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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Filipino group VST & Co to relive golden days of disco in Abu Dhabi

Taking centre stage at the event – which is part gig, part live karaoke – will be Spanky Rigor and Roger Rigor, two brothers remembered as founding members of one of the era’s biggest bands, VST & Co.
The Union, from left to right, Jo-Ann Visitacion, Fulton Montoya, Jessica Casas, Nino de Jesus, Eva Caparas, and Jet Montelibano. Photo by Jasmine Safaeian
The Union, from left to right, Jo-Ann Visitacion, Fulton Montoya, Jessica Casas, Nino de Jesus, Eva Caparas, and Jet Montelibano. Photo by Jasmine Safaeian

Like much of the world, the Philippines fell under the spell of that most quixotic of musical beasts in the mid-1970s – disco. But for the young island nation, the craze was more than the idle imitation of a passing fad – instead, it inspired a new generation of original musicians to author their own distinctively regional groove.

It was a deeply liberating moment, propelling the historic birth of an embryonic original music scene, later dubbed the Manila Sound – and, as many scene veterans will attest today, it was fun.

“This sound just became so big because all of a sudden we found we could have our own identity,” says Jet Montelibano, formerly of 1970s sensation, Music & Magic. “I miss those days. Like the rest of the country, I found my identity then – who I was, and what I wanted.”

Montelibano, 60, is one of a raft of veteran musicians who will unite this weekend to relive those heady dance-floor days at New York University Abu Dhabi with Disco Manila – a themed revue that will be performed live under the stars at The Arts Center on Thursday (October 6) and Friday (October 7).

Taking centre stage at the event – which is part gig, part live karaoke – will be Spanky Rigor and Roger Rigor, two brothers remembered as founding members of one of the era’s biggest bands, VST & Co.

Inspired by the lush, ear-pleasing arrangements of the Bee Gees, VST combined the might of seven vocalists and a five-piece backing band.

The group broke out in the late-1970s, following contemporaries Hotdog in pioneering the fresh wave of home-grown music that paved the way for the thriving OPM (Original Pinoy Music) scene that thrives until this day.

“Back then, original Filipino pop culture was like a little brother of American pop culture,” says singer Roger, reflecting on the genesis of the band. “Suddenly disco blasted into the scene with this different sound and we said: ‘Why can’t we have our own Filipino disco?’ We tried to aim at the moon – and it went even further than that.”

Achieving widespread fame in a few short years, VST were embraced on the streets and by the establishment alike.

In 1979, they became the first pop band to play alongside the 60-piece Manila Symphony Orchestra.

At their peak, the band were invited into the palace to play for the royal family and visiting American dignitaries.

“At that time in Manila, the scene was rocking. Everywhere, it was disco – and we played every single place which had a dancefloor,” says Roger. “It was like a party that never ended.”

In Abu Dhabi, the Rigor brothers will be joined onstage by five veterans of the era’s renowned “show bands”. These touring spectacles mixed music with theatre, and were popular across Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Something Special’s Jessica Casas, Nino de Jesus of New Minstrels, Jo-ann Visitacion, Fulton Montoya and Montelibano (who is also the show’s creative and technical director) will team up as The Union.

“These are bands used to be rivals – and we’ve put them together into one big happy show band,” says Edith Montelibano, executive director of Disco Manila organisers Creative Concepts International.

Tonight’s opening-evening show will relive many of the era’s biggest hits, repeating a format that debuted in August with a free, open-air concert for about 2,000 fans in Los Angeles.

However, tomorrow’s late-afternoon event will add a unique twist for Abu Dhabi, in the form of a live karaoke, with audience members invited onto the stage to sing, with live backing by the era’s legends.

However, VST & Co fans in the audience hoping for a reunion are likely to be left wanting.

Apart from a one-off, lip-synched TV appearance in 2003, the 13-piece have not performed live together since the late 1980s.

Singer Vic Sotto has gone on to become a solo household name, while his brother Tito – the eponymous V and T alongside Spanky’s S – is now a senator.

But despite settling down in the United States three decades ago, Roger believes reliving their vintage material onstage with brother Spanky in Abu Dhabi might help to finally trigger a proper homecoming reunion concert.

“It’s great to do these shows because it does give us the hope that the whole band can do a reunion,” he says.

“That’s the big push – if we can have one more chance. I’m part of the group that’s trying to say: ‘Can we make some time, before time catches up on us?’”

• Disco Manila in concert starts on Thursday, October 6, at 8pm; Disco Manila live-band karaoke is tomorrow at 4pm (singers should register at 3pm). Both shows are at NYUAD’s East Plaza. Free audience tickets from www.nyuad-artscenter.org.

rgarratt@thenational.ae