Embracing the Changes: Cynthia Alexander’s Send-Off Series (part 1)

“Comfort in Your Strangeness,” “Walk Down the Road,” “Intertwyne,” “Moon Over You,” “Turquoise Blue,” “Wait” – These are just some of the songs that have been part of my personal soundtrack over the past decade.  They have served as audition pieces, love letters, confidants, part of a wedding repertoire, and even, as morbid as it sounds, a funeral.  Simply put, these songs, at one time or another, have echoed the sentiments of my life: the joys and sadness of it.  All these came from the brilliant mind and soul of a musical gem named Cynthia Alexander.   Sadly, her talents are going to leave the Philippine shore to find another home in a distant one.

It was 1997 and I was in high school when her first album, Insomnia and Lullabyes, came out.  Despite being largely a mainstream pop enthusiast at that time, I liked the sound of her music.  Between “Hello, Baby” and “Comfort in Your Strangeness,” the album’s two singles that I had heard on the radio, I loved the latter more.  The delicate intro of cello and violin and Cynthia’s graceful voice were moving; the lyrics were nothing short of poetry.  The guitar, on the other hand, was deftly played.   I thought her sound was a bit of out-of-place in a pop radio and in my sonic palate at that time, but I appreciated it just the same.

cynthia at the channel [v] ph music festival ’12

Just like most of my favorite bands and musicians, it took me quite some time to cherish Cynthia’s work more significantly.  When my sister bought Rippingyarns, Cynthia’s second album, sometime in the early 2000s, something changed.   Maybe my choice in music several years back simply did not completely meld with hers, or perhaps a personal event deeply affected my view of the world in general, but whatever it was, I then viewed her music differently.  Apart from being delightful to listen to, her sound began to inspire me.  Her music helped uplift my spirit, which at that time, was at its lowest point.  Suddenly, I felt as if I was hearing her then only for the first time.  The songs were no longer just beautiful; they became more meaningful.  There was a rediscovery, and that was beautiful.  Since then, she became one of my most favorite musicians.

My admiration for her work reached a new level when her third studio album Comet’s Tail was released in 2005. I instantly fell in love with the carrier track of the same title.  Its luscious layers of strings and melancholic lyrics seemed to have sent me to another world.

Even though I had known her for a long time and I had purchased her albums, I only had the opportunity to watch her perform live in 2006.  The first one was at Mag:Net Katipunan, which was then followed by several others, usually at Conspiracy Bar, over the following years.  Watching her live seemed very different from the other gigs I usually went to.  The air was different – both literally and figuratively – as her gigs were usually smoke-free and there always seemed to be a certain calm and positive energy that filled the venue.  Unfortunately, the frequency of going to her gigs gradually decreased in time as I had discovered newer artists and newer artists.  This did not necessarily mean that my appreciation for her work decreased, too though.

Years after the last time I had watched her, I saw a picture of a pink balloon amidst a greenish sky circulating in Facebook; I realized it was a poster. I noticed Cynthia’s name written at the top… and then the words “send-off series” at the bottom.   Send off to where? I thought.  And the more important question, as always, followed: Why?! 

Conspiracy’s parking space, as well as the side of the road, was full last Saturday, June 16.  I, together with some friends and sister, decided to catch Cynthia before she migrates to Seattle, USA.  I have been to Conspiracy many times before, but it was the first time I had seen it bursting with people!  The garden area was overflowing with people; the spot near the entrances of the restaurant and the bar was likewise packed.  The gig was scheduled to start at 10 pm, but the venue had already been filled, probably as early as 9 pm.  As there were no more seats available, the newcomers had to content themselves standing up either inside the venue itself or outside in the garden.  Those who had reserved tables were not able to see anything too except for those who were situated right in front of the stage.

The gig finally kicked off at around 10:15 pm with acoustic performer Bullet Dumas as the opening act.   It was around 11:30 pm when Cynthia took the stage and breathed life to the following:

Walk Down The Road
U & I
Weather Report
Daisy Chain
Knowing There is Only Now
Hello, Baby
Blackbird (Beatles Cover)
Dumaan Ako (with Joey Ayala)
No Umbrella
Owner of the Sky
Comfort In Your Strangeness

The audience was generally quiet when she started to sing the first song up until the third one, leading her to encourage everyone to sing along or even dance along to the songs.  She occasionally asked the people what song they wanted to hear.  Many wanted to hear “No Umbrella,” but she did not want to play it unless someone came up to the stage and share their “umbrella story.”  (Someone finally shared an “umbrella story” but it was during the later part of the second set.)

It was good to hear those tracks performed live again; I missed them.  Some of them though, I had not heard live before, like her version of “Blackbird” and “Dumaan Ako.”  She unveiled a new song, “Kabaka,” which she said would be included in her next album.  (How she would release that from Seattle, I just don’t know.)   It was also nice to hear a song from Comet’s Tail.  I do not remember watching her perform any song from the said album ever so it was a nice surprise.  For “Emptyhanded,” Peryodiko’s Vin Dancel sang the first few lines and Cynthia’s violinist, Jonathan Urbano, also contributed his voice to some parts of the song.

In between songs, Cynthia would sometimes tell a story or ask if the audience had any questions.  Of course, the people asked what on everybody’s mind was: “Why?”  She did not exactly answer the question, probably assuming that everyone had already read the reason from the Yahoo article that Francis Reyes wrote; instead, she ended up explaining the significance of the send-off series.  She also clarified that contrary to the said article, she would not live in Seattle for good.  She said that not coming back to the Philippines was just unthinkable, but that she would live there with no definite date yet of when she would come back.  Cynthia also admitted that she was surprised with the attention that the article received.  She did not think that it would trend!  In addition, she defended Reyes, saying that he was deeply emotional at the time he wrote it, that is why it turned out as such.

The main gig lasted for about more than two hours, and the whole time most of the people stood patiently listening to the two sets.  Originally, there was a plan to divide the sets: the people inside the venue would leave after the first set had finished so that the people outside could come in and watch the second set.  That, however no longer pushed through and the unlucky guests outside were merely provided with speakers so that they could hear the performance better.  I bet that people would be wiser and attend the last remaining legs of the send-off series way earlier next time!

“I did not want simply to disappear.  I want to say at least, ‘bye,’” Cynthia explained as to why she was holding the send-off series.  She added that it was also her way to express her gratitude to the people who had supported her all these years.   If the send off gigs were her way to express her gratitude to us, then as one of her supporters, being there was also my humble way of saying the same thing to her.

In the end, Cynthia may be the legal owner of her music, but the people do own it too, so to speak, and it is evident in the way her music has affected them.  Her music is now part of a person’s love story, or another one’s disappointments.  Her lyrics now form part of a person’s triumph, or someone else’s tragedy.   Cynthia may leave the country for a long time, but her music will always remain in the hearts of people whom she has touched.

“Now we have come to our hi-way’s end / Run along now and carry on and / Embrace the changes /
Sanctify this distance / We’re certified experienced / To do it all again”
~ Motorbykle ~

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