Jireh Calo, a Filipina Musician on Her Way

Jireh Calo on vocals and keyboard, Paolo Cortez on guitar and Glen Bondoc on bass guitar

When we saw the Jireh Calo Project and heard that Jireh would be leaving for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, my friends and I asked each other, “What else does she have to learn?” She’s now at Berklee, probably the best music school for jazz in the world. The night before her departure from Manila she did one last gig at Tago. All the seats were taken, all the standing room was packed, every third or fourth person had a camera, and for at least the first couple of hours everyone listened attentively. After the Jireh Calo Project played the first set and the jam session began, the stage was crowded with people sitting in. It was a fantastic night, even more fantastic than other fantastic nights at Tago. Two weeks later we had this interview on Skype.

Jireh calling from a practice room at Burklee

Jireh’s story

How are you this morning?

Good. Yesterday I had classes from ten a.m. until five with no break in-between, just time to get to my next class. But today I’m free all day.

Can you talk a bit about your name?

My full given name is Hosanna Jireh. In Hebrew, “Hosanna” is an exclamation of praise, and “Jireh” comes from “Jehovah-Jireh,” which means “the Lord will provide.” My mother gave me that name, and my siblings also have Biblical names which I think serve as both prophecy and as testimony to how God has been working in our lives—her life and ours. I grew up being called “Jireh,” and in the music circle, I am known as Jireh Calo. At this point in my life, I now want to embrace my full name because of the significance of its meaning in my life. Truly, the Lord has been my provider, and I’m glad to have a name that gives Him praise.

When I saw you last you did a song about Yahweh.

Ah, that song was born out of an impromptu set with my band and handpan player Aldous Castro during my last 2014 gig at 12 Monkeys in Makati, which I performed again during my last gig in Tago. It was a song born out of my joy and gratitude for the overwhelming blessings God has given me in 2014. He gave me music, and I wanted to give it back to Him.

Jireh singing with Paolo Cortez on guitar and Ryan Villimar on keyboard

I gather that the church has been very important in your life.

Yes, I grew up very active in church, especially at 14 when I started playing with the praise and worship band of my church, Bread From Heaven Community Church. But when we moved to Makati we started attending CCF (Christ’s Commission Fellowship).

Now your career started early, like at the age of two?

My mom is a songwriter, pianist and singer, and I grew up listening to her music. Eventually, both my sister Nicole and I became pianists and singers as well as songwriters, but we grew towards different genres. My first performance on stage was when I was 2 years old. It was during a school musical, and I sang the national anthem in gibberish and played the roles of a spider, a baby bird, and a turtle. I was six years old when we got a piano and I started tinkering around with the keys. I learned a lot from listening and finding my way around the piano, exploring the sounds the piano makes and associating them with the songs I heard. I never had any formal music training, but I relied a lot on my ear and my feelings. Throughout grade school and high school I was very active in performing in events and contests in school, church and family events, and I usually performed duets with my older sister Nicole. It wasn’t until 14 when I first got into jazz that I found a strong musical direction.

With the church band I was a keyboardist/singer. That’s where I first started learning my chords and truly absorbing from other musicians. We had sheets that just had chords and lyrics, and it was up to me how I would color the chords. That’s also where I developed my improvisation and where I learned to give the music my own interpretation. I learned to listen to other musicians so we could play together as one. There was a discipline to it as well because it was a form of worship, so I couldn’t just play whatever. I gave it my best.

Handpan player Aldous Castro jamming with the Jireh Calo Project

I’m blessed to have grown up with a very creative and supportive environment. I never had any pressure to excel and was never forced to pursue anything I didn’t want to, but I did have a mother who always inspired me to follow my passions and never to give up on my dreams. I am very grateful for that.  Learning music in an informal setting has its advantages. I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and to experiment, and I had to make use of what I had and learn to absorb from others.  I wouldn’t consider myself entirely self-taught because I learned lot from other people and picked up things here and there. There’s so much I want to learn that I can’t do all by myself, and that why I decided to take up music in college.

