Cover Story

Isayaw mo ako
Sa gitna ng ulan, mahal ko
Kapalit man nito’y buhay ko
Gagawin ang lahat para sa ‘yo
Alam kong mahal mo na rin ako

Sing a couple of its simple but deeply-affecting lines or just about hum a few bars from its now-iconic melody, chances are, any music-consuming Filipino would know of the song, “Binibini“—that one anthem (among many) that has seen us through the restlessness of the global pandemic, amid the unforgiving cloak of turmoil, uncertainty, and questions.

And why not? It is Filipino kundiman taking modern-day form and it is a reincarnation of a type of music that continues to have a hold on a nation with a known fascination for heartful renditions of romance. In fact, it was a song so impactful that the track got remade into an English version, all the more widening its reach, as it gets thrust in the global music scene. As of this writing, Spotify has officially collected almost 61 million streams for the track since its release in March 2021, a year into quarantine. The translation reads:

Oh, darling dance with me now

Under the rain, under the dark grey clouds

If it’s my last day on earth then love me now

Baby, I’ll do everything to make you smile

I know you love me like you love me now

In a pre-pandemic world, the track, in any live event or concert, would be the kind of anthem that people would pull out their lighters or mobile phones for before exploding in euphoric unison to their hearts’ content—the kind of chilling, intoxicating scene the live events industry, or the music scene as a whole, has long missed out on, replaced by hearts, emoticons, and comments in real-time in makeshift concerts in virtual spaces in lieu of cheers and the roaring applause, as a form of escape and sustenance in  a time as fearful and bleak as this pandemic.

Mesh top, Ha.Mu. Elephant trousers, Proudrace. Overcoat, Uniqlo. Blazer (worn underneath), Edwin Tan.

In the middle of it all is young music prodigy, Zack Tabudlo, who was a man of nineteen when the track was put out to national consciousness—sneaking through the charts and streaming platforms and sending a thunderbolt through the Internet, seeping through the cracks of social media, especially the pandemic-fueled titanic popularity of vertical video-sharing platform, TikTok.

“With ‘Binibini’, I was at peak of love I guess. I was in love at the time. It didn’t work out eventually because I was too young. But yeah, that girl, who is my binibini, made me realize that there is love in this world,” Tabudlo tells us in-between takes for the Takeover Issue, talking about the song that not only collected him a surge of streams and views on music and video sharing platforms but a renewed interest on his body of work that music fans of today have grown to gravitate towards for his alt-pop and R&B leanings, that ultimately ordained him and his artistry up in the pantheon of music-making greats that make up Original Pilipino Music mythology.

Button-down shirt, Nina Amoncio. Trousers, Edwin Tan.

“She was the binibini that I would dance with in the middle of the rain, in the middle of a chaos, or whatever’s happening around us. I would dance/love her no matter what. Despite of what everyone says or what problems the two of you are facing in life, the both of you will be there for each other and will always be behind each other in every situation there is,” he shares in a statement upon the release of the track at the first quarter of 2021.

“I did the writing, production, and mixing and mastering just like my other songs. This was a bit different because of the kundiman vibe to it that I’ve never done before with a personal song. It had that chill, laid-back, in love—happy moments kind of feel to it.”

He divulges, garbed in Adam Pereyra by the raw, unfinished expanse of concrete in Space Above the Bank, that poetically backdrops the young artist’s ever-evolving and fast-growing artistry and musical genius, “I wrote the song to symbolize love and problems. I think it’s the type of song that people listened to because of the ‘cliché-ness’ of the song but at the same time there’s a lot of meaning behind it. I guess a lot of the people just loved the rhythm and everything, as well as the lyrics.”

Terno jacket, Adam Pereyra. White button-down shirt (worn underneath), Nina Amoncio. Pants, Ha.Mu.

While there is no shortage of emerging Filipino acts laying claim to OPM prominence, it is Tabudlo’s effortless mastery of his craft as a lyrical and rhythmic powerhouse that propelled him steps further than his contemporaries, from his hypnotic classroom-birthed “Nangangamba” that gained rightful second wind following the success of “Binibini”, to the pop-indie styling of his earlier release “Cruel”, to his now widely-received full-length debut record, “Episode”.

And even as history now sees him as a formidable force to be reckoned with, churning out anthem after anthem in a time of isolation and distance backed by the whole of the Internet responsible in driving his musical career to a cultural frenzy, it is this inimitable regard to his art that marked his ascent to OPM’s elusive ranks of culture-shaping icons, far from the Maroon 5-singing 12-year-old talent that he was, auditioning for the reality talent competition The Voice Kids Philippines.

“It started with my grandmother. She was the one that pushed me to go to auditions. I would go to The Voice Kids and I would go to these other TV shows and she would really push me cause I guess she saw the talent in me even if I was just a kid who enjoyed music in general and never thought of it as a fame thing,” he shares.

But the magnetism towards the arts and music, specifically, was something that grew inherently, no small thanks to the setting he has long been exposed to: his family. “The music started when I was 10. My family would listen to a lot of music. My dad was in a band back in college, my mom used to sing in hotels and my granddad is a big fan of The Beatles. I guess I grew up in an environment where everyone listens to a different kind of music and I incorporated that as I grew older and made my own thing.”

Kislap vest, button-down shirt, trousers, all Adam Pereyra. Shirt (worn underneath), Uniqlo.

