Five years ago, before my friend Ivon came to Manila for a visit, he did a computer search for jazz spots in Manila. Tago Jazz Café was the only name that came up. After he arrived he went to check it out and came back very excited. “There are all these young guys—not the old guys you might associate with jazz—who are very talented,” he said. A few nights later we checked the place out together. I took some photos, and the next day I interviewed Nelson Gonzales, the owner, cook, manager,handyman and drummer whose life’s work was fostering jazz in the Philippines. (Link).
I became a regular member of the audience, and that post was followed by others on specific performances by the vocal group Baihana (Link) and Jireh Calo, singer and keyboardist who was on her way to Boston and music study at Berklee. (Link) Later I also interviewed singer Nickie Mossman (Link) and pianist/harpist Ryan Villamor. (Link)
The venue is Nelson’s grandparents’ house, the first one built on what is now
Main Avenue Extension back in the days when caribou grazed the neighborhood. For years it had been falling into disrepair. Nelson worried about the roof. It was closed for renovation. A crowd funding campaign account was set up, and assorted musicians hosted fundraisers in other venues. I attended one at Catch 272 hosted by the saxophonist Pete Canzon.
Later, before he sent me the photos, Nelson and I spoke via Facebook Messenger when Nelson was in Manila and I was home in Tagaytay. I’ve added some photos of the old days to memorialize what they were like.
Why don’t we start out by your describing what Tago is and why it’s important.
Tago is a space where freedom and truth is available, freedom to be expressive, creative, being who you are. Because it’s a very accepting environment, it attracts people who keep coming back. It’s a small space that many people call home. All sorts of creative people are drawn to it. Tago is a source of inspiration for me personally. We’ve created a momentum. It’s not just a venue, but it’s also the people. It urges musicians to play better and to do that every single night. We will conduct educational workshops to introduce Jazz to as many people as possible.
People are getting interested in this art form. We now have created a community that encourages individuals and helps them discover their strengths—their musicality, their creativity—and they are getting support from the community. So it’s a happy, small. intimate space.
I have noticed, and other people have noticed quite a few musicians who kind of got a start at Tago and then went on to become quite successful. Can you talk about some of those people?
First they discovered the space, and then they started to hang out, and they got inspired to go home and practiced and came back to Tago and practiced at home again. We were able to create an environment that allows for discoveries, sharing knowledge and information. Because it’s so free, it interests people who might not have known about jazz before. Little by little they learned, practicing by themselves and then with others. For example, Jireh Calo, who is now working on a master’s at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, one of the world’s best schools for jazz. Then there’s Paolo Cortez, there’s Pete Canzon, Chuck Joson, Bergan Nunez, Robert James Torres, Karlo Soriano, Josh Tulagan, Juni Sitaca. They are all successful musicians now. We come to seek, learn, endure, triumph, then evolve.
The house is being renovated because at one point it was not in very good shape. What all had to be done to it?
Well, the whole house had deteriorated so we had to rebuild almost everything. The reconstruction is probably about 65% done. We expect to be done in December of this year.
So the house was essentially gutted?
Oh, everything was taken down. Everything now is new. The old house is no more.
So it was flattened?
Yeah, it was flattened. Even the old wooden foundations had to go because they were old and infested with termites. That’s why it became a bigger challenge, because we had to take out the whole house and rebuild from scratch.
Okay,and it’s about 65% done? Is it going to be roughly the same kind of thing you had before, or is it going to be like a completely new house?
It’s pretty much a new space. We can accommodate more people, and it’s easier to move around. We also have a mezzanine, so people can go up, hang out and watch what’s happening downstairs. They can see the whole space. You can see everything both from there and downstairs. It’s an open space.
Do you have a second floor that you’re using as a living space?
No, we just built a small back room on top of the dirty kitchen here I’m going to live. 99.9% of the space is dedicated to Tago.
How many fundraisers have you had?
I wasn’t among those who organized the fundraisers We had two at Catch 272. Skarlet organized one at Historia. Therewere probably fewer than five events altogether. I would like to thank all the people who went and supported and shared their blessings with Tago.
Who’s doing the work?
I hired some construction guys.
So you’re really the one who’s in charge of putting everything together then.
Yep. I’ve been living in a tent now since we started in April 28, 2019.
In the rain.
How much money do you need still in order to finish this?
Probably about 500K. That would set things going. It’s a lot of money.
Are you planning any more fundraisers?
Actually, it’s awkward for me to ask. As you can imagine, my work is in improving the place and helping to keep the jazz community alive. We’re still in the beginning process of discovery and of putting the Philippines back on the world jazz map. Everyone involved, everyone interested in Jazz has their own part in making the Jazz community grow even further. We have a lot of hard, but good work ahead of us. But I think the time is right. We need a space where people are encouraged to perform and where they receive some recognition in the art form that is jazz. So I’ve got to keep on doing what I am doing, for the betterment of its entirety.
Tago has also partnered with Ayala Museum.
Yeah, we did a couple of shows, and I’m thinking of doing some more. We are partnering with various organizations so we can introduce jazz to more people and encourage people into this art form and discipline.
Video for Help Build Tago Jazz (Link)
Nelson says: We have moved our fundraising campaign to GoGetFunding because GoFundMe no longer supports Filipino-based campaigns. We want to thank all of you who continue to believe in us. All your donations to the fundraising campaign will be used for rebuilding Tago.
Or people can just donate straight into my bank account because the fundraising site takes a big chunk out of the proceeds. BDO SAVINGS SAVINGS ACCT NELSON C. GONZALES 0023 3010 3286