although he has a signature playing pattern which initially starts out by gently replicating  the original practically note for note and then taking it to uncharted sonic territory – a’la Martin’s writer as gardener – Aurillo is blessed with a gift for magically working out ad libs and improvisations that invite comparisons to classical orchestral overtures and symphonies. This is true whether he’s playing the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” or JDLC’s “Himig Natin.” Even more amazing is the fact that he pulls off such feats in a manner that awes and inspires because his playing always sounds like there are  three guitarists in the room. One doing bass duties, another taking care of the lead and a third in charge of the rhythm section. There is a third sense that the comparison to a gardener suits Aurillo to a T. His career as an acoustic guitarist is a long and winding road to the cult status he currently enjoys among guitar aficionados. Noli Aurillo has been playing as an acoustic guitarist since 1976.  From half-empty bars to jam-packed concert venues. From the studios where Asin laid the tracks to their studio albums to the recording session rooms of Side A, Skarlet, Rannie Raymundo, Lou Bonnevie, Cooky Chua and fairly recently, Mishka Adams. Along the way, he bagged the 2002 Awit Awards as Best Musical Arranger for his “Dalawang Dekada ng Asin” which led to the surreal experience of conducting the chamber section of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra with a beer bottle in hand as they performed his winning arrangement. That’s a total of 38 years. The more accurate number for chronicling his lifelong passion for the guitar though would be 48 years as he first learned how to play the guitar at age 6 through his kuya as they were growing up in his beloved hometown in Tacloban City. If we go by Malcolm Gladwell’s now famous Rule of 10,000, at a conservative estimate of 1 hour a day, that translates to 17,472 hours. More than the minimum 10,000 hour Gladwell pegs for the Beatles, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan to acquire the level of excellence and mastery they have become famous for. Perhaps this is why post-2002, his winning arrangement of Asin classics has been followed by even more compelling acoustic medleys such as his Michael Jackson tribute medley, possibly his most famous YouTube posting to date with 42,323 views and counting, his Pinoy Rock medley, and his two Classic Rock medleys. His best musical performances, it must be noted, are not confined to medleys. His acoustic guitar versions of “Usahay,” “Fragile,” and “Walang Hanggang Paalam” are all excellent cases in point.

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Aurillo and Latonio also jammed on Grusin’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” – a telenovella staple.

To be sure, much has been written on him by veteran chroniclers of the local music scene.

Danny Sillada’s “Noli Aurillo, Portrait of a Musician’s Musician” opens with a Beatlesque “The gentle weeping of his acoustic guitar is like a spider’s web that gradually and steadily loops and coils around his audience until they become an acquiescent victim of its transcendent melody, as if every rhythmic line or phrase that his guitar evokes is an encounter in eternity.” It concludes with Sillada portraying Aurillo “as a naturally gifted guitarist and musician, Noli Aurillo is both an impressionist and expressionist artist. The eccentricity of his musical genius subverts all genres. He is ”All-in-One,” in a manner of speaking, a musician’s musician. He can play from rock to blues, from jazz to classical, from folk to pop music. He is simply an unparalleled legendary Filipino guitarist, a man whose propensity for music surpasses his own prodigious brilliance, as if no one could beat Noli Aurillo except Noli Aurillo himself.” (Manila Bulletin, March 5, 2012)

In “Noli Aurillo: Gitarista” Juaniyo Arcellana pays homage to Aurillo by highlighting the power that his guitar playing wields in the face of grief and sadness. “It takes the death of a comedian for a nation to mourn, it takes a singular guitarist to remind the audience of magic.” Of his playing, Arcellana associates “… an ethereal quality, the notes round and ringing, with just the right mix of muffled reverb. It is as if he (Aurillo) is drawing, or performing magic card tricks.” He caps his essay aptly with “And when a guitarist picks up the instrument, there’s magic. And when there’s magic, there’s laughter again. And if laughter is possible when we thought comedy had died, isn’t it a great gift to be able to listen again, to be able to see the muse in a curved line, and make the lizard wait until the next twilight time?”(Philippine Star, July 16, 2012)

Igan D’bayan describes Aurillo in “A Tale of Two Musicians” as “easily one of the best guitar players in the country…On fire, on a stairway to heaven, on a trip where only musical geniuses like him could truly understand – or simply on top of his game. That’s musicianship on samurai or ninja levels…Here’s what you get with Noli: counterpointing accompaniment vocal melodies running alongside riffs and rhythms, trills, pull-offs, hammer-ons, arpeggios and wild interstellar abstract noodlings, notes going from feathery quiet to tempestuously loud – and the man is only holding one guitar. One acoustic instrument. That is all it takes for his storytelling to unfurl.” (Philippine Star, November 16, 2013)

Poch Concepcion, catching Noli Aurillo in a benefit gig for his beloved hometown, reports how “he plays desolate-sounding notes which later give way to jarring moments, his fingers hitting the strings harder and harder till all torturous thoughts of death and misery are exorcised.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Nov 17, 2013)

To complement the growing number of profiles about this acoustic guitar hero, we posed a number of questions to Noli Aurillo in between his sets over several gigs. He fired back with answers that would definitely intrigue and win you over.

