BLITZ REVIEWJuaniyo Arcellana – The Philippine Star

October 24, 2021 | 12:00am

First time I met the late guitarist Noli Aurillo, who died of COVID this month, age 62, was sometime in the early 2000s, in ‘70s Bistro along Anonas Extension in Quezon City, while doing an interview for a reunited Asin folk group, something for Pulp magazine.

Now the surviving members of Asin, like Lolita Carbon and Pendong Aban, were old faces, but Aurillo, long curly hair waving a la Jimmy Page, was a recently arrived session musician, though the Tacloban native was a much-touted veteran of the live circuit being no mean axe man himself.

On Anonas at the time, there wasn’t a jukebox in sight, unlike say in Opena’s in the port city of Dumaguete decades ago, where you could play Poco’s Crazy Love, Orleans’ Dance with Me or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for a few peso coins, listen to the songs while feasting on viands, tasty but on the greasy side. Or Quiapo’s Quezon Boulevard in the old days, with the dime a dozen carinderias and beer gardens that sprouted in the seedy side of town, with their gleaming formica tables and backrests that were epitome of discretion, and in a far corner a jukebox with scratchy 45 rpms of Eddie Peregrina and Victor Wood, It’s Crying Time Again and I’ll do my Crying in the Rain.

I mention this cultural contraption and conversation piece now, also the subject of art exhibits and installations, because Aurillo was rather like a walking jukebox: He had an uncanny gift and flair for turning a tested hit into his own, upside down and inside out until after a rain of chords and disparate reverb on an acoustic guitar with pickup, the song would manifest itself, Man in the Mirror or Material Girl coming hither like an old buddy in disguise or drag but still recognizable, man where you been? And he did the B-sides, too, preferring a deck of cards over coins.

“Hindi ba parang mahaba yung buhok mo dati?” Aurillo would deadpan whenever we happened to run into each other in Penguin or Magnet, him doing card tricks between sets with an old faithful nearby, or in [email protected], where the guitarist would sometimes oblige with an impromptu solo run through after midnight, maybe an instrumental Michael Jackson medley, just to lift the spirits of the losers and broken wanderers in that smoky din, at least you could walk home with notes ringing in your head if nothing else.

Then there was that live gig with Cynthia Alexander and another foreign based guitarist, an avalanche of three guitars a la De Lucia, Di Meola and McLaughlin, where they did a version of Moon River sure to stop you on your tracks. No doubt music was magic and the air sparkled with possibilities, the guitarists playing off each other point and counterpoint in breathless virtuosity. It’s likely the ensemble also played Somewhere over the Rainbow, if the jukebox of memory can be trusted.

On Spotify or YouTube can be found a whole treasure trove of material from Aurillo, the second major guitarist to pass away in a few months after Wally Gonzalez last July: The compilations of acoustic renditions of favorite standards and chestnuts, In Pursuit of Excellence, which reached three volumes. Sessions at Conspiracy Garden Café in Quezon City, with Skarlet for a matchup that included a heart stirring Summertime, it seemed in his later years he was leaning toward jazz, as evidenced too in his gig at the Tago Jazz club in Cubao, an oasis hidden except from the ear, featuring a Japanese pianist and a woman painter simultaneously working on canvas while the band played on.

A Filipino superstition has it that when you lose your way, the remedy is to turn your shirt over to mislead the enchanter, in this case death, just as we may have lost our way too on the way to Minokaua in Malate, shut down since the pandemic, no more card tricks or B-sides, rain falling from heaven, La Nina and October in Manila.

Yet it’s not really the end, not if Aurillo can help it, because there are still the chord progressions and lingering jams, raise a glass and lend a hand to the tap on wood, a man keeping time by himself while strumming, never alone with a guitar until the wee hours. Not if a thousand angels and an angel’s arms can help it.

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