John recalling how his band used to practice in dinky bars along Libertad
“What if my string breaks? What if they don’t like my songs? What if it’s not my crowd?”—these are the whispering doubts of violin maestro John Lesaca in his most vulnerable moment: the nerve-racking seconds before a performance.
John Lesaca’s distinct style has cut through time, genres and culture while inspiring a generation of musicians along the way. Audiophiles revere his modern renditions of classics like Ipagpatawad Mo and casual listeners fell in love watching him collaborate with jazz legend Noel Pointer. At the age of 61, the father of electronic violin in the Philippines takes a look back at his career: an exuberant journey that blew by in an instant.
At the age of 5, John enrolled at the UP Conservatory of Music and began playing the violin. But his thirst and talent never ended at school. “By high school, since I was already good at guitar, I would join rock bands in my spare time…” He recalls with a smile. “I would join bands in the evenings and in the daytime I was playing classical stuff. So you might say that I had a schizophrenic career [laughs].”
Yet despite John’s growing exposure to music—and tastes of playing in the CCP Philharmonic, the Philippine Philharmonic, the Metro Manila Symphony Foundation in college—something was missing. “I got bored.” he admits. “You’re just reading the same notes over and over again…Where’s the challenge in that?”
John’s thirst for something more led him down a different road. “I thought… Maybe if I tried playing a violin, amplifying it, and playing with a band—keyboards, drums, bass, guitar—but back then… all I had was my classical violin. So I improvised. I made a small pick up that I put inside the violin and I plugged it into a small amplifier and it sounded good enough. That started [the electric violin].”
“It took me about 5 years to have people accept that concept. It was very new at that time: A violin player—usually associated with classical music—playing with a pop band, pop musicians. Aside from that, there was another challenge. My classical colleagues thought I was a traitor. Why? I deserted them.” For the rest of his career, John would continue to oppose tradition and embrace the duality of his musical style. But his most important contribution to music can’t be found in his collection of hits. His true legacy is redefining the music industry.
John has made it his mission to change how musicians view the industry and how the industry values its artists: “Most of the time, the cliche of the starving artist is true. I would like to say that I helped raise the standards here as far as musicians are concerned and how they’re enjoying higher pay. The professional music industry is really part of the challenge. You’re up against tradition. People know how to invest in stocks but musicians don’t even have a checkbook.”
To address this problem, John stresses the importance of having a professional financial institution. He found one with Security Bank. “The thing that sets Security Bank apart is their professionalism. They instinctively know and understand what you’re trying to tell them. Sometimes kasi medyo hazy yung explanation mo, pero sila huli na agad.” He muses. “And everything is done in a matter of minutes! Every one of them know what they’re doing, which is very rare these days [laughs].”
He also raves about the bank’s more personalized service: “And they make you feel special. Even the guard outside goes ‘Hi sir! Kumusta na? Good morning ho!’”
Well I’m known here in the Philippines and abroad for mainly being a performer—a musician—because I play electric violin and people say that I pioneered in that.
Aside from music, I’m also into the environment as chairman of the Haribon foundation. I also head many advocacy groups like the Intellectual Property Coalition, Performers Rights Society of the Philippines and I founded the Musician’s Foundation (Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino or AMP) together with former first lady Ming Ramos.
I got recognized for playing non-classical music. But I would do classical music and rearrange it because what I also wanted to do was have people accept the violin, classical music and classical instruments.
My dream was to become an engineer like my father but when I was doing my homework and doing Calculus, I was writing down notes at the same time. So it came to a crossroads… I decided to have a musical career.
After my 3rd year at UP, I decided to transfer to the College of Music where I majored in composition, arranging and conducting. I took up Industrial Engineering. Sayang! My dad was also excited about that but I told him after 3 years that I was not happy.
Well he told me ‘That’s all right son’. He also said, ‘If you want to be a musician, then be the best musician you can be. Anything that you want to be, just try your best and be the best!’. I will always remember this.”
Of course he told me that well “I hope that you’re entering music with open eyes because having a musical career is not really great here in the Philippines. You might make it abroad but here, you know, the cliché of starving artist is always true, more true than not.”
One time, on a trip to Japan, I pestered my father to get me a violin. So he said okay ,and bought me one, saying “You know that money doesn’t grow on trees.” He was just a faculty member in UP so his pay wasn’t that good, but he sacrificed for me … It’s now that I begin to appreciate it.
We got gigs at Calesa bar at the old Hyatt Hotel along Roxas Boulevard. And the place would be packed! We were given 7 nights a week, no rest! It was a small bar but it was for the elite. And the crowd would spill over to the entrance all the way to the other side. Punong puno!
My classical colleagues thought I was a traitor because I left the discipline—the classical discipline. It took me 5 years before people began to accept the violin with a band.
