Noli Aurillo never learned how to read or write notes. But throughout a distinguished career that lasted several decades, his uncanny improvisational skills became the stuff of legends.

The Tacloban City native was never known for any song or hit record and played with bands like Cocojam and Bosyo where he was a mainstay and the equally iconic Asin, where he did session work for several albums.

But it was his definitive live performances that will forever be etched in the memories of fans and fellow musicians who mourned his passing on Saturday, October 16. He was 62.

What Senyor Noli, simply Nyor or Au Au can do with his trusty amplified acoustic guitar is nothing short of sheer genius. More formally trained musicians can only hope to duplicate but could never pull off, Aurillo’s distinctive style of finger-plucking wizardry.

“He did magic tricks… and actual magic on guitar. Acoustic guitar as mini-orchestra. His technique, those impossible hand stretches on guitar that sounded like piano voicings. I was in awe at how musical he always was,” recalled The Dawn lead guitarist Francis Reyes in a Facebook post following news of Aurillo’s demise.  

Caren Tevanny, formerly of the all-girl rock group shared a text exchange between her and Aurillo where she admitted that her fingers would sometimes choke in the middle of a [guitar] solo.

“Sometimes it happens because we’re too busy thinking of the next note, or if our playing is good enough or simply becoz our mind is too preoccupied with everything that somehow deviates and derails us from the soul of the music itself. Playing with our heart is a cliché we sometimes ignore but in actuality, is the real secret as it goes beyond thinking when we play. You have to have faith that the music you’re playing will get through you and your listeners. Always make it a point to center yourself around playing the music and not just playing the guitar. The guitar is simply the instrument for the music in our heart and soul to shine through,” Aurillo replied.

Noli Aurillo at Tago Jazz Cafe

In a 2018 interview with SoundStrip’s Rick Olivares, Aurillo attributed his innovative style and skill to good old fashioned ouido or simply playing by ear.

Kapa-kapa lang,” he quipped.

Yes, Aurillo took a lot of pride on his lack of formal training. In an earlier 2017 interview with BusinessMirror Online Editor Ruben Cruz, Jr., he recalled how he and his father came all the way from Tacloban to try to get in at the prestigious U.P. College of Music.

“Back then, you needed to be able to read and play notes in order to be accepted into the program, and Aurillo could do neither. His father, a lawyer, pleaded with the professors. Please, he said, if you could only hear him play. Just let him play one song. But they never did,” Cruz wrote.

Aurillo further recalled, “A few years after, I found it ironic, when I was playing in The Hobbit House for like P40 pesos per gig, there were a lot of music students from U.P. who came to watch me play. Sabi nila there was a program for people like me already, that if I apply I will be accepted this time. Pero siempre kumikita nako eh. Hanapbuhay muna.

“If you are going to write anything about me, write that I am proud to be a U.P. [College] of Music reject. And I mean it with no sarcasm, no sama ng loob. Really,” he told Cruz.

In a more recent interview, this time with SoundStrip columnist Tony Maghirang only last year, Aurillo touched on his ability to quickly developed chemistry with any artist he collaborates with.

Noli with Skarlet Brown

May nag-comment, I bring out the best in whoever I work with. Akin naman, you just have to be yourself. Let go of all your inhibitions. Tumodo ka. Yun na yun,” Aurillo told Maghirang during a gig with jazz singer Skarlet Brown at a March, 2020 gig at the Akrotiri Greek Restobar in Makati City.

Aurillo is very generous when it comes to lending his talents, playing for free on many occasions and happily giving advice including his so-called “trade secrets” to fellow musicians.

His passion for music runs very deep, as evidenced by the recent series of online gigs broadcast on Facebook Live that he only started last month. Prior to his passing, there seems to be nothing that could stop Noli Aurillo from doing what he does best.

“The only time when music is not heard from me or my guitars is when there is a brownout or I am asleep,” he confessed to Olivares in that same interview. (Photos by Bernard Testa)

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