Photos and videos by Jennifer Patricia A. Cariño
Music lovers of Baguio were set a-tizzy when they learned that the beloved On Call Vocals, which had mesmerized them with three-part harmony singing alongside a piano accompanist for years, was bowing out from the city scene. The little group’s saga is also a cautionary tale about dealing with corporate Goliaths, about keeping one’s dignity in spite of shabby treatment.
Billed as “Command Performance” at the The Manor’s Fireplace Lounge in Camp John Hay, the performers in the cozy cul de sac beside Billy King’s Le Chef restaurant, with walls lined with artworks by various Baguio and Cordillera artists, drew a crowd of loyal followers that spilled out of the bar area. The same followers had been on the heels of On Call from venue to venue since the group was formed.
As early as 6 p.m., some members of the audience came to reserve chairs and tables not too far from a roaring fireplace. Before the pandemic, On Call played at this place every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 9 p.m. to midnight.
Made up of founder, pianist and music director Dr. Dennis P. Flores, vocalists Anne Marie Laoyan, Myles Vazquez and Jett Acmor, the group was the mainstay of The Manor Piano Bar from 2005 until March 15, 2020 when COVID-19 hit and locked down many places.
The evening of Jan. 23 marked their comeback and at the same time their curtain call. Vazquez left for Japan on a singing and band gig with an upright bass, a pianist and a guitarist. Flores is a physician. Laoyan is also bound for abroad to continue practice nursing. There are basically three singers around a grand piano that was once used by Cecile Licad for her 2018 outreach concert in Baguio.
Flores set the mood of the evening with the instrumental of the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” followed by a set of songs by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, Nonong Pedero, among OPM (Original Pilipino Music) composers.
Coming after this was the ABBA medley that had the audience either singing along from their seats or moving to the beat as On Call covered “Chiquitita,” “Fernando,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!,” “Knowing Me Knowing You,” “Mamma Mia,” “Money Money, Money” and “Dancing Queen.”
It was three hours of singing with a brief 10-minute intermission for the entertainers and audience to freshen up. The performance was livestreamed on Facebook.
On Call allowed for requests from the audience. The first was for Acmer’s poignant interpretation “Home” from the musical The Wiz. Then came this writer’s own requests of “Seventh Dawn” from the movie of the same title and “You’re Just Too Good to Be True.” The flow of requests followed with ophthalmologist Ronnie Paraan of Notre Dame de Chartres Hospital asking for “Looking Through the Eyes of Love” from Vazquez. Acmor and Vazquez did a duet of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?,” Laoyan humming in the background.
And so on until the group paid tribute to the music of Nonoy Zuñiga with “Init sa Magdamag,” “Never Ever Say Goodbye,” among many.
What bothered this listener was the ambient noise of some people still conducting their conversations in their normal voices. They did not even bother to whisper. Then the waiting staff was practically everywhere to take orders of food and drinks, thus the clatter of silverware.
All that was distracting so one was challenged to concentrate on the Laoyan version of the Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant song “Bridges,” one of the first she had to learn as a group member. It took one’s breath away as she climbed note after note feelingly with eyes closed.
This was just the first set capped with “Two for the Road” in three-part harmony, an Apo Hiking Society medley and what Acmor called the naughty ditty “Afternoon Delight.”
Dr. Flores also played what he called “a difficult arrangement” of “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas” to the trio’s singing. Megastar Sharon Cuneta popularized the song with music and lyrics by Willy Cruz, Licad’s cousin.
Music reviewer Anna Leah Sarabia once said of this song: it is deceivingly the plaint of a martyred woman, but it is actually an artist’s ode and offering to The Muse.
The On Call doctor chatted with Vera Files, recalling how he formed vocal groups with him as musical director in two of the top night spots in Baguio: Songs the Music Gallery in Patria de Baguio in 1991 and Gimbals Music Lounge in Mount Crest Hotel, Legarda Road in 1994.
He said Acmor auditioned in Songs Patria and joined four other guys to form the first boy band in the city called Off Limits. Laoyan and Vazquez then auditioned in Gimbals and became members of the first girl trio called Tickled Pink.
Flores said, “When I left these places to put up our own piano bar at Pilgrims Cafe in 1999, they were the three vocalists who stuck it out with me so it was in Pilgrims Cafe that On Call Vocals was created and performed from 1999 till 2005. When we closed down, we proceeded to be the mainstay vocal group of The Manor until 2020.”
Asked who drew up the repertoire, he answered, “As musical director and vocal arranger initially, I chose the repertoire and worked with their voices like a blank canvas, to produce distinct harmonies and tight vocal progressions which I extracted only from my own creative prerogative. Eventually, as they became perfectly glued together as bosom friends more than vocalists, I gave them the artistic freedom to choose pieces they so desired and just worked to synch their harmonies to perfection.”
Where to after “Command Performance”? Flores said the concert was “a request by our producer Mario Chan, chief executive officer of Scheeling Pharma, who produced our albums and supported us while at The Manor. The group disbanded in 2020 after being injudiciously terminated by the management. We went our own separate ways. I started Music Therapy 101 on Facebook Live with a vocalist late last year only. We go live every night at 7 p.m. as an advocacy to foster stress relief and relaxation, particularly for my patients. Laoyan pursued her nursing career and leaves for New York soon. Vazquez already left for Japan with hubby Sonny Ferrer for a singing contract at a five-star hotel in Fukuoka.”
He continued, “‘Command Performance’ was a curtain call, a final bow for On Call Vocals after the gruesome falling out with management. Were it not for the insistence of our producer, I wouldn’t have set foot there, having been ungratefully dumped after 20 years of loyal and passionate performances that gave the bar a class of its own. I need to bring this up because I still commiserate with the other entertainers left behind playing for a living and being treated like rubbish to satisfy the insatiable greed of big businesses. I’d (like to) raise some kind of awareness about the plight of simple entertainers who endure subhuman treatment to earn a living. On Call Vocals rose from those ashes. It was a valiant vindication for management to witness firsthand how their valued clients clamored for us in throngs. That was my last hurrah! As to possible reunions in the future, we are always open when a most opportune time comes. For now, it is how it is.”
Flores remained optimistic as his group ended the evening with his composition “Sa Baguio” whose opening bars included percussive beating of the piano that sounded like gongs before moving on to the melody proper. The lyrics in Filipino go:
Saan ka pupunta kapag ika’y naiinitan sa Manila?
Halos di alam kung ano ang gagawin mo sa kalsada.
Init ng ulo, problema ang trabaho,
Ang buhay nakakalito!
Chorus: E di sa Baguio, babalik na po kami sa Baguio
Dito kami magpapalipas ng oras, magpapalamig ng ulo!
Sa Baguio, wala nang hihigit pa rito!
Kaliwa’t kanan ang traffic sa lahat ng kalye dyan sa Manila
Kapapaligo mo palang ang pawis mo’y ulang di na tumila
Ilong mo’y nangingitim puno pa ng usok inuubo ka na, hinihika pa ayoko na!
(Back to chorus)
A command performance like this deserved an encore. On Call Vocals and Flores obliged with a “MacArthur Park” that would have made Richard Harris beam in heaven, especially when the doctor played the instrumental outro with such passion. A member of the audience said loudly, “He’s being an exhibitionist!” To which this writer says in her mind, “Inggit ka lang (you’re just envious)!” Flores and team deserved that prolonged standing ovation.