My love story with Music was totally unplanned. I never thought I would turn out to be a Musician.
I was more of a music fan, thanks in part to the good taste of my late father, Resty Lerma, who had a great collection of records and tapes. We would always have music playing growing up with artists such as The Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, America etc. Though he was not a professional singer, he did have a musical singing group back in his Ateneo Days called the “The Loonilarks,” and I would have to credit him for introducing me to Music.
When I was in Grade School and High School, I was really heavy into football and dreamed of playing professionally in Europe or Brazil. I even got to represent the country as part of the Philippine Youth Team that took part in tournaments in Scandinavia, namely the Gothia and Stockholm Cups in Sweden, and The Helsinki Cup in Finland.
My mother, Lourdes Lerma, enrolled me to start guitar lessons one summer at the 3Rs Yamaha School of Music when I was about 12 years old, and it was my first introduction to formal music classes. I guess I was too young to appreciate it then as I was more inclined to spend my summer vacation just fooling around with friends, it must have been my secondary entry point to the world of music.
My enthusiasm for football shifted at that point, as we got engulfed by the electric power of rock and roll.
But plans changed when I transferred to De La Salle Zobel in my first year of high school and met my friend, Nathan Azarcon. My football buddy, Jeong Lee introduced us, and we quickly bonded with our common interest in music. My enthusiasm for football shifted at that point, as we got engulfed by the electric power of rock and roll.
We were music fans and caught the Dawns’ “I Stand With You” concert at the Folk Arts Theater, which paid tribute to their late guitar player, Teddy Diaz, and the 10 of Another Kind Concert Tour. We were blown away! We both wanted to play electric guitar at first, because it looked and sounded cool. But I surprised Nathan when I arrived at his house one day and brought my first electric guitar, a Fernando, which my parents had just bought for me the weekend before. So Nathan ended up playing the Bass (which I realized later on, that along with the drummer were the principal instruments in laying down the groove).
I found myself at a crossroads in my life.
We first started out as D.S.A. with our younger brothers--my brother, Paolo, on vocals, and Nathan's brother, Noel, on drums--and jammed every weekend at my house with songs like, “The Healing” by Dean’s December, “Never The Bright Lights,” by Violent Playground and “Damaged Goods,” by The Gang of Four.
At a party in my house one time, my football teammate, Francis Recto brought his brother, Richard along and jammed with us. We were impressed with his stage presence and vocal range, and soon afterwards, we asked him to join us. So Bazurak was born with Rich on vocals, myself on lead guitar, Nathan on bass, J-John Valencia on rhythm guitar, and Paolo Lerma on drums who was later replaced by Mark Escueta when he had to leave for his studies in the U.S.
We were really into heavy Thrash Metal stuff like Metallica, Megadeth & Slayer, and Funk and Punk Music with The Red Hot Chilli Peppers & The Ramones. Some memorable highlights of this period was when we opened the Battle of the Bands at our High School Gym, and auditioning and getting into the original Club Dredd in Timog! It was a big stepping stone for us 15-year old kids, as all the best groups in Manila came from there and called it home. So thank you, Mr. Patrick Reidenbach, for having us. Though it was a long way from the South, we always had our friends who came out to support us at our gigs, so big props to them. After some time together, Nathan and Mark formed Rivermaya, and went on to rewrite Filipino music history.
It was a real humbling experience for me. For a guy who thought he knew a little something about Music, and then realizing he didn’t have the basic fundamentals to be accepted in the Conservatory was a real slap on the face.
As for me, I went off to College and after spending two good years in Ateneo, I found myself at a crossroads in my life. It was either I finish a course and take a regular job, or pursue my passion for Music. Not sure what to do and where to go, I turned to my parents for advice. They told me that if I really wanted to pursue Music, I should study and get a Degree at the best Music School in the Country--The UP College of Music.
Though initially, my parents had apprehensions for me in choosing a career in Music, they knew that I would excel in a field that they didn’t have to push me to. So they let me do my thing and supported me by getting me a Washburn N2 Electric Guitar, who I named "Woody," and a Japanese Matsuoka Classical Guitar I named, "Melisande" after the princess in the cartoon, "Flight of Dragons" for her sweet tones, which I used for my schooling. I am happy to report that both guitars are still alive and well today. Looking back, I realized that my parents' foresight was the best route for me as I spent my best schooling years there, and prepared me for my professional life ahead.
Playing "Here Comes The Sun" with Melisande, my 25-year old college guitar. A gift from my parents for my studies in U.P.--still sweet-sounding after all this time.
It wasn’t easy though, as I didn’t know how to read nor write Music and play Classical Guitar, which were prerequisites for integration to the Course. It was a real humbling experience for me.
For a guy who thought he knew a little something about Music, and then realizing he didn’t have the basic fundamentals to be accepted in the Conservatory was a real slap on the face. Hell, I didn’t even know how to play with my fingers as I was a metalhead rocker who only used a pick! To top it all off--the only Classical Guitar Music I knew then were the Classical Interludes in Metallica songs. It sure felt like I was going to war armed with only rubber bullets. But I persevered. I took extension classes in Theory and Classical Guitar, and after 3 months of intensive training, I auditioned for the 2nd Semester and got accepted.
So for the next 5 years, all I did was live and breathe Music, practicing at an average of 5 hours a
day, and stopping only for food and cigarette breaks. By studying the greatest hits of the last 500 years via the different periods of Western Classical Music--namely The Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and 20th Century Modern Music--the more I fell in love with her. It was also during this time that I discovered Jazz and did my own research on Musics’ “swingy-er” branch.