This band that I formed, I wanted to make sure that we were used to all types of audiences so we would know how to deal with them. So as part of our training, I asked our drummer who lived in Manila to book us in a small dinky bar. It’s one of those dinky under-the-bridge types of music bars in Libertad. During those times, Libertad was not safe. It was like, you better watch it! Don’t go out or else someone will stab you, especially at night. And we played at night.
Soon after that, we got good training and good exposure. We got gigs at Calesa bar at the old Hyatt Hotel along Roxas Boulevard. And the place would be packed! We were given 7 nights a week, no rest! It was a small bar but it was for the elite. And the crowd would spill over to the entrance all the way to the other side. Punong puno!
The career went on a high but my band then Manila—it was called Manila—I left the group and I set up another group. We called it Blackbird. We were managed by Choy Cojuangco, younger brother of Tonyboy, so we would hold meetings and rehearsals in the Cojuangco building in Makati.
And so at that time, the front men, including myself, were getting noticed a lot, getting invited and hired to perform separately form the band and so I tried going solo. And ako naman same thing. I was getting noticed by the big celebrity performers at that time. I got my first invitation from Ivy Violan. I did my stuff over there and then all the invitations came in. Pops decided to get me, Martin, and then I had one year stint with Kuh Ledesma which was a very fruitful relationship.
My highlight as a solo performer was that I produced the concert—my concert—with Noel Pointer, the violin guy from New York. We got to be friends and I invited him “Hey why don’t we do something together?” But he just brushed it off…
And then somebody brought him to Manila. At that time I was still jamming with my band Manila at the Calesa Bar. It turned out that Noel Pointer was also booked at the Hyatt Hotel. And you know how musicians are—you always check out the bar where musicians play right. So he did exactly that and we recognized him because word was already around that “Ohhh, Pointers in the building!”
So when I saw him, I told the band members “Oohh, let’s play his stuff”. So we started playing and he was so happy and impressed, he went to his room, got his electric violin, and performed with us. The whole place went wild, it was a party!”
After that, Noel agreed, saying “C’mon John, let’s do the show!”. We HAVE to do the show!” So yeah I finally got things together. I invited him and then he graciously agreed to have equal billing. He wanted it one on one, hence the title: One on One: Noel Pointer and John Lesaca. So we had a show and it was a great hit. I think you guys were not born then [laughs].
The hardest part of my career is the ageing process, because of the fingers. Its a reality. Of course you have the financial challenges as well. You really have to learn how to manage your finances”.
Actually, these are just challenges, but I don’t really find it very difficult because I promised myself that if I don’t have fun doing what I do, I’ll stop. I won’t stop [laughs]. I’m still having fun!
The best part is when people go up to me and say “Oh, I like your music! Keep it up!”. But the best compliment will always be from the children. They don’t even have to tell me anything, because I see it in their eyes. And just [widens eyes and drops jaw]. Ganoon lang yun. I know already that I connected. Tapos yung ano kasi diba I let them touch the violin and that’s something different, right? So woah and you see their faces sparkle. Another thing is when you play for charity, for civic projects. You can see the gratitude in their eyes.
Of course you have the financial challenges as well. I couldn’t afford a house like this before. You really have to learn how to manage your finances…
It’s very smooth. The people here at Katipunan, they all know me, I know all of them—I know them all. They’ve been very helpful and they help me manage my funds.
So until now, when I am asked, ‘How is Security Bank?’, I say, “Oh, I’m very happy with Security Bank! Ganoon lang ka simple yun. Then they transfer their other accounts to Security Bank. I refer my friends, family and relatives as well.
And to top it all, my side of the family, we sold a piece of property to the village. So my mom and I invested earlier in Security Bank with UITFs. So I said “I’m a musician, I leave it all up to you.” They’ve given me good, sound advice about banking and investments.
I’ll never tire of helping, pushing for the musicians and performers, actors and actresses as well. There wasn’t a system before. Now we’ve implemented a system. During those days, when you’re called to act, ano yan eh, kahit puyat na puyat ka na di ba? Magang-maga na yung mata mo…Hindi eh, shooting ka eh. Di na pwede ngayon yan. Now I’m also fixing it for actors and actresses.
My final objective – and I hope that I achieve this before I die [laughs] – is that the level of sophistication for music appreciation will be such that we begin to appreciate our own culture. After all the stuff of Beethoven, Back, U2, Bon Jovi, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, whoever – let us now look into ourselves. Let us look into our indigenous music – our folk songs, our kundimans, and our original Pilipino music. Because these are the songs that the outside world doesn’t have, and which they appreciate very much
First, practice makes perfect. But you don;t love what you;re doing, you will be nothing. Second, you must realize that this is a talent and you did not make this talent. It was only lent to you by whoever God you believe in. One day, it will be take back. So you better do something with it. Lastly, no matter who many times people will tell you, “Hey, you’re so good! You’re my idol! Ganyan ganyan”
Don’t let it get to your head, but show them how much you appreciate their compliments. Always remember that there ARE and WILL BE people better than you. Keep your head planted firmly on your shoulders. Stay humble.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photography by Andrea Beldua