This Latin jazz rock fusion piece is not only entertaining, but a fascinating look into the Filipino-American community in 1970s America
Few artists can truly be labelled ahead of their time. Hannah Gadsby famously riffs on this on her outstanding stand-up special Nanette, in which there is a part where she is dissecting the phrase with regard to Vincent Van Gogh, as part of a wider piece looking at the romanticisation of mental illness when it comes to artists. Often labelled ‘ahead of his time’ because he was completely unappreciated during his lifetime, Gadsby counters that he was also a post-impressionist painter painting at the peak of post-impressionism, but as a man with severe mental illness, he was unable to network, unable to make and maintain the contacts with clients and benefactors that might have made him a living, making him, sadly, also a product of his time. This dichotomy is a fascinating one in my view, because some people can seem to be these visionary geniuses (and in the case of Van Gogh, he certainly was) and as such get that somewhat lazy label applied to them. David Bowie is usually in this category, and yes, he certainly was an excellent musician and songwriter, with peripatetic interests and tastes, but again he was usually responding to changing zeitgeists rather than forging them. This is not intended as a criticism, as many of the greatest bands, artists, writers, and filmmakers all were firmly reactive to the times in which they lived, and some of the joy of great art is seeing how times so different to our own still contain emotional truths and relevance to this day.
“The album is good, yes, but plenty of good albums, even great albums get routinely ignored... what is different here is that by Dakila asserting their identity, they connected with people, they hit that vein of artistic truth, and it eventually found its audience, albeit many years after the band had eventually disbanded.”
The Filipino-American Latin jazz fusion band Dakila have also been labelled as ‘ahead of their time’. Taking their name from the Filipino word meaning greatness or nobility, they released their only album, a self-titled debut, in 1972, and its fascinating mix of Latin jazz with rock and Filipino flair barely made an impact commercially, but it became a cult hit in the San Francisco area. Their style was similar to that of Santana, the pioneering Latin rock band formed by Mexican-American guitar legend Carlos Santana, who themselves were reacting to the times in which they lived, as rock music had begun to gain popularity in Mexico and across Latin America in the 1960s. It is hard not to listen to the opening track Makibaka/Ikalat and not hear something of Santana’s 1970 hit Black Magic Woman. The rich Latin rhythms mix in with the electric guitars and Hammond organs to create a deeply evocative sound that does sit alongside the best Latin jazz rock. Yet there is one aspect to Dakila where they were rather unique. They released their Latin jazz rock album with lyrics sung in Tagalog, a bold choice for the 1970s. While the album did not achieve the success its band members would have desired at the time, its cult status has ensured it has lived on longer than many more successful albums of that year. Their insistence on singing in Tagalog for portions of the album was one that probably doomed them to unjust obscurity as a well-developed world music and fusion scene did not exist then. Founding band member David Bustamente recalled in an interview with UndiscoveredSF that American society in the 1970s was still profoundly hostile to Filipinos stating that “you had to assimilate yourself, because a lot of people didn’t know what Filipinos were”, and that he wanted their music to go against the grain, to represent Filipino-American culture in an authentic way.
The album itself is nonetheless of very high quality, with plenty of arresting tunes within it. Persiguiendo is perhaps my favourite, a furiously fast-paced instrumental track that races along with fluent guitars and keyboards. This contrasts nicely with the following track, Make Me A Man, which has a softer, pop rock feeling, and then we’re back in the Latin rock arena with a song like Gozala, which brings up the pace and feels more in keeping with the rest of the album. Overall, you’re in for an extremely fun 43 minutes, with not one moment being less than good. You can easily imagine being in a smoky jazz club listening to this, the music is so redolent of that 70s Latin fusion that it almost sounds like the soundtrack to a San Francisco-based detective film that doesn’t exist. The Filipino aspect is not as keenly felt in the music itself, which Bustamente recalls as being pressure from the label, as he stated “no recording company wanted a Filipino band, even worse, no-one wanted a band that spoke a foreign language”. That they did not give in to record company demands, which ultimately led to the demise of the band, is a commitment to artistic integrity that is admirable.
Nevertheless, that commitment also played a big role in cementing their cult status, with the distinct Filipino flavour to the music making it a sought-after record that would be bootlegged for years after its original print ran out. The album is good, yes, but plenty of good albums, even great albums get routinely ignored by both critics and the masses. What is different here is that by Dakila asserting their identity, they connected with people, they hit that vein of artistic truth, and it eventually found its audience, albeit many years after the band had eventually disbanded. Whether that makes them ahead of their time, I don’t know, but I do see why that label is bandied about around them. What is undoubtable, however, is it is that innovative spirit and desire to authentically represent their community that marked them out for enduring, if unusual, success.