Portrait of a Filipino Jazz Musician

The Ryan Villamor Trio on August 26, 2016 at the Ayala Museum in Makati (Video link) (Link) (Link)
Ryan Villamor
Josh Chua Tulangan
Given Bacani   

I first heard Ryan play the keyboard at Tago Jazz Café in Metro Manila, where he performed with his trio and with other groups, then later at the Ayala Museum. His work made me an instant fan, I think in part because of our love of Keith Jarrett, who speaks of improvising one note at a time. Ryan and I share a common view of inspiration, or, as my favorite music critic, Alan Rich, wrote decades ago in New York magazine, “I am neither a church-goer nor an atheist, and the reason I am not the latter can be found in m almost any measure–no, any measure–of Mozart’s music.”

Ryan studied piano and music education at the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory Of Music. He has taught in Brunei Darussalam and at the Acacia Waldorf School. This year he’ll graduate from the International Harp Therapy Program. IHe’s also an independent musician for weddings and special events.

We spoke over Skype when I was in Tagaytay and he was in Metro Manila. Thanks to Ryan for the video links and most of the photos.

Ryan’s story

Have harp, will travel.

When I started playing the keyboard at the age of nine, I was an uninhibited child just having fun with it. At twelve I was asked to join the band at my parents’ church, an evangelical Catholic church with lots of prayer meetings and other activities. In high school I was there four or five nights a week. The church was perfect for learning how to listen and to develop my skills.

Also in high school I played bass guitar and drums with a band I started with the musicians from church. We did alternative rock until someone introduced me to Sting and the Police,whose music had a big influence on me. I also got hooked on Tori Amos, Nirvana, The Black Crowes, Spin Doctors, Smashin Pumpkins and others, as well as many local bands here in Manila. Before I went to college I started exploring blues and funk with a B3 organ, but I had no idea what I was doing.

At a wedding gig in Batanes

A few years later, I discovered Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Their music resonated in me, especially the ballads, and it became the foundation of my musicality. That’s when my music stopped being about feeding my ego, feeling good about my talent and pleasing other people. It became very personal, particularly improvisation, as a means of reaching my innermost self.

My pain, joy, love, frustration—all my emotions— are present in my music. Composing or improvising comes from what I can’t put into words. I try to bring the listeners to a place between the conscious mind and communication through sound and silence is a universal language that enters directly into the soul.

At Tomato Kick in Quezon City

Musicians, painters, poets—none of them creates just from themselves. When you hear a live piano or guitar improvisation and then ask the player, “How did you do that?” The usual reply is, “I don’t know. It just came up.” The musician is saying that when the music takes over, magic happens, telling them what to play. It happens very fast. That simply means a higher force or consciousness inspires us.

When I compose or improvise, I make a recording.  Most of the time, I can’t believe it came out of me. I don’t take credit for it, but I feel grateful that I’m the vessel containing it.

Giving a talk at the Waldorf School

When you’re improvising, particularly in jazz, you start with your feelings and what the other musicians are playing. You listen with empathy to how it feels, and you pick up the passages. Typically, this is a matter of a split second. Inspiration just comes too fast. You become quiet in yourself. If you’re playing for an audience, you become empathic with your audience. While improvising you listen to the music in your head and to the other players, and you catch the vibes of the people around you so you can translate that into sound. You communicate by sharing the music you hear. This is not to show off but to reach people emotionally.

When I started teaching at the Waldorf School, I studied some of the works of Rudolf Steiner, particularly his collection of lectures called Inner Nature of Music and Experience of Tone. It was an eye-opener. In this book Steiner explains that the music we hear is our perception of an archetype from the spiritual world, the source of all inspiration.

This photo was taken this year on mother’s day harp music performance at Yurakuen Japanese Restaurant in Diamond Hotel.

Steiner says, “The center of music today is harmony.” He writes that all human consciousness is connected by a global grid. Even acoustic instruments are based on archetypes and made according to the manner of playing and the medium of each instrument. The harmonic intervals coincide with the evolution of human consciousness from past civilizations to the present, from modal to monophonic and polyphonic. The existence of everything is connected to sound and music. Everything is resonance vibrating in a specific frequency to harmonize with or coexist with everything else.

