From Nov 5 till Nov 21, 2004, I was in Brunei and Malaysia, on a mini-Asian tour with the CFC SOLD OUT BAND, the music ministry of CFC Servants Of The Lord. We were there to share pop and Christian songs with people we didn’t know, spreading our joy of life and music and the message of God’s love. We were also there to shop. But hey. That doesn’t sound too cool, does it?
This is a long entry so, be warned. Lotsa pictures though!
The flight to Brunei takes 2 hours or so. from Manila We fly Royal Air Brunei which is a wonderful airline. World class talaga. Down to the food. Great service. New planes. Lotsa Pinoys around us. All going back to work, or going to work in Brunei. Question: why are plane meals low salt? Tsk tsk tsk.
At the airport in Brunei we are met by an official form the Philippine embassy to Brunei, who is to accompany us through customs, because we are carrying all these guitars. And well, it looks like we’re a large group of performers! But officially we’re in the country to “visit relatives” or else they will need to check out where we will perform or why. And with the embassy official, we can get through easily. Remember, it’s a Moslem country and if they find out we are holding a Christian concert, they can actually have us arrested.
So at customs, one airport guy sees a guitar and asks what it’s for. And our lead singer Bambi says: “I like to play music!” with a laugh. The airport guy lets us through. I have no idea if he believes us, or he just wants to get rid of our smart-ass comments.
We arrive at night, and the first thing I notice in the airport parking lot is that there are birds in the trees and they are singing. Clean air. Wow. Amazing. Second thing I notice: such clean, smooth roads. All on the other side of the road (as in, the LEFT side of the road). Ah well. British influence.
All 9 of us in the band are housed in a building of 12 large apartments, where 10 of the 12 occupants are members of Couples For Christ (CFC). So it’s like one big house party. And they feed us well. So well, in fact that we gain pounds within the first week! And Pinoy food all the way, almost. We are ushered into homes and fed and we meet the people there who seem to be so full of vim and vigor and zeal. It is a blessing. Dinuguan, menudo, kaldereta, pancit, lumpia. They don’t even know who we are, but we are welcomed and fed like family guests.
OFFICIAL CONCERT 1: BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN
We perform at the parish hall of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. And there are about 300 people in attendance. Most all CFC people from Brunei.
The backdrop is amazing. It is a series of xeroxed images of each of our faces, blown up to 8×10 size and pasted onto transparent sheets of plastic whicih are then hung from the ceiling of the stage. Then red Japanese lanterns are hung down too, and suddenly we look like we are performers in a high school prom. But the design is amazing. I immediately see that our arrival is a nice excuse for fellowship for the CFC people here.
The 1st concert at Bandar is cool. The sound system is feedbacking over the place but we pull it off. Everyone is standing. No chairs are placed in the hall. So immediately there is dancing. And cheering. We play mostly pop songs with a small scattering of Christian music. And despite not knowing us, the response is overwhelming. Lovely lovely.
OFFICIAL CONCERT 2: SERIA
The 2nd concert is held at a larger parish called Seria, an hour away from the capital. And there, we also hold a major music workshop as well as a ministry appreciation. It is fun but tiring. But then, as I end up saying to myself (and to anyone within earshot), we are not here to have a vacation. This becomes my mantra the entire trip through.
At the Seria performance, we are plagued by numerous sound system problems. The monitors die. We can’t hear ourselves; there is feedback everywhere. We have no idea if we sound like crap. And it causes us to lose confidence. It affects our performance.
It is there, in the middle of things I have no control over, that I realize something vital: I cannot allow that to dampen my spirits. So in order to keep going I decide to simply have fun, and perform as well as I still can. I start jumping to the beat. And end up dancing around like crazy the entire rest of the set. Whether or not I can hear myself doesn’t matter. What matters is doing your best. Let the sound people handle the sound system. Let me handle my own performance. At one point in the concert, I have to catch my breath and I realize I haven’t exerted this much energy in AGES. (Yes, dear reader, exercise is an alien word in my vocabulary.)
