The problem with Humanfolk is that it is such a super band. Its members are incredibly proficient in their craft; put together, they come up a self-titled debut that is as genius as, say, the number Pi (as in 3.1416-kill-me-now). Unfortunately, it is also as alienating and as vexing.
Which is not to say the record isn’t good. It is, or to be more subjective: Humanfolk (the record) is beautiful, even. It opens with “Para sa Tao,” Cynthia Alexander written all over it: plucked guitars, soft aural textures (perfectly executed by none other than Malek Lopez), and lyrics rendered as only her dreamy voice can.
It is a voice we didn’t realize we missed, too, until she starting singing the Filipino alphabet, putting tone to syllabication, craftily inserting the title “Para sa tao” into the litany of syllables. As in: "a ba ka da e ga ha...pa ra sa ta o." When everything comes together, her patriotic words, poetry in themselves, bring the song to a gentle climax: “Bayang sinilangan, duyan sa kanluran layag sa hilaga timog mahiwaga.”
We do not know who to credit—is it sound engineers Hazel Pascua and Shinji Tanaka? Is it the sound design by Malek Lopez? or is it as simple as having backing vocals?—but the layering of voices is sweet.
From here, the record spirals into an ethnic exploration that isn’t exactly the easiest thing to absorb. For one, you have to get through the confusing song titles. Witness: The band only has 4 titles with which they named their 11 songs. Hence, songs like “Humanfolk 1” and “Humanfolk 2” and “Humanfolk3” all the way to “Humanfolk6.” There is “Ethnic-HF1” and “Ethnic-HF3” but no “Ethnic-HF2.”
But anyway, “Para sa Tao” is followed by “Humanfolk-1,” which is as jazz as it is a casual guitar jam. Without vocals—Cynthia Alexander only calmly hums amid complex guitar leads and simple guitar chords—the song does not have an anchor by which regular listeners can hold on to. This is pretty much the same for the succeeding versions of “Humanfolk.” Mesmerizing, yes, but they are hardly a material for a single. Not that that is what the band intends to do. In any case, the “Humanfolk” series of songs is good mind-melt music.
The “Ethnic,” series of songs meanwhile put Kulintang (and perhaps other indigenous instruments) taking center stage, is even harder to swallow, if only because they sound like a cultural number tourists are almost always duped to experiencing. Perhaps if we were as evolved as these geniuses, we’d easily see the astounding merits of the “Ethnic” songs.
“Bon Talk” is, perhaps, the jazziest of the lot. It’s still rather sophisticated but how can you not appreciate the syncopation and the progression of the song? It takes proficiency and skill to accomplish mid-beat tempo changes and if anything, Humanfolk is all proficiency and skill and talent. And that’s not even saying much.
If this review is turning you off, wait. Because the musicians involved in the project should clue you in of greatness of this band: Johnny Alegre, Cynthia Alexander, Roberto Juan Rodriguez, Abby Clutario, Malek Lopez, and Susie Ibarra. Incredibly talented, all; almost genius, if not already.
Having done the roll call, perhaps you now have a clue just how special Humanfolk is. This band is not just a whim thing, though the casual guitar jams of "Humanfolk" may have you thinking that. It's almost as though this isn't just music anymore (though music is a sacred, sacred thing). It's actually almost as though beauty and wisdom and math and mountains came together for a jam.
WORDS BY LOU E. ALBANO