by Anthony Capirayan, SSP
The moment my crew and I jumped aboard the car, I immediately wore my ear buds and listened to Ebe Dancel’s “Bawat Daan” for the nth time. As we inched our weary way through traffic, the song also drifted slowly: “Sa pagkumpas ng ‘yong kamay / Aking landas ginagabay / Nag-iisang tiyak sa isang libong duda / Silong sa iyak at pagluluksa.”
Its lyrical charm struck a chord with me. Its metaphors took me by hand and offered me words of consolation. And though the day was overcast on that Monday sundown, everything around me seemed to be imbued with vibrant colors. We cruised up Skyway knowing that we’re going to have great conversation with the man behind this song.
Ebe Dancel, the former front man of alternative rock band Sugarfree, has just released his second solo album of the same title. It includes a handful of new tracks and some reworks of songs he wrote for his former band but now rendered more dramatically as he collaborates with fellow artists like KC Tandingan, Yeng Constantino, and Regine Velasquez. We sat down with him at Entablado, his restaurant in Los Baños, to talk about the roads he had trodden, the grounds he is now traversing, and the uncharted places he has yet to explore.
The Road Almost Taken
“Alam mo ba dapat magpapari ako?” Ebe confided. He was born so frail that he practically spent the first two years of his life in the hospital. Whenever he was at the brink of death, his mother would run to the chapel and make a pact with God: “If you would let my son survive, then he will serve you. He will be a priest.” And survive he did! As a child, it was engrained in him that he would become a priest one day. He became a sacristan and eventually passed the entrance examination for the seminary. However, he also made it to the UP Rural High School, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. His dad’s friend convinced him to finish high school at UP Rural and promised to send the young Ebe to Rome if he would still want to pursue priesthood.
“Eventually I lost interest in priesthood. I realized that it wasn’t really my place. Hindi ko lang alam ang gagawin ko, pero alam ko hindi ako magpapari,” he said. “It’s funny how life unfolds—I’m here now, you’re there.” We then let off a laugh.
He also shared that if he were not a singer, he would most probably be working in a NGO that supports the education of underprivileged children.
The Narrow Road
But it was music that really fascinated him in the most entrancing way. In a TED Talk he gave at UP Manila, Ebe reminisced about the fateful day music found him. His older brother once brought home a guitar and, boy, Ebe just sat there staring at him play the instrument for hours and hours.
“Whenever he would leave for school, I’d sneak into his room and start to learn my favorite songs,” he recalled.
So when he got into college, he started to write his own music. He then put up a few bands; however, none of them worked out until he met his bandmates from Sugarfree. They put their demos together and dared submitting them to record labels. And just like many other startups, they also received loads of rejection.
“Some people didn’t really believe that our album would sell or amount to anything,” he said. “But I kept pushing on. So little by little we got shows, the album started selling, the songs started playing on the radio, and the shows started getting bigger.”
For the twelve years (1999–2011) that Ebe was with Sugarfree, he churned out five albums, reaped a slew of awards, held major concerts at the Music Museum among other venues, and wrote quite a number of songs that became official soundtracks for TV shows and movies.
One for the Road
Ebe was lost in transition when his group disbanded. But music relentlessly pursued him, and eventually he got back on track. Spurred by the joys and sorrows he had with his former band, he fashioned even more moving compositions, and yes, gave birth to the song “Bawat Daan.” He originally wrote the piece for “Sa Wakas,” a Pinoy rock musical that featured the songs he wrote with Sugarfree.
“They wanted, like, an umbrella song; something that would represent everything I’ve written so far, everything that I‘ve done in my life so far,” he explained. “And it was that. Every road I took, even long after I left the band, parang bumabalik at bumalik pa rin talaga ako sa kinagisnan ko. For me, every road I take leads me to music.”
The Road Within
But then again, the road is not without its slippery slopes, sharp curves, and potholes. Ebe still faces personal struggles every now and then.
“Back in the day I lived my life very carelessly—lots of alcohol, smoking, and all the late nights. I think my forty-year-old body is paying for it now,” he confessed.
He has been battling against laryngitis and sometimes suffers from morning headaches. Last year, he was diagnosed with clinical depression and admitted that he is still dealing with it. But Ebe refused to be stuck on that side road, as it were.
“I’ve taken on a more healthier [sic] lifestyle now,” he declared. “I bike wherever I need to go, I run, and I sleep early. I don’t go out anymore; I spend more time with myself.”
When asked what other stuff he busies himself with when he is not performing, he immediately beamed, “I’m here taking care of my restaurant (Entablado)!” Our group certainly enjoyed the laidback vibe the café emitted and the delectable dishes it served at very affordable prices.
Conversations on the Road
Ebe also stands in the front line of OPM advancement. He wrote almost no English songs for Sugarfree. And since the time he went solo, all his songs were written in Filipino.
“It has become later on an advocacy. A lot of kids don’t even speak Tagalog anymore. It’s sad because ours is a really beautiful language,” he opined. “Our words are naturally rhyming. Tapos yong mga salita natin parang likas yong dulas sa dila. Hindi matigas. Damang-dama mo lagi kapag merong kang sinasabi,” he added.
And indeed, his songs, with their graceful form, musical rhyme, and poetic hues, are nothing but intimate conversations.
I told him that some of his songs have given me strength, consolation, and courage to persevere in my vocation to the priesthood; it is as if God were talking to me in those songs.
He smiled. “I don’t wanna give myself too much credit. I write songs, and the interpretation is very subjective. Let me be the first to tell you that they are not intended to be Christian songs. But if it helps you in any way, then it’s really a great thing for me. I am grateful!”
He figured, “Maybe, on a very unconscious level [I do put Christian themes] because I have very close relationship with God. It’s a very personal one.”
The first thing that Ebe does in the morning is pray. He said that the marble cross he wears as a necklace is very symbolic of his faith. “It’s not perfect; I miss Mass every now and then. But I think I do have a very deep relationship with God,” he repeated. He then pulled out another cross from his bag. He explained that it was a gift from his friend in Jerusalem. He brings it with him every day. He holds on to it especially in times of uncertainty and even while resting backstage during his performances. “It’s better than holding a cigarette,” he quipped.
Ebe just turned forty last May 30, but it does not mean he has reached the dead end of his career. “May sign doon sa pinto ko na nakalagay: ‘Keep Going!’ Every day, before I go out and step into the world, I would tap the sign. It’s the only reminder you’ll ever need sometimes.”
Having trodden the winding road of music for more than half of his life, Ebe offered some “road signs” to youngsters: “Kung hindi niyo pa nahanap ang ‘daan’ niyo, I want you to know it’s okay. It took me so long to find music. Just try to be the best version of yourself every day, then pray, and it will come.”
The Road to Home
As we rode back onto the highway, I listened to Ebe’s “Bawat Daan” again! I realized that he was not writing for me exactly. But I also knew that he kind of was; for all of us—you and me. After all, isn’t our life a road trip to our dreams, to our happiness, and to discovering our real selves?