So I am out of breath and gasping and almost dizzy. And yet I feel fine. This is my surrender. This is my giving it all. At the end of the show. I am gasping and yet fulfilled. There is nothing left to give. Never mind the feedback, or whether or not I was heard. I had done my best in front of my God, and that was fine. That was the first time I really let loose in a SOLD OUT gig and I realized I could continue to be as active as that even in future shows. So I resolved to do so.
Meanwhile. We perform some more at an evangelization rally and at some ministry appreciations held at Bandar. Basically, while we are there, we are utilized as much as possible, and of course we don’t mind. Sabi ko nga di ba: we’re not on vacation anyway.
There are quite a few of us who go up to the microphone to share about our own experiences in SOLD. I am among them. When I share about how I wish my wife was there beside me in Brunei to see how beautiful the CFC community was in that foreign country, and how much I miss her, and that I know things will turn out fine because I am out here doing God’s work, and he will not let me down, I bring a lot of people to tears — including myself of course. And I know this, because they come up to tell me so afterwards.
There are also informal music workshops held at private homes, where youth and old alike gather as we in the band share what we know about playing guitar or drums or keyboards.
THE POLO CLUB
A nice little touristy thing we are able to do is visit and tour the JERUDONG ROYAL COUNTRY CLUB, which is where the Sultan and his royal family go to watch or play polo, as well as other sports activities such as swimming, golf, and of course eating. So of course everything there is up to royal standards, all air-conditioners are on all the time, whether or not the royals (or the country club members, who are all necessarily rich) come to visit. We don’t get to swim unfortunately. Hehehe. Too poor to swim here.
So of course, because the manager of the country club is the brother of one of the CFC heads, we are taken on a tour of the more private spots in the country club. Did you know that they even have gold flakes in the carpet? Of course, those are probably gold foil flakes. Or else these people are crazy. But for such a hot country, the aircons in this area were blasting at full force and we were actually freezing.
HIGH TEA WITH THE AMBASSADOR
One major highlight of the visit however is having High Tea with the Philippine Ambassador to Brunei at her residence “Ang Bahay.” We are each given placecards and a proper seat at a long table which seats 20 people. And we have a wonderful merienda the likes of which only diplomats get to enjoy. Not peasants like us. Hanep.
So this is what it feels like to rub shoulders with ambassadors: You get food served on the best china, eaten with the best silverware, and mixed fruit desserts served in an ice cocoon that is as big as a basketball. The ambassador tells us they make the ice cocoon by filling up balloons with water and then freezing them for a specific amount of time so that the insides are still hollow. Then they use a red hot brand to make a hole in its face. Lovely.
We talk about everything from labor to music to evangelization in a country that is primarily Moslem. Then we sing a couple of songs and get her to dance with our very own diplomat, Kuya Pompoy. Well, whatever we did, we must have made some sort of good impression, because we left the ambassador in good spirits.
Midway through the tour, the group splits up. Three of us (Jazz, Jun and I) head to Sibu, Malaysia followed soon after by Pompoy and Vince. And since we are travelling during the Moslem equivalent of Xmas season, of course we get plane delays galore.
We are to take 3 flights, because there are no direct flights to Sibu:
- From (1) Bandar, Brunei > (2) Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
- From (2) Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia > (3) Miri, Malaysia
- From (3) Miri, Malaysia > (4) Sibu, Malaysia
The flight leaving Brunei goes off without a hitch, thanks to the professionality of Royal Brunei Air. But once we hit Kota Kinabalu, we are informed that our plane will be delayed 3 hours. Fine. If it’s just 3 hours, we can still catch our last connecting flight from Miri to Sibu.
Unfortunately it’s not JUST 3 hours. When the 3 hours are up, we are told the delay will reach another 4 hours. And so, instead of leaving at 1 pm, we are scheduled to leave at 8 pm. We decide against leaving the airport because, well, NERBYOSO ako! And by some strange sort of default system, the other 2 guys leave their passports and tickets with me as some sort of team leader. Argh! And to think, I didn’t want to be the responsible adult. Ano ito? Amazing Race?
