14 October 2013

Gitarista (Reev Robledo)

Gitarista by Reev Robledo (2013)

Set in 1975 Manila, when the city was under the iron rule of a dictator and curfew was the order of the day night, Gitarista tells the story of freshman music student and guitar virtuoso Alejandro Sebastian who was bent on perfecting his craft. While activists and protesters took to the streets and demanded basic freedom Alejandro was reading music sheets for his exacting maestro and rehearsing for the prestigious contest that will pit him against the most promising guitarists in the land.

There's nothing political in Reev Robledo's novel Gitarista, except maybe the politics of the heart and family ties. As if to echo the political turmoil brewing in the halls of the state university, Alejandro was undergoing an emotional crisis. His absentee father, whom his single mother will not let him know, was foremost on his mind. To add to the unresolved feelings between him and his mother and to the stress of preparations for the approaching competition, Alejandro fell in love with Dani, a plucky violinist. Could their relationship go beyond friendship and musical collaboration?

The greatest achievement of Gitarista for me is its cinematic evocation of the music scene of the era. Even for some of us who were not yet born in those tumultuous times, but who kept hearing those songs in our childhood, a feeling of nostalgia was inevitable. The narrative was even spruced up by cameo appearances of such benchmark musicians as Ryan Cayabyab and Hotdog band vocal Rene Garcia. The depiction of the artistic and cultural scene and the architecture of Manila in imeldific times was so assured one felt being transported there in spacetime.

Robledo is a talented songwriter and musical score composer, and it was not surprising to find in this book – his "love letter to Manila" and to the art and music of Spanish conquistadors – a singular playlist of classical pieces, Philippine folk songs, and signature songs of the times (70s). Alongside Isaac Albéniz's flamenco music Asturias (Leyenda) and Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring were heard Earth, Wind & Fire's September.

Music is the DNA of this novel. It boldly recreated a musical era while composing its own musical score through its acoustic effects and ear for musical prose.

The Toyota revved up its engine. The kalesa's horse snorted. The jeepney regurgitated diesel. Japan, Spain and America's quest for Philippine road supremacy was underway.


El Diablo [the jeepney] accelerated. The kalesa maintained its speed. The Toyota honked its horns. Steven Tyler screamed.


Once the dough was firm and elastic, he [the noodle maker] pulled it across his chest like an accordion then held up one end with one hand then let his other hand slice it into thin strips of noodles between his fingers.


The top string of his guitar snapped and sliced the skin of the back of his hand. He watched a stream of blood trace the lines on his palm and smear the frets.

The spotlight bounced off the guitar's maple board; reflections scattered around the theater, briefly illuminating men and women with faces aghast....

Strumming at an ungodly speed, he ignored his wounds and improvised with the remaining strings.

The writing often reminded me of the rapt prose of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music. Even the patches of purple prose and blues may be justified in this case by coming-of-age concerns. To be young, to be innocent, to be in love. To be alive in the days when youth was pursued by experience and experience was the reward of shedding innocence. "It was every musician's desire to translate their art into something interpretable. Something the heart can digest", a character intoned in the book. Here the musician interpreted his art with verve, heart, and tenderness. It is a sentimental education and an ode to a city, to family, and to musical memory. An altogether brave performance.

Thanks to K.D. for a copy of the book.


  1. This sounds like a great read, love the evocation of place through its music

  2. It's a well-researched book, Gary. I'd like to see this soon as a movie.