They're gonna rock this town

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2009, 12:00am

Lakshmi Ramirez isn't sure how word got out about the Bembol Rockers - but he's glad it has at last. The band have been thumping their rockabilly bibles in the bars and clubs around Manila for five years and they've often found it hard going in the face of what Ramirez describes as a vast music scene.

'Right now emo is the fad there,' he explains. 'But there's rock, reggae, ska, alternative, funk, soul, and jazz. Lots of options. Rockabilly isn't that popular, but when people hear us play, they instantly become fans of rockabilly music.'

So much so that news of the noise made by the Bembol Rockers made it all the way to The Wanch - and the ears of Babatunji Heath. As one third of Hong Kong's very own rockabilly band El Destroyo, Heath was keen to see for himself what the fuss was all about. And somehow the stars became aligned.

'I had heard great things about them from other musicians here in Hong Kong,' says Heath. 'People had seen them in the Philippines and said they really rocked. So we thought it might be a good match, us and them. And then we found out they were coming here anyway.'

So a call was made - and now the two bands are set to take the Fringe Club stage tomorrow night.

'We put it all down to El Destroyo,' says Ramirez (left centre), who plays the upright bass in the four-piece. 'We just want to promote our music and share it with everyone in every part of the globe, and they are helping us do that.'

Ramirez believes the fiercely competitive nature of the Manila live scene forced his band to sharpen their skills. 'You get found out quickly,' he explains. 'Filipinos really love music. There are a lot of bands here in Manila, but only a few make it big.

'It's the attitude of being in a rebel beat,' says Ramirez. 'During the 50s, rockabilly music was rebellious and underground. Being different, looking different and having this uncontrollable energy and adrenaline inside you while playing this kind of music gives you freedom. And you know straight away you're not square.'

Judging by reviews of their live shows, the Bembol Rockers are anything but 'square'. Ramirez explains that they can get carried away by the rhythm, and he'll be up on top of his bass with pompadour flying.

'The first time we got on stage, we just had a couple of originals and mostly covers from Louis Jordan, Johnny Burnette and Elvis Presley,' he says. 'It was an underground punk gig and we had a different name for that gig - we called ourselves the Layrites after a brand of pomade.

'But people got into the swing straight away. Every time we hear the twang of the guitar, the slap of the upright bass, the honk from the sax and the swing beats from the drums, the electricity just runs through our veins.'

And while the rockabilly scene in Manila remains a small but vibrant part of the musical landscape, Ramirez says the band are never lacking for engagements - from festivals, to pubs and even, on one occasion, a funeral.

'It was for a friend of ours, a ska drummer,' explains Ramirez. 'His mum contacted us. Music was all around. In fact, we have cried a couple of times during our gigs.

'We cried because we really felt the music and when we saw old people reminiscing about their past. You can see it in their faces - it still gives me goosebumps.'

And as for what it is exactly that people 'get' about rockabilly, Ramirez says simply: 'It's all about heart and soul.'

The Bembol Rockers with guests El Destroyo, tomorrow, 10pm, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central, HK$100 (advance), HK$120. Inquiries: 2521 7251