So anyway, we wait, and we wait. And we try to sleep. But if you are on edge waiting for the voice on the loudspeaker to say your plane’s flight code, you can’t really sleep well. Didn’t bother lead guitarist Jazz though, who slept through most of the waiting period, and even managed to scare some Australian tourists on their way home, because he was snoring so loudly.
Here’s a pic of drummer Jun and me mocking the sleeping lead guitarist Jazz.
Sad thing was: we are not the only ones waiting in the airport. There are about 2 more planes who are delayed, though ours is the last one to leave. Tsk tsk tsk. Poor Malaysian Airways. Ah well. At least we are assured that they will put us up at a hotel in Miri when we arrive since we will miss our last connecting flight.
The plane finally calls for boarding by 8:30 pm and finally leaves Kota Kinabalu at 9:00 pm. Goodbye Mt.Kinabalu. I don’t think I want to visit that place again, even though all I saw of it was the airport. What an old crumby airport too. Well, not as bad as the Philippines. I felt we were being taught a lesson in patience!
We arrive in Miri, Malaysia at about 9:45 pm. And are given a hotel and transport tickets.
We end up ordering room service (around 2 full viands each) and eat our first real meal of the day in the comfort of a large room in a resort hotel which has a pool larger than most houses in the Philippines. Too bad the pool is closed!
SIBU AT LAST
So anyway, the next day, we are chance passengers on the first flight out of Miri, headed for Sibu, and we finally arrive at Sibu at about 8 AM. Sa WAKAS!!!!!
We meet the only 2 pinoy CFCs in Sibu: the full-time workers who work with the Youth for Christ, Oliver and Cat. Everyone else is Malaysian-Chinese. Our host is the big boss who is the head of CFC Sibu, Joseph Tang.
We are housed in the Mission House, which is an entire 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom house , 2 floors, with air-conditioning in the rooms — donated for usage of all Couples For Christ guests who come to visit Sibu by Joseph Tang, and currently the home of Oliver and Cat.
But are we ready to relax the entire day? Nope! Just a short nap after lunch, we head to one of the Catholic churches, to sing for Saturday evening mass. See, the idea is this: we sing for Communion, and maybe final hymn, and then plug the concert, and of course tickets are available outside the gate.
Which is actually fine by me, except that . . . I HAVE A HARD TIME FINDING a song to sing in their hymnal. Their hymn books are like circa 1979 or something. Anyway, I find an old song na pwedeng ihataw: I am the Bread of Life, where the chorus goes: “And I shall raise him up, and I shall raise him up, and I shall raise him up on the last day.” And then we put in the song Blessed to give some of the flavor of our concert. Total masses sung for: 4. One on Saturday, two on Sunday morning, and one last on Sunday evening.
The publicity is a success. We generate a lot of ticket sales. Dinner is good too. Suddenly we are eating delicious Chinese food every day of the week, lovely lovely.
MUSIC WORKSHOPS . . . EVERYDAY
And that same night, after dinner we have the first in a long series of music workshops where we teach guitar, keyboard, drums, and vocal basics to people who come over. And so we teach them Christian songs, praise songs, chords, basics, singing. Since most all of them are Chinese, or Malay, it is difficult to get them to pronounce the English lyrics, especially if the beat is too fast, but they soon make up for it with enthusiasm. The first couple of days, our students are primarily youth, but the latter days, we get a lot of adults and members of different Chinese choirs around town.
The workshops actually serve a good purpose aside from the obvious musical purpose, these activities allow us to build a rapport with the CFC people here in Sibu. None of whom are pinoy, and none of whom we know. So in the end, this allows us to see a little into their lives, and to share what we have with them. IN fact, we find out later on, that there are a number of people who attend who aren’t even CFC members at all, but who would consider joining up because of the camaraderie and music we shared. Lovely!
The next few days are a blur. Wake up, breakfast. Within a few hours, lunch. After lunch, 1st music workshop of the day. Dinner. Another music workshop. Then socials.