My debut into the Manila jazz scene happened when I was 17 when my sister’s band, Mann Atti, got into the Grand Finals of the 2012 Boy Katindig Jazz Competition (BKJC) with her composition “Dugong Maharlika,” which means “noble blood” in Filipino. That song I eventually rearranged and performed a lot with my band two years later. I was her keyboardist, we were the youngest band in the competition, and I was the youngest participant. We didn’t win, but we gained much more from it than we ever could have expected. That’s where I first met Boy Katindig and the other amazing musicians in the Philippines jazz scene.

So that really opened doors for you then.

Definitely. Boy Katindig himself has been a big supporter of me and my music. After the competition, we had some jam sessions together, and he mentored me when he could. He and Elea, his fiancee and manager, have seen me grow as a musician throughout the years since that first BKJC.  In 2014, I entered the Boy Katindig Jazz Competition again and won, along with a band called the Swingster Syndicate, which plays regularly at Tago Jazz Cafe. We went to Malaysia together to represent the Philippines at the 3-day World Youth Jazz Festival.  It was an incredibly humbling and inspiring experience to share the stage with so much amazing talent from all over the world.

At a previous gig

You have a two-year International Baccalaureate degree from the British School in Manila. How does it compare with degrees in the United States?

The IB prepares you for college. You choose what subjects you want to take and whether to take the degree at the higher level or at the standard level. It’s very personalized and very intensive. It’s challenging, but it really pushes you to think and do things beyond the average. I learned so much from it. After graduating from the fourth year at the local high school, I got a scholarship for the British School IB program. I took it because I knew I wanted to study music in the States.

So then you were admitted to Ateneo University, but you decided to apply to Berklee and went to Hong Kong for your audition. How was the audition?

It was very relaxed. I didn’t feel nervous or anything. I only stayed in Hong Kong overnight. I just went there with my mom because that was the closest audition center to the Philippines. You have a prepared piece which you perform for them, and then they ask you to improvise over a standard. I applied as a vocalist, so they focused on my voice, but I accompanied myself on the piano. For the improvisation part, I did some scatting while one of the professors was playing the piano. After the audition I went to another room for the interview. It was a very chill interview. They really just wanted to get to know me as a person. The questions were like, “What do you want to pursue? Why do you want to go to Berklee?” It was a good conversation.

And how have you found Berklee? You’ve only been there for what, a couple of weeks now?

Jayman Alviar on drums

Yeah, two weeks. The first week was orientation week—about the school, the students, how things work. It was really fun because there were jam sessions and concerts with student bands and alumni bands. It’s a really amazing community. Everyone I meet has a story to tell, and everyone here in Berklee wants to be here. Nobody forced them to be here. For me, it’s a dream to be surrounded by people who are all so passionate and who all have their own kind of music. It’s very diverse. The students here represent 54% of the world’s countries. Meeting people from different countries and different cultures is very interesting. You can also see how much we all have in common and how music can connect people. It’s very inspiring.

I had a somewhat similar experience at a writer’s conference that was hard to get into.

It’s not easy to get in. Even if you get in, there are a lot of obstacles to getting everything together—the finances, your visa—so everyone here worked hard to get here.

How would you describe your music?

I like to call my music jazz fusion. I take elements from different genres, like hip-hop, world, soul, funk, and blues and fuse them together with a jazz attitude. I have quite an eclectic and broad taste in music, but jazz is my home. There’s so much freedom in jazz, but I think the most important element is the discipline of listening to other people and being able to play with other musicians. For me, more than the scales and chords, it’s an attitude. The attitude of letting yourself go when you play music, to keep breaking boundaries and trying something new.

Going back to your sister’s composition, “Dugong Mahalika,” is that a protest song? It’s a great song, and it gets a rousing response.

Bandmate Glen Bondoc

It’s not a protest song, but it does call upon my fellow countrymen to rise up—I guess from their way of thinking—and see their worth as Filipinos. There are lines like, “Akala mo ba na nandito lamang ang abot ng mga Pilipino?” which is a question thrown out to the listeners, challenging them to see themselves beyond the limitations we give ourselves. The words come out strong, and so it may have the spirit of a protest song, but essentially it’s a song that challenges and encourages. Dugong Maharlika literally means “noble blood,” so it refers to the blood that flows through our veins, that connects us as one race. It’s in Tagalog, so it was really meant to address Filipinos.

Halika, halika, kaibigan—come, come, my friends—is that like Jessie Jackson on the Washington Mall yelling out to the crowd, “I am somebody” and everyone yelling back “I am somebody”?