So for the next 5 years, all I did was live and breathe Music, practicing at an average of 5 hours a day...
I got inspired with the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and my biggest guitar hero, the trailblazing Jazz Guitar Player, John Mc Laughlin who fused Jazz and Rock Guitar in what was known as the Fusion Period of Jazz in the '70s. His work with The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a sensory overload of colors, textures and tones and remains an inextinguishable well of inspiration for me until this day. I admired him not only for his compositional and technical brilliance, but also for his philosophies in Music. He treated the Art of Music as a form of prayer and thanksgiving to the Source of All Life. It dawned on me that if Classical Music was the learning, then Jazz Music was the unlearning.
Upon graduation from my course at the U.P. College of Music where I majored in Classical Guitar, I went to work with the hope of sharing what I’ve studied, and to hopefully make a good living doing something that I love. I started out by playing guitar for my Afro-Latin Music Professor in U.P., Sir Bo Razon and Puro Ritmo, joining them for their big shows and some dates at their residency at Café Havana in Malate.
After about 2 years with them, I formed my own Latin-Jazz Group called Wahijuara composed of friends from the UP College of Music with a common love for the infectiously syncopated rhythms of Afro-Latin Music. It was hard at first, as you had a lot of musical ideas but not enough gigs or work to sustain the group. At least we did our best and managed to release an independent E.P. of 6 songs - 3 originals and 3 covers in 2004.
It was also during this time that I became a part of Trip M, a DJ - Based Latin House Group with live instruments. It was a fun group composed of DJ Mon Maramba, Guitarist Rick Sanchez and Percussionists Paul Zialcita and Einar Drilon. It was a novel concept at that time as we melded electronic and live instruments with a club vibe. The group was a fixture in the hip Makati Nightlife scene for a time with residencies at Wherelese? at the Hotel Intercon and the legendary bar, Peligro. We released an Independent Album entitled Clockwork in 2006.
In 2003, I got recruited by my UPCMU buddies to join the Radioactive Sago Project, an experimental sonic mélange of Jazz/Funk/Punk and Spoken Word. I gigged, recorded and released 2 albums with them and was an active member for 12 years until the groups’ hiatus in 2015.
It dawned on me that if Classical Music was the learning, then Jazz Music was the unlearning.
I had a great time with the group because aside from putting out uncompromising music, I was also working with my U.P. College buds. Sure, we had our ups and downs--but as a whole, it felt like we were all just hanging out and having a good time. So for most of the first decade of the millenium, I was dividing my time between those three groups. I was playing all the time, (sometimes doing 3 shows a night when all my groups would be booked), earning a living, and happy doing something I love.
In 2006, I got invited by Philippine National Artist for Music, Maestro Ryan Cayabyab (who was also my Theory Professor back in U.P.) to join the faculty of his Music School, a post that I hold to until now. I also had the honor and privilege to record and tour with Maestro Ryan and The RCS (Ryan Cayabyab Singers) for their local and international dates.
In 2010, I got a call from my good brother, Nathan Azarcon, to join his new group, HIJO, after the disbandment of Bamboo. It was a great experience for me to reunite and make music again with my old friend. HIJO, together with Jay-O Orduna, Vic Mercado, Nathan Azarcon, Ira Cruz, released an E.P. under MCA Records in 2011.
Around this time, I met my biggest supporter and harshest critic--my wife, Jaclyn. I met her at a party 8 years ago, and we've been together ever since. I guess I would have to subscribe to the idea that opposites do attract, as she is an Engineer by profession. She was trained to see things in black and white, while I, being an Artist, traverse along the grays. Though our perspectives may be worlds apart at times, I'd like to believe that we balance each other out. We got married in 2014, and will be celebrating our 6th anniversary on Sunday, June 7th.
She was trained to see things in black and white, while I, being an Artist, traverse along the grays.
From 2015 onwards, I also got tapped to do some Theater and Stage Work as an Orchestra Musician in these productions: Manhid CCP (2015), Jersey Boys (2016), Aurelio Sedisyoso, CCP (2017), Binondo (2018 & 2019), Tales of The Manuvu, Ballet Philippines, CCP (2019). It was a good experience for me, as I learned a new musical discipline that required full concentration and perfect timing to be in sync with all the performing groups in the production--the actors, dancers, orchestra musicians and directors.
In 2017, I established Four Corners MNL composed of schoolmates from the UPCMU I’ve worked with for years--Francis De Veyra on Bass, Jess Villaflores on Saxophone, and old friends from the scene--drummer, Reli De Vera, and keyboardist, Niki Cabardo from the popular neo-soul Group, Sinosikat? We just released our first single, “Scorpio” on Spotify last March 20, 2020..
Back in 2014, I got invited by Dean Aji Manalo to become a faculty member of the Music Production Department of the De La Salle College of St. Benilde, a post that I still keep to this day. The school has given me a wonderful opportunity to give back and train the next generation of musicians by equipping them with the knowledge that is required from a professional upon graduation.
Teaching Music has also made me grow as a musician. Aside from the fulfillment in seeing your students bloom, it has also made me appreciate even more the process of mentoring and sharing. I realized that genuine human interaction is a vital ingredient in making music fun and successful, and has opened me to learning new techniques and technology to keep me connected and relevant to the changes in the musical landscape.
Music has brought a lot of wonderful experiences in my life. It has given me the opportunity to
travel, meet a lot of people, and make lifelong friends. It has taken care of me and given me a purpose in life. I will forever be its humble student.
Story of Junji Lerma
Main photo by: Nigel Laxamana