Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Eskapo Story

They escaped from the Philippines.

Even the puti bassist barely escaped from his one tour of the Philippines.

Rupert Estanislao grew up in Quezon City, Project 7. Brothers Loi and Max Fajardo grew up in rural Nueva Vizcaya to the North. All three ended up in Vallejo, California, where thousands of working class Filipinos have settled.

They came together through music, because that’s what Filipinos do.

Rupert and Loi first met on a basketball court, drawn to each other by a Pantera t-shirt. Sent here for “a better life,” Loi had only been in the US for about a month when he and Rupert got arrested for gang-related activities. When they got out of jail, the two then started going to music shows together regularly. Music became their avenue for escaping from gang life.

In 1995, they started jamming in a friend’s garage with Mike Uy and Gil Espanto. Loi and Mike chose the name “Eskapo” after watching the movie by that name. Not only did they like the political reference, but it also had the word “ska” in it, and they were playing ska punk at the time.

Loi and Rupert began dragging Loi’s younger brother Max to shows, where they told him to watch the drummers. He joined the band as the drummer in 1996.

Eskapo's first show outside of the Fajardo living room was in Luke and Shiloh Winders’ backyard. Luke was a guitarist in the band Exit Wounds at that time, but he later joined Eskapo as their bassist in 1998. Later that same year, Rupert met guitarist Bruce Webb at a restaurant in Benicia. Bruce, Rupert and Max all started working together at a concession stand at Marine World.

In 1999, Loi and Max’s father allowed them to build a practice space at their home. They invited Bruce to come play with them once the space was finished, and Bruce immediately brought a faster, crustier edge to the music. The lineup now consisted of Rupert on vocals, Loi and Bruce on guitar, Luke on bass, and Max on drums.

Rupert also began to branch out into spoken word at this point. Once he became known on the Oakland poetry scene, Eskapo got invited to perform during a poetry event. After that show, their friend Golda told them about Pinoisepop, the Filipino American music festival held at Bindlestiff Studios in San Francisco. Pinoisepop introduced them to the Greater Bay Area Filipino American market, and the rest was history.

Eskapo gave Filipinos a voice, and gave us a reason to be proud of being Filipino. They sung/screamed songs in Tagalog. They sung/screamed songs about Philippine culture, history, and politics. They engaged in community organizing around social justice issues. They were all extremely likable people who made all of Filipino culture cool, and in a genuinely conscious way. They were the antithesis of the Bebot embarrassment, emphasizing pride in their culture rather than reinforcing negative stereotypes in an attempt to prove assimilation.

I can remember one night outside an Eskapo show in Oakland when two white kids were battling to try to prove to me which of them knew more Tagalog. One of those kids, Luke’s brother Shiloh, also told me that he had learned a lot about humility and gratefulness from his Filipino friends, and as the son of an immigrant himself, he really connected with the respect for elders modeled to him by them.

Unfortunately, a series of tragedies ended the band’s run. In 2006, Bruce passed away. His grandfather had been a participant in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. His mother, who was from Japan, was in utero when the US dropped atomic bombs on her country. She, like her mother before her, developed cancer when Bruce was 11. He was born with cancer, and wasn’t supposed to have lived as long as he had.

The band split up three ways after Bruce’s death. Rupert joined the band Echo of Bullets, Loi and Max started the band Delubyo, and Luke formed his own band called Wounds. That split lasted for about a year, and then Eskapo got back together. England Hidalgo, a member of Delubyo who had sung as a guest vocalist in Eskapo, replaced Bruce on guitar.

Then came the legendary 2009 tour of the Philippines, when the band crisscrossed Luzon with 17 people (including members of a band named Toxic Orgasm) smashed into a van...on top of equipment. No one had to ride on the roof or cling to the outside, but it was a tight fit that was both eased and exacerbated by a seemingly endless supply of tuba. They played 8 shows in 12 days.

Rupert says that the tour was culture shock for him. He had been gone for 16 years. When he had left his homeland, he had been in a gang, and there was a lot of violence going on. However, in 2009, Eskapo was a well-known band thanks to the internet, and enthusiastic crowds greeted them at every show. All the bands they played with were “really good,” and some were bands that they had been fans of for years.

Loi was also surprised by the warm reception they received wherever they went, and notes that most of the Philippine bands they played with sung in English. He believes that being the American band that sung in Tagalog was a big reason for their popularity.

Luke was another reason for their popularity as well. He wasn’t Filipino, and compared to the others, he was humongous. Just like the others though, he is a really nice guy, so people were easily drawn to him. Unfortunately, Luke returned home with tuberculosis. Oddly, he was the only one who got it, despite the close living/traveling conditions. Even as a non-Filipino, he too is a survivor of life in the Philippines.

A year later, Max was arrested in San Francisco, and is currently still in jail. The band had survived several tragedies already, but this one marked the end for Eskapo. The former bandmates all say something similar when asked about how they want people to think of Max’s story: Don’t be judgmental. “We’re all constantly trying to negotiate morality,” says Luke. All of the former bandmates want Max to be thought of as the well-mannered, loving person that he always has been. He had gotten involved in community organizing, had a girlfriend and was trying to improve his life like Rupert had. He just made a bad decision, and being a poor immigrant, he had no room for error and no safety net.

Proving that Filipinos are resilient, Rupert, Loi, and Luke (along with Shiloh Winders on drums, and Pinoisepop founder Jesse Gonzalez on guitar) came back together in 2011 as the band Bankrupt District, named in honor of their hometown. Vallejo first filed for bankruptcy in 2008.  The original state capital of California, it was the largest city in the state to ever do that. For many of the thousands of Filipino immigrants in Vallejo, it betrayed the lie that Uncle Sam had gifted their homeland with a great system of governance that Filipino leaders had simply failed to implement properly.

In a similar way, the Eskapo story itself betrays the lie that America is the land of milk and honey. Maybe it is a better life, and a place worth escaping to for some, but not for all. For far too many, America is a place where people struggle against tall odds just to survive. Filipinos, in particular, have found all sorts of ways to do just that for more than a century.
Meanwhile, Bankrupt District rocks on. They recently released their debut album, and have been playing shows throughout the Bay Area. In addition to singing/screaming in Bankrupt District, Rupert has also co-founded Aklasan records, which deals exclusively in Philippine and Filipino American hardcore and punk rock music, is working on a documentary film chronicling Filipino Americans in hardcore and punk, and started a new band called Aninoko.