Yes! That’s it.

Now, the other night, one of your improvisations that I particularly liked was from “Take Five.” When you were doing that was there a particular process that you went through?

Bandmate Carlos Jesena on guitar

For every performance with my band I actually don’t prepare anything. I don’t prepare a set list, and even if I know what songs I’m going to play, I don’t prepare how I’m going to play them. They’re different every time. I always put my band mates on the spot because I want to challenge them to listen to each other. That night when we played “Take Five,” I started with the defining feature of the song, which is its 5/4 rhythm. [Jireh plays the very recognizable first chord.] I play it a bit more until my band mates get it. I don’t even have to tell them what song it is because by then they already know. From then on— actually, I don’t really think about it. So I really can’t explain it.

It sounded great. To be honest, I didn’t know that “Take Five” had words.

It didn’t originally. A lot of jazz standards were written with the melody and the chord changes, and then other artists add lyrics. For example, “Take Five” was an instrumental which Al Jarreau wrote lyrics for.

Now on your CD, I notice the only cover here is “Tenderly.”  The song that first opened your ears to jazz was Oscar Peterson’s “Tenderly,” right? Only yours doesn’t have those old-fashioned flourishes that his does.

I love to listen to music. I can appreciate how people play without needing to sound like them. Oscar Peterson’s “Tenderly” recording is how he played it. The song itself is also beautiful, and it’s very special to me because that’s how I fell in love with jazz. I listen to a lot of the classic artists, but I don’t sound like them at all. I can’t be like Oscar Peterson. I don’t want to try.

Jireh sitting in at a previous performance

Do you have the sense that you have really found your own sound or your own voice?

I think it’s a constant exploration. At this point I know what kind of music I play, and I sort of know what sound I want, but I’m aware that it’s bound to change and develop over the years. I know my direction, but things change in different environments and different types of culture. It’s much like how I approach everything. I have no idea what’s going to happen, I don’t know how it’s going to sound, but I just keep going. It’s part of the excitement.

Did you write the other songs on your EP?

Yes, although the “Intro” and “Outro” were excerpts of a live jam session in the studio. I wrote “Stay”, “Seventh High”, and “Drift.”

The CD version is sold out, but people can order the music online, is that right?

Jireh Calo’s EP on disc. Cover design by Seed Bunye.

Yeah, I uploaded the EP on Bandcamp.

I’d heard you play a couple of times before your last evening at Tago, but the last night left me totally bowled over. I think probably a lot of people felt that way. Do you have a special message to send back to Tago?

The people at Tago have helped me grow so much, and I’m so grateful for the whole community over there. They supported me even when I was first starting out. They saw the light and potential in me even at an early stage in my musical journey. I didn’t know I could play the way I do now. They formed an environment where I, or anyone else, could go to just jam and learn. There’s no ego, just music.  It’s a very healthy and supportive environment for a young, aspiring jazz musician. I love the people at Tago, and I’m definitely coming back to that place to jam when I go home.

You took a year off after you were admitted to Berklee, and it seems to have been really important to you—in terms of forming your band and getting the EP out.

Yes, I was admitted to Berklee for the Spring 2014 semester, but I deferred for a year.  I didn’t plan anything that happened in 2014, and so it still overwhelms me how everything fell into place. Much of it happened serendipitously. My first jam in Tago was also the first time I met Paolo Garcia, the producer of my first EP. Apparently, it was also his first time to visit Tago, and he wasn’t one who went out too much. He contacted me soon after, and we started sharing our music. That’s how the EP was born. Tago was also the place where I met and formed my band. I’ve met so many people who’ve contributed so much to my growth as an artist and as a person. I didn’t know where I was going, but I trusted that by following my God-given passion and believing in my big dreams, I was going the right direction. After I deferred for Berklee, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I wanted to make the best of my time. It was heartbreaking at first, but I trusted that it was part of a greater plan. True enough, some of the best things that ever happened to me happened that year.

The night after the interview I mentioned to Nelson Gonzales, owner of Tago, that I’d talked to Jireh and that she was happy and grateful. He said, “Oh, she’s always like that.” And I thought to myself: Happy and grateful, what a way to go through life.