By Perry Gil S. Mallari
Lito Camo’s colorful life could very well be a perfect inspiration for a heart-tugging ballad. But the famous composer prefers to inject lightness and laughter to his songs.
His climb to success can either be a point of envy or an inspiration for many, depending on how they perceive his rags-to-riches story. Armed only with a guitar and a brilliant mind, Camo went through hell before he reached heaven’s glory. I was fortunate to be welcomed to his sanctuary, tucked in a quiet Quezon City village, but filled with such warmth and positive energy.
Luxury cars cramped his garage so he decided to buy the adjacent lot. In one of the cozy rooms, his children are taking turns singing their hearts out on a videoke mic hooked to a huge plasma TV.
Camo, who is the country’s reigning king of novelty songs, is responsible for such hits as “Boom Tarat,” “Spageti” and “Otso-Otso” is basking in opulence. But Camo is no overnight success. His climb to the top is a wonderful story of hope and hard work, timing and tenacity.
A hard life
Camo was born and raised in the town of Bungabon in Oriental Mindoro. His grandparents were relatively well off and were engaged in furniture business. When his grandparents died, their properties were sold and the money was divided among their children. Camo’s parents got their share but unfortunately, they failed to make the money grow. “Ang mga magulang ko hindi sinuwerte [My parents ran out of luck],” Camo recalls, staring at a seemingly blank space. “Kaya mula noon puro hirap na ang pinagdaanan namin [That’s why since then, we experienced the hard life].”
Despite tremendous hardships, Camo commended his parents for their diligence and unwavering spirit in supporting their family. “Ang nanay ko noon gumagawa ng mga bag at alpombra ng kabaong, samantalang ang tatay ko naman sapatero [My mother used to make bags and casket cushions while my father is a cobbler].
The eldest of four children, Camo discovered early that he had the gift of music, something he exploited to the hilt by joining singing contests left and right. Camo often won prize money from these competitions, which he gave in full to the family. After high school, Camo’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to college so he packed his bags and came to Manila to try his luck.
In Manila, Camo initially lived with relatives who admonished him to study vocational courses at night and to work during the day. He heeded their advice and took up a vocational course to be a diesel mechanic. “Ang layo nga sa propesyon ko ngayon [The course is remotely connected to my present career],” he remarks.
Wanting to be independent, Camo tried doing odd jobs. He first found employment as a houseboy and later on as a family driver. He had a friend who worked as a family driver. When this friend was about to get married, he asked Camo if he could take his place while he is on honeymoon. That friend never came back and Camo became the official family driver for his boss who owned a placement agency that sent performers abroad.
It was through his boss’s network of friends that he met a certain Eddie Boy who happened to be a sessionist musician for Boom Dayupay who was then actively involved with the R&B band Kulay. Eddie Boy heard Camo sing and asked what is the title of the piece. When he learned that it’s Camo’s original composition, Eddie Boy was impressed and offered to introduce him to Dayupay, who was looking for fresh talents at that time. Camo had serious doubts about himself then and almost hesitated. “Mahina pa ang paniniwala ko noon sa sarili ko kasi iniisip ko taga-probinsya lang ako [I have little faith in myself then because I thought that I was merely a provincial lad].”
The right connections
Camo remembers the thrill he felt when he met Dayupay and the other members of Kulay. It was also the first time for him to set foot in a recording studio. Dayupay liked Camo’s repertoire and promised that he would help him get a break in the music industry. Just three days after his demo, Dayupay called informing that a number of recording studios were interested in his songs.
Camo’s first single “Kung Ikaw ay Nalulumbay” was released by BMG Filipinas (now Sony-BMG) in 1997. “Doon nagsimula si Lito Camo— sa kantang ’yun [What I am today started with that song],” he shares, emphasizing that the piece was instrumental in catapulting him to popularity. The majority of the materials in that first album came from the 70-plus songs he has filed in his small library of original compositions since high school. Though he began singing as young boy, it was only during his teens that Camo began composing songs through impromptu jam sessions with his buddies.