At one point, we sing karaoke in Joseph’s house, where some true bonding and joking around leads to a deeper friendship with him. At first we thought he was this serious, quiet businessman. Turns out he’s as much a comedian as we all are.
MY CHINESE SONG
At one point, I teach my original song “Spirit of my Loving God” during the music workshop, and Joseph says that it really sounds like a Chinese song. He suggests he translate it so that I can sing it in Chinese. I agree. After romanizing the Chinese characters, Joseph sits me down and teaches me the pronunciations and I make notes, and try to get it right. I am hesitant at first but with the words of encouragement, I soon get the hang of the sounds. Within an hour, we are done.
Later that night, they ask me to teach the song to the members of the Chinese Catholic choir. And Suddenly I am standing in front of Malaysian-Chinese people, teaching them MY song but in THEIR language. Unbelievable. It had to have been the work of the Holy Spirit guiding my tongue.
The hairs at my nape stood on end at one point because there’s a part in the song which goes: “Fill me with the power to proclaim to the world: the transforming power of Your love.” I realized, THIS was the WORLD in my lyrics. I asked for the power and the power was given to me. And I was sent to the world to tell it of His love. I smiled like a geek for the rest of that night, realizing how weird but how wonderfully the Lord works.
THE FINAL CONCERT
So anyway, eventually the rest of the band arrive and we FINALLY get to go shopping. And we are treated to several more mouth-watering FuChow/Fookien/Cantonese meals including an 8-course lunch which served no rice (Sayang nga naman!).
And the day of the concert comes.
We are performing at a hall that could hold 3,000 people easily. It has 6 badminton courts inside it. The organizers spend a fortune on hiring a professional soundsystem too. Unfortunately, the crew is more incompetent than anything we’ve ever experienced. Suddenly the boo-boos in Seria seem to pale in comparison.
We spend hours trying to get the sound right during soundcheck — to no avail. During the night itself, the monitors die, a fuse in an extension cord pops, cutting off power to the keyboards and keyboard amps midway thru a rock n roll medley, and feedback is everywhere. So what do I do in the middle of all the chaos? I dance! I hop around! I sing like I am enjoying myself, and in the end I DID enjoy myself!
We do our best. And amazingly enough it works.
There are 1,800 people. Total strangers. In a city with only 100 Couples For Christ community members, they are able to drum up an audience more than 10 times their number.
And the ultra-conservative audience we thought we were in for, actually did get up and cheer one or two times. The youth got up to dance. We thought we would be performing to a quiet crowd who would not react at all. But songs like La Bamba and I will Survive generated screams and cheers. Wow! And the ultra-conservative bishop of the catholic church actually stayed far longer than we expected him to, especially since we were playing rock ‘n’ roll already. Hanep.
Anyway, the concert is a success on all counts except the technical aspect. But we are willing to overlook that because of all the bright happy faces we see afterwards.
My translated into chinese song makes an impact, and impresses a number of people. The band’s energy and enthusiasm is loved by all. And the sheer power of music infects everyone.
After the concert, we are given a huge meal with 2 types of noodles, chief among them, my favorite, Kway Teow, which like my favorite beef hofan, is a flat noodle fried. Lovely lovely.
:: PART FOUR ::
THE ROUTE HOME
Our return back home was a much simpler affair. Instead of trying to go through the same way (3 plane flights) and risking more airline idiocy, we took a bus from Sibu till Miri, where we were taken shopping by an old couple who took us around in a SCHOOL BUS! We had several hours to kill before returning to Brunei anyway by land. (Our return flight to the Philippines was via Brunei.)
At about 7 PM, after another sumptuous dinner, we take taxi vans across the border of Malaysia and back into Brunei. Of course, they question our guitars again. But nothing that a well-placed crisp note can’t solve. After all– we are in Asia. hehehehe
The last few days are basically shopping. And shopping.
And goodbyes to our Brunei hosts. And finally, after 2 weeks of traveling and good food, and several pounds of fat later, we are home.