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The string magician later obliges to test the limits of Sting’s “Fragile” by playing it in a manner that is both familiar and different.

How did you become a local guitar god, so to speak?

Well, I don’t consider myself a guitar god. There are other guitar players out there who are much better than I am. The UP College of Music rejected me when I applied as a student because I could not read notes. I still don’t read notes nor guitar tabs. I don’t know how to tap. I don’t know how to use a guitar pick. I just use two fingers when I pluck my notes. I also continue to follow and admire a number of guitarists both in the country and abroad. In any case, to answer your question, I think it’s because of deprivation. I grew up in a house where my mother did not allow us to own any cassette tape players or turntables. The albums I owned I had to listen to through my friend’s cassette players and turntables. Although I learned the ukulele at the age of 5, the guitar at the age of 6 it was not until the age of 26 that I owned my first guitar after playing for 6 months with a country music band doing Charlie Daniels and Walter Murphy covers in Malaysia. I had to save up for it. My parents never gave me a guitar. Deprivation made me yearn for and aspire to be a musician. It had the opposite effect of fueling my passion for music and ultimately, the guitar. May I just add that I never harbored any ill feelings towards my folks because they just wanted me to finish college. And that was why all throughout my childhood days I was never allowed to play.

Could you share your practice regimen?

I don’t really have a practice regimen where I would play say, specific exercises over and over again. I get bored easily. When I was in grade school, if I know that the next lesson is a repetition of what was discussed the other day, I would scream and misbehave so the teacher would let me out and I can go to the playground and play on the swing before recess. What I do is learn songs and listen to everything and I mean everything. By that I mean two things: I listen to all types and genres of music from pop to classical, from OPM to Billboard stuff. Secondly, I really try to nail down how each song that I study works itself out.

You have become famous for your acoustic guitar medleys. How long does it take you to come up with medleys like the Michael Jackson tribute medley or the Pinoy Classic Rock medley?

I have no definite turnaround time. Roughly, between a few hours to 3 days. When I’m on stage they actually evolve further so much so that no rendition is exactly the same as the previous ones. The Pinoy Classic Rock medley I first performed in the JDLC reunion in Baga Verde in Roxas Boulevard around 3 years ago. It would draw a lot of raves and props every time I perform it. The most memorable was a member of audience shouting aloud: “Pwede na kong mamatay!” during the Battle of the Bands performance. The Michael Jackson medley was actually my first YouTube upload. A kind-hearted British guy who was a part-owner of Mag-net (along Katipunan) suggested that I put it on YouTube after hearing me play it live. The funny thing is that I actually consider my performance of that medley at Mag-net as my worst live version. But he liked it so much so that he went out of his way to sponsor the studio time that allowed me to post it on YouTube.

What is your advice to guitar players who aspire to acquire your mastery of the fretboard?

Listen to what your heart is saying from within and follow that voice. In this country and in many parts of the globe, however, there is a risk for following your heart. Look at George Benson. He still has to come out with records to sell to get by. Same with Lee Ritenour.

I would also recommend that they listen to all types of music. Listen to everything. Eventually, the essence of the music that you prefer or love will come out. You have to be able to figure out whether you want to specialize in jazz or rock or pop or like me in virtually all music genres. I used to play country songs during my stay in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia. Eventually, I got to jam with Boy Katindig covering jazz staples. I can play in weddings and corporate events and I can play in rock venues and recording studios. I love Yoyoy Villame whom I consider a musical genius. Check out his song on Philippine geography. You need to have a gift to compose such well-thought out novelty songs. In any case, I play all types of music. The only genre I don’t play is punk. That’s because I’m already a punk. I live it so I don’t need to play it.

I would also caution them to differentiate between pyrotechnics and musicality. The former is about techniques and impressing people. I am not a fan of such. I’d rather focus on musicality which is about feeling and loving what you’re doing. When I play I don’t play to impress. I play for the thrill of playing the music. I play because I love the music. My goal is expression not to create an impression.

How are you able to perform those magical  improvisations and ad libs on the fretboard?

Learn the chords. Learn the difference between say, a Gm and a Gm7. Analyze each chord pattern. Know that each chord is essentially made up of a root, a 3rd and a 5th. If you move the root, the chord is essentially transformed. Learn how to transpose those chords. What I do is normally a matter of inversions. But don’t just memorize the fretboard. You need to feel the music running through the fretboard.

The chord, you see,  is like your road. The notes that you play collectively form the car that you drive on the road. There are fast notes and slow notes. Those notes are like the speed of your car when you’re driving. If you know where the chords are, you can zoom. It’s basic for me to know the chords.

In addition, even if you’re playing for 10,000 hours but you’re not feeling anything, wala din. It’s not just longevity. Some of my guitar heroes started in their teens. I started when I was 6 and yet they are my heroes. It’s the love and the feeling within that matters more.

I also delight in the unknown. When I play I want to jump from a very high cliff and let the wind take me where I will run safely. None of the stuff you hear me play is premeditated. I make it up in front most of the time.