Influenced heavily by the likes of John Mayer, Charlie Puth, Harry Styles, and personal hero, Paul Klein of LANY, Tabudlo’s repertoire of songs grew in style and sensibility, forming a stamp that has become distinctly his, earning him a second-look from established names in the industry, while spawning contemporaries tailing in his success.

“I listen very randomly. I would listen to the ‘80s this week, and then I would move to hip-hop next week. I mainly listen to a lot of LANY and a lot of Harry Styles and that’s kind of what inspires my music more in terms of the elements I put into my production.” He adds, “I incorporate how these artists do their music in the music that I create. I would ask [myself] what would John Mayer do on this track or what would Charlie Puth do in the production, so it’s a mixture of everyone, especially as they have become my heroes.

The young storyteller is far from claiming that he has cracked the code in designing the anatomy of a surefire musical hit—not with his arresting quiet confidence hidden beneath his modesty and innate shyness—but he lets his body of work do all the talking in showing how complexity is central to his arsenal of self-written and -produced music.

Denim jacket and pants, both Ha.Mu. Button-down shirt (worn underneath), Nina Amoncio.

Much like the layers employed in creating his career-making hit, “Episode” and the 14 tracks that make the record are  more than just about young, saccharine romance expected from someone of his age and sensibility, but a deeply personal reverie into the artist’s evolving state of mind and sense of self.

“For ‘Episode’, the album, I wrote these songs through my lowest of lows (some written before the pandemic but most of them written during lockdown) and during those times I am at the saddest points of my life. And that’s how it represented the title cause a lot of people would say, ‘Here he is again with another episode.’ It feels ironic to put it in the title but it just feels perfect just because of the impact that it made in my songs.”

Listening to him talk and open up about his creative proclivities, it is hard to miss that the man behind the words and the melodies is, in fact, a young, promising juggernaut-in-the-making, who is months (or even just a few days shy of turning 20), who talks about his artistic process with his eyes filled with such effervescence that tells us he is more than ready and raring to flex his creative muscles even further as he shifts gears to tread on an even more exciting road ahead, and his songs and the mission that drives them, are anything but cookie-cutter.

“Episode’ has different scenarios and different stories with the songs. It’s basically about love, heartbreak, and a lot of life lessons, depending on the perspective of the person who listens to it. I feel like it’s the perfect time to release it because of its capacity to connect mentally to a lot of people. Nowadays, especially people of my age, in my generation and even older generations, there are cases where they get lost during these times—being alone at home, not being able to connect with their families and friends physically. I think I can connect with them through these stories.”

In staking his claim in the industry, Tabudlo always goes back to the support of MCA Music (Universal Music Philippines) managing director and former director behind his music videos in his years as a starting musician, Enzo Valdez, who was behind him becoming the first artist signed by Island Records Philippines, and for good reason, what with his musicality and his voice shifting effortlessly and boldly from breathy, soulful whisper, to fist-pumping blare. “More than the business side, I am very blessed to have a kuya to guide me, and he has become someone that I can talk to even in my lowest of lows.”

“As we rolled out his songs, there was an exponential growth in his listenership. His songs ‘Binibini’ and ‘Nangangamba’ both became #1 on Spotify’s Global Viral Chart, topping the charts for four weeks straight. ‘Binibini’ also topped Spotify’s Philippines Top 50 Chart for six straight weeks, where he broke the record for the longest-running number #1 local track by a Filipino RADAR artist. After being added to Spotify’s RADAR Philippines program, Zack was able to reach new fans both locally and internationally.” Valdez shares in a statement, charting the record-breaking year that was for Tabudlo.

“As a composer, he has grown tremendously. We’ve seen a lot of listeners relating to his lyrics and resonating with his sensibilities. The album also showcases different genres all throughout, making each song a unique experience. This album definitely shows how far Filipino artistry has come despite the challenges of the pandemic,” Valdez highlights.

I remember starting the whole music thing to get to inspire people who listen to my music. Especially now during this pandemic, I think it is very important to have a platform, [like] music, to reach out to people who are lost during this time. Reaching out to them, connecting to them through my music and having this as a platform for them to lean on, makes me feel honored and blessed,” Tabudlo opines.

Blazing the trail for his ever-growing musical path, Tabudlo rolls up his sleeves with verve and vision with the ongoing consecutive releases of videos that accompany the songs off his debut record, before heading on to prepare for a virtual concert slated before the end of 2021, punctuating his success for the year, opening up even greater doors as he marches forward to a new year.

“Right now, I am just really fortunate to be able to release my music, or [do] music in general. Not a lot of people would have this opportunity, so just being able to do that is such a blessing. Hopefully, after a couple of years I’d still be doing the same thing—hopefully I get to reach more people in need, with the stories, and lean towards the music that I create. So, I guess more inspiration and more influence to the generation and the younger generations.”

Presented by MCA Music (Universal Music Philippines) / Island Records Philippines

Produced, creative direction, styling, and interview by Leo Balante

Photography by: Ed Enclona

Assisted by: Alexis Dave Co

Grooming by: Yaj Labeo

Hair by: Michole Davide Mananquil

Video direction and editing by: Jico Umali

Video assistant: Gilbert Javellana

Fashion by: Ha.Mu Studios, Adam Pereyra, Nina Amoncio, and Proudrace

Shoot assistant: Bhernn Saenz

Location partner: Space Above The Bank at HMA 773