Camo’s initial success was greeted by an overwhelming unbelief. When Camo told his mother that he had already signed a recording contract, she flatly replied, “Totoy, tigilan mo na ’yan at baka dyan ka lang mapahamak [Son, get out of that game before it brings you nowhere].” Even when sent his buddies copies of his CD, they still refused to believe that he already was a recording artist. The only time they were convinced was when they saw him appear on TV. There were a number of ups and downs in Camo’s career since that big break but through perseverance and hard work, he has always managed to bounce back. Camo also admitted that he fared off better in the industry as a composer than as a singer.
Influences and inspirations
Among local songwriters and musicians, Camo expressed high regards for former Eraserhead frontman Ely Buendia. “Hinangaan ko ’yung pagleletra niya at ’yung mga melodies n’ya [ I really admire the way he create lyrics and melodies],” he explains. The Beatles and the legendary rock ’n’ roll icon Juan de la Cruz band also top Camo’s list of ear candies. “Pero mahilig din ako sa mga lumang kanta [But I also like old songs],” he adds with a tone of nostalgia.
Except for a little privacy, Camo needs no special place or gadget to compose a song. He will always prefer solitude given a choice but now that he is already a family man, he could prod himself to churn out a song even while the kids are playing around him or while he is driving. There are times when Camo can finish composing a song in less than 30 minutes though he admits that there were pieces that dragged up to a month to finish.
One thing he can’t stand though is rude interruptions that break his train of thoughts. If situations permit, he likes to work in the attic of his home where there’s absolute peace and quiet. I was witnessed to the numerous awards that lined the walls in this attic that prove that Camo has gone a long way from that Mindoro nobody to who he is now.
The ‘Boom Tarat’ controversy
Camo has become the subject of intrigues lately for allegedly selling the rights of his popular composition “Boom Tarat” to senatorial candidate Miguel Zubiri for a hefty P3 million. The singer-composer has repeatedly denied the allegation adding that those proliferating this rumor know very little of the depth of his relationship to the man running for a senate seat.
The composer discloses that he owes the young politician a lot since it was through Zubiri’s help that he bagged the lucrative commission of composing the political jingle of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a number of prominent politicians in the elections of 2004. Camo also adds that he will never forget Zubiri’s generosity when the then-Bukidnon congressman shouldered the expenses for his mother-in-law’s costly heart operation. He reluctantly admits though that a number of big-time politicians offered him huge sums for the right to transform “Boom Tarat” to be their campaign jingles but he opted to give it to Zubiri for free. “Sa totoo lang, ako pa ang nag-alok ng “Boom Tarat” kay Migz. [The truth is I am the one who offered the “Boom Tarat” song for Migz. Hindi naman lahat ng pagkakataon, pera lang ang mahalaga [In life, it’s not all about money],” he intones.
Drawing the line
High-brow artists and other purveyors of culture blame Camo’s songs and TV shows such as Wowowee for promoting parochial mentality among Filipinos. They alleged that the infamous Ultra stampede tragedy and little girls whose main wish in life is to become the next Sex Bomb dancer were a few effects of relentlessly feeding the masses’s consciousness with such asinine stuff. “Bakit hindi na lang nila ako pabayaan [Why don’t they just let me be,]” is Camo’s indignant reply to the denigration.
A line must be drawn, he says, between those who write novelty songs and those who compose serious pieces. As far as Camo is concerned, his sole mission is to entertain, period. The value of novelty songs should never be underestimated since “the humor found in these hit songs could have aborted a suicide attempt by some dispirited person somewhere, for all we know,” he rationalizes.
Though Camo believes that the success he’s enjoying now is an amalgam of many different elements, he stresses that perseverance and determination are paramount. These two things are what keep him going during down times. Each new height he has scaled, Camo makes it a point to stop, be thankful and look back where he came from. “Ayaw ko nang danasin ng mga anak ko ang pinagdaanan ko [I don’t want my children to experience the hardships I’ve been through],” he intones. “Sa industriyang ito ’wag kang tatamarin. Kapag tinamad ka, makakalimutan ka ng tao dahil maraming bagong dumarating [You can’t afford to be sluggish in this industry otherwise the people will forget you easily because there’s so many new talents around],” he warns.
After 10 years in the business, there’s no sign of stopping for Camo. At least for now. “Hanggang gusto ng tao ’yung mga ginagawa ko, dire-diretso akong lilikha ng awitin [