Or to put it another way, every time I play I imagine there is a gap that I leave between two cliffs. The improvisations and ad libs that I perform are like the bridge that would enable me to move from one cliff to the next. That gap is essentially the space for my live experimentation.

Aside from passionately performing in bars and cafes, what are your upcoming projects?

I’m currently working on an album of acoustic guitar covers entitled “In Pursuit of a Dream.” In one of my public performances, I was blessed to have met Mr. Judes Echauz, CEO of Standard Insurance who happened to be a philanthropist who sponsors gifted Filipino music students in the Juilliard School and the Berklee College of Music. I apparently created quite an impression in him that he eventually commissioned me to record an album which is being positioned as a client giveaway of his non-life company. Thankfully, the same album will be released soon by Universal Records. It’s now being mastered in Abbey Road Studios in London.

Tell us more about the album.

The album is essentially comprised by music which I was arranging while I was recording. Mr. Echauz, my life partner Bessy Velez and I deliberated on the songs. I would say around 30% of the tracks were suggested by Mr. Echauz because they were his personal favorites among the cover songs I perform live. Among these are “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Cavatina,” “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” – which incidentally has numerous versions by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins – “Love of My Life,” and “What a Wonderful World.” “Handog” was my choice. “Lawiswis Kawayan” was Bessy’s. None of the songs in the album are note-for-note replications of the original. The only song which was faithful to the original was “Cavatina.” All the other tracks in the album were injected with my personal style. I also did the orchestral work by myself for a number of the songs. It has always been my dream to do a covers album but because of funding problems it has been a challenge to do one. Thankfully, Mr Echauz came along. The title of the album “In Pursuit of a Dream” is, therefore, very apt.

When will it officially be released?

Most likely within the next couple of months.

What about your first two albums of original compositions entitled “A Prelude: Noli Aurillo’s Meanderings” and “Meanderings Too”? Any plans to re-issue these self-produced albums in the near future?

Yes, I do have plans. Although I will probably reissue them after my second CD of cover songs. Then again, I just might come out with a set of all-new material altogether if the funding comes along. Incidentally, I wrote a song entitled “Salimpusa” which found its way in “A Prelude…” It eventually got a lot of airplay at RJ 100 peaking at number 5 in their weekly top 10 playlist. It was actually ahead of the Dawn’s song of the same title.

Do you have plans of say, teaching guitar, to pass on the torch, as it were?

I actually teach but not in a formal setting. I visit the homes of interested students but I can only do this in between my gigs.

Who are your guitar heroes?

That’s a tough question. It would most likely take 3 days to share my list with you. That’s 3 days without sleeping (laughs heartily.) But to answer the question, there’s Tommy Emmanuel, Jon Gomm, Michael Hedges, Lenny Breau, Allan Holdsworth, Adrian Legg and Philip Le Gruy. Locally, in no particular order, there’s Noel Mendez, Nitoy Adriano, Kakoy Legaspi, Wally Gonzalez, Resty Fabunan, Gary Perez and Jun Lopito.

Who among The Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time has influenced you?

All of them. From Clapton to BB King. From Santana to Keith Richards. From Pete Townshend to Jimmy Page.

Influence is really a tricky thing. Take that Paul Simon song entitled “American Tune.” Did you know that Simon actually derived it from either a Beethoven or a Bach song which, in turn, was apparently a derivative of another song over a hundred years before those classical giants?

What was your first guitar?

A Sunburst Ibanez 335 lookalike.

How many guitars do you own?

I only have 5. I don’t really collect guitars. I have two Taylors, one Takamine, a Fender Tele and a nylon guitar. That’s it.

Do you have a Holy Grail of guitars?

I guess that would have to be the guitar of Earl Klugh. Whatever its brand is. I’m not really into technical stuff. In fact, I don’t even know what the model of the two Taylors I have is. But I love the tonality of Earl Klugh’s guitar.

Where was your first gig and what do you remember about it?

It was in a small bar along Katipunan. Its name now escapes me. It was not Mag:net. But I still remember how much I was paid. Php 15 pesos for playing 1 set in 1976. Eventually, I became a part of a folk rock trio called TNJ. We differentiated ourselves by playing Queen songs while most of our counterparts dished out folk songs from Peter, Paul and Mary and CSNY just like Asin when they first started. Interestingly, Asin used to be known as Salt Of the Earth. We used to alternate with them at the Bodega.

What is your most memorable gig as an acoustic guitar player?

That is a very tough question (laughs in amusement.) Every time I play I see to it that it’s memorable. My goal as a guitar player is always to make it memorable. True, you cannot please everyone. But regardless of how many came to watch me play I make sure my audience of say, one table enjoys. Fairly recently, I would dare say that my Beatles set at Last Home was one of my best in recent years because I got to focus on playing and enjoying the music with my audience. It’s not a matter of perfection, however. It’s just like meditation. If you try to meditate, you cannot succeed. If you let go of trying to meditate, you will be able to meditate. In that Beatles set I was able to jump and build bridges in between cliffs over and over again from start of the set to the last song.

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Aurillo: “Listen to what your heart is saying and follow that voice from within.”