The local music scene is a boiling pot of offbeat characters and personalities. As it continues to flourish, it becomes easier for genres and specific tastes to find a home among the array of bars and venues scattered around the city. Classic rock fans might find themselves along one of the indistinct streets in Makati where the beat-down charm of Saguijo endures. Younger listeners, on the other hand, clink their cold bottles in the tail end of Katipunan, where the well-loved Route 196 stands. For reggae regulars, B-Side is where one might come to vibe with strangers solely in the name of a good time. The list goes on—whether you’re in the mood for hip-hop, acoustic, or what-have-you. But one genre, arguably one that has stood the test of time and the digital evolution, remains hidden in the shadows, specifically, along a dimly-lit, unknowing neighborhood in Cubao.
Tago Jazz Bar, which literally translates to “hidden” in Filipino, is the one and only sanctuary for jazz music in Manila. “It’s called Tago kasi you wouldn’t believe that something like this is found in this location,” shared Nelson Gonzales, the bar’s main owner and all-around anchor. “You would think, ‘Huh? May jazz sa Cubao?’”
Established last 2011, it was built from his own grandmother’s refurbished house. Fueled by the desire to give jazz a home, Gonzales and his former business partners started with the small business of a simple jazz cafe. However, their journey to preach the gospel of jazz music was not an easy one.
“The whole thing lasted for about six months until we closed down because of the lack of people attending,” he claimed. “For eight months, we were totally closed. Walang kuryente, walang tubig, walang lahat.” After a while, Gonzales decided to give it another shot, as he strived to put Tago’s four walls back up using his own two hands.
Still driven by the desire to redefine “elevator music” away from upscale hotels and venues, he has had to take on the roles of default drummer, janitor, accountant, cook, and even security guy–all to keep the dream afloat. But why all the trouble for swing and blue notes?
“Jazz is beautiful,” he pined. “Technically and mathematically, it’s challenging. It’s such an expressive medium where you can just say anything.” Unlike other genres such as rock, where feelings are shared via headbangs and guitar slams, the language of jazz speaks more like a softer, more personal prayer.
“I think more people should discover jazz dahil ang galing galing ng Pilipino, tapos wala pang jazz industry dito,” Gonzales noted. “I’m trying to spearhead this project to pay my respects to the older, most brilliant Filipino jazz musicians while encouraging future generations to embrace this art form.” With this musical revolution, he hopes to achieve unity, and “that thing called ‘peace’.”
Just like the melodious alliance of the strum of a bassline and the beat of a drum, great things happen when people from diverse crowds come together at this homey dive. It houses Manila’s best—from bona fide Jazz maestros and passionate amateurs, to employees fresh out of a 9-5 and pretty much just anyone looking to feed their soul with pure, unadulterated soul music.
While music does have the capacity to string people together, for Gonzales, the mundane sounds of mediocrity which inhibit the airwaves are what pulls culture apart. “I’m anti-mediocrity, but that is what has been airing every day. Kabaduyan, as in artless form of music, film, in everything,” he said in mix Filipino and English. Jazz is all about the hard work and honesty, and that’s what people should see. “We don’t fool the audience with our music and they should discover that there are actually people who are thinking to create something beautiful,” he added.
“Politics has killed the art,” Gonzales stated. There are plenty of talented Filipinos who, unfortunately, cannot pursue creativity because nobody will patronize it. Flashy Hollywood scenes and plain inaccessibility has led listeners to believe that Jazz is an exclusive affair, meant for elite ears.
“I want more people to be able to appreciate jazz,” he asserted. “I want to put the Philippines back on the global jazz map like back in the 60s and 70s. Ang daming magagaling na Pilipino pero hindi nila ma-pursue kasi kahit maglabas ka ng album, kanino mo ibebenta? Kasi sinasabi ng mainstream na mahirap yan. No, jazz is for everyone.”
Tago Jazz Bar rebels against politics and mediocrity and it will stand, despite the struggles in the capitalized world, to continually put on a better option in the dream to unite people even outside its hidden four corners. In the madness of politics today, it also aims to educate and re-educate people with Jazz music.
“For [drug] addicts, it’s their expression of rebellion. Then why not project that rebellion to a more creative means instead of the self-destructive means of expression, right?” Nelson suggested.
His dreams may seem impossible, “suntok sa buwan” as Nelson would admit. But, as long as there is one more person that would listen and appreciate jazz music, perhaps, in five or ten years’ time, it might just prove the world wrong.