Jim Turner, Freddie Aguilar and the Hobbit House in Manila; A One of a Kind Experience (Part 1)

I got an email from an old friend who’d stumbled across this blog, and he reminded me of a memorable Manila pub crawl 1989 that ended up at an extraordinary live music spot called The Hobbit House.  The story of the Hobbit House, its diminutive staff,  its remarkable owner Jim Turner,  and the equally singer/songwriter Freddie Aguilar is worth a read.

Entrance to The Hobbit House, Manila

First – let me say that from about the first day I arrived in Manila in 1986 I had heard about The Hobbit House–a folkhouse owned by a former US Peace Corps volunteer who stayed on, and staffed entirely by dwarfs and midgets, many of whom live in apartments provided by the owner.   I have to confess that my initial reaction was cautious — the idea of a club staffed entirely by dwarfs sounded in some way exploitative, although I wasn’t sure what to think about it.   And so I had been in Manila a few months before I got around to going there.  When I did finally get there, it was at the behest of an embassy colleague who know I was a folk singer/songwriter in my spare time, and he wanted me to hear the great Filipino artist Freddie Aguilar, who was playing there that night–and who had been playing there once a week since he had burst on the music scene in 1978.   I remember being in the car on the way down to Malate and Ed, my Embassy pal,  put in a cassette and asked me to listen to it — Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” (Child).  As soon as the haunting music came on, I was captivated.  Here’s a Youtube clip of that song — give it a listen (or just turn it on and play in the background while you read–it’s the perfect soundtrack for this post.)  Also, the English translation of the song — which express a parent’s unconditional love for a child in a way that is hauntingly Filipino–are after the video.

When you were born into this world
Your mom and dad saw a dream fulfilled
Dream come true
The answer to their prayers

You were to them a special child
Gave ’em joy every time you smiled
Each time you cried
They’re at your side to care

Child, you don’t know
You’ll never know how far they’d go
To give you all their love can give
To see you through and God it’s true
They’d die for you, if they must, to see you here

How many seasons came and went
So many years have now been spent
For time ran fast
And now at last you’re strong

Now what has gotten over you
You seem to hate your parents too
Do speak out your mind
Why do you find them wrong

Child you don’t know
You’ll never know how far they’d go
To give you all their love can give
To see you through and God it’s true
They’d die for you, if they must, to see you near

And now your path has gone astray
Child you ain’t sure what to do or say
You’re so alone
No friends are on your side

And child you now break down in tears
Let them drive away your fears
Where must you go
Their arms stay open wide

Child you don’t know
You’ll never know how far they’d go
To give you all their love can give
To see you through
And God it’s true
They’d die for you, if they must, to see you here

Child you don’t know
You’ll never know how far they’d go
To give you all their love can give
To see you through and God it’s true
They’d die for you, if they must, to see you here

Manila traffic being what it was, I was able to listen to a half dozen of Freddie’s songs before we got there, and I have to say I was blown away — in fact more than that, because for reasons which even today I can’t explain, this Filipino’s music had more in common with the music that I wrote than any American artist ever had. Go figure.  I immediately began thinking about English adaptations of his songs, which were all in Tagalog.

And then we were there.  From the moment we walked into the place, all of my preconsceptions about it vanished.  In fact, the reality of what Jim Turner had done for his staff was to give them dignity, not take it from them.  And were they ever dignified!  From the first staff member who greeted us at the door, through the waiters and busboys and everyone else — they all positively beamed with pride and a sense of ownership of the place and its environment.

Proud staff of the Hobbit House, Manila
Proud staff of the Hobbit House, Manila.

I met Jim Turner, the owner, that first night and we would quickly become friends.  Turner had served his Peace Corps tour in the Philippines in the mid fifties-, and stayed on — establishing the Hobbit House in 1972.  It had become a landmark, and in common with folkhouses pretty much everywhere, it had become a focal point for opposition politics.  And so it had been that during the period between the assassination of Ninoy Aquino on the tarmac on his arrival from exile, through the tumutuous events of the “People Power” revolution of February 1986, the Hobbit House had become a watering hole for all manner of those opposing the Marcos regime — students, educators, former (and future) congressmen and senators, journalists, clergy,  even representatives of the far left.  Everyone was welcome, and Turner had created a unique and welcoming environment.

That night, I got to see and hear Freddie Aguilar play for the first time, and was even more impressed in person than I had been in listening to the cassette.

Freddie Aguilar and the Watawat Band

The guy had heart, and talent.  He played with a back up band until the end of the set — then cleared the stage for Bayan Ko (My Country) —  a traditional song which Freddie had updated and which had become the anthem of the People Power Revolution.  He played it solo on the guitar, and ended it a capella, and brought the house down. Miraculously, he was still singing in the Hobbit House in 2007 and someone captured his performance of Bayan Ko and posted it to YouTube.  Here it is.  It contains the end of one song, and then transitions into Bayan Ko at 1:35.  The audio’s not great but the performance is, and it’s worth watching to the end — because the end of the song is very emotional (I’m sitting here with teary eyes after watching it).

But before you watch it, here are the lyrics — they are as poignant and beautiful as anything I can imagine, and if you know the Philippines, and the frequently sad and tragic history of the country, this song has deep meaning and resonates in a very powerful way.   And by the way — the lyrics in bold are what Freddie is singing at the end when he stops playing guitar and goes a cappella.  And one more “by the way” .. if you listen all the way to the end of the clip, you’ll hear Freddie interacting with the audience and mentioning that he’s been playing in the Hobbit House once a week for 30 years.  It’s a very cool moment.

My beloved country
Filipinas is your name
Pearl of the Orient
Blest with unblemished beauty
But alas! robbed of your longed-for freedom
Always weeping in poverty and pain.

My country, Filipinas
Land of gold and flowers
Love has given her grace and tranquility
And her radiance and loveliness
drew rapacious foreigners
My country, they have imprisoned you
Thrown you into sorrow and despair.

Even birds who freely fly
When caged will struggle to escape
What more of a country endowed with  nobility
Would she not strive to break free?

Filipinas, my cherished land
My home of sorrow and tears
Always I dream to see you truly free.

Wow.  God Bless YouTube and Freddie Aguilar. It’s amazing to be able to “be there” with a few clicks of the keyboard.  I’m going to stop this post herebecause there’s so much more to say about my experience at the Hobbit House and my experiences with Jim Turner and Freddie Aguilar.   That will have to be a Part 2.  For now, I’m going to end Part 1 here and go listen to some more Freddie Aguilar music.

I found one more YouTube video to share.  This is kind of a hokey promo spot someone did for the Hobbit House, but what I like is that you get to really see the staff working.  And it mentions the “famous” servers — Lorna, Aida, Roger and Maria.  All four were there in 1986 and are still there today.  It’s pretty much worth a trip to Manila just to go visit the Hobbit House.  Just go when Freddie’s playing.  You won’t regret it.

And finally — a special thanks to old pal Phil Otts for reminding me about the Hobbit House.  You tweaked a flood of memories, Phil — good ones.  Thanks.

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~ by Michael Sellers on January 16, 2010.

One Response to “Jim Turner, Freddie Aguilar and the Hobbit House in Manila; A One of a Kind Experience (Part 1)”

  1. […] Michael D. Sellers Share and […]

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