I believe it’s all connected. What’s happening now was caused by what happened in the past, which was caused by something else, your karma and mine.

At a patient’s bedside in the ICU (Link)

The Bible’s Book of Genesis reads, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” His voice came first, and it created light. Sound came before light. It’s primal. It’s like love, which you’ll never understand until you experience how intangible it is. The Bible says, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” If you want to absorb the music, you have to close your eyes and be still. Let the sound take you where it takes you.

The first fully developed organ in the human fetus, at around five months, is the ear. Hearing is the first of the five senses to develop. At the end of life, when the person is dying, it’s the last to shut down. I’m currently studying sound therapy. I play therapeutic harp at a patient’s hospital bedside.

At the Post Anesthesia Care Unit in Adventist Medical Center

Researchers have found that when the body is weak the sense of sound is amplified up to ten times or more. If you’re weak, you’re sensitive, you’re irritable, you don’t want noise. You want to lie down and rest. Your sense of hearing is heightened. What you hear becomes you, you sense the space beyond time, dimensions of your landscape of pain, sorrow, joy and peace.

Music is not just an art form, but a celebration of life, a way to discover your inner purpose.  When you pray, you shut your eyes so you won’t be distracted while you focus on listening to your heart, your intuition, your inner sense of direction in order to activate your higher consciousness. It can bring you closer to God.

As a musician you have a hunger to be heard. You want to share your music because that’s why you were given the talent and also because you can’t contain it. So being a musician or an artist or a poet is both a blessing and a curse. There is a sense that it has to be perfect. You aren’t content because you know you can do better. You’re obsessed. But fully realized musicians know their limitations and have learned to accept them.

At a Tagaytay wedding

You never know what effect you have on listeners. Sometimes you play for a particular audience simply because of an obligation. You’re not really into it. But after your performance people may come up and thank you for how your music made them feel. So you wonder how you could have touched them when you yourself didn’t feel inspired.

That’s because the music isn’t you. You’re just a vessel of that inspiration that wasn’t meant for you but for others. Your music is a bridge, a connection to something good, pure love and light. It’s spiritual.

For me music must serve a purpose.  It can help overcome the physical difficulties during illness. In music therapy, specific sound frequencies resonate with specific chakras in the body and with the energy of a particular place.

An in-flight performance on SkyJet

In addition to lifting the spirits of people who are down, music is used for other purposes, like motivating a population to go to war, as Richard Wagner’s music did by shaping Germany’s nationalism. At the Waldorf School where I taught, the parents wanted their children to learn to play because it could enhance their learning of academic subjects.

Music is often misunderstood as an ego-driven art form. As a musician, you may be tempted to think it’s all about you and your career. That’s normal since you’re the center of attention. It stokes your ego. It feels good. You’re hungry for recognition. But if you can’t balance your ego, you’ll think you can do anything you want because people will still like you.

Among artists and jazz musicians you find a lot of drug addicts and wasted relationships. It’s ironic, right? Music is meant to make people’s lives better. The problem is not the music, but the intention behind it. It’s the ignorance of false ego.

At the Music Therapy Conference In Indonesia March 2018

Listening is an emotional experience that penetrates into your spirit. Over time it can have a profound effect. If you’re sad and you keep listening to depressing music, eventually it will damage your self-esteem. On the other hand, music can evoke feelings of gratitude and love. Music is not just a complex art form, a plaything of the ego or an exhibition of beauty and intelligence. Music should bring awareness of our humanity and compassion. Music can promote peace and change the world, as John Lennon wrote in his song “Imagine.”

Ryan at Tago on International Jazz Day

Other links:

Blackbird (Beatles cover)–(Link)

Island Breeze on Celtic harp (Link)

Tago Autumn Leaves Ryan Villamor Trio – Pinoy Jazz (Link)

Marry Me – harp violin duet by Ryan Villamor (Link)

Just Friends – Ryan Villamor Trio (Link)

Ryan’s Facebook page (Link)



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David Mason
5 years ago

great music! 🙂 good essay, Carol.

5 years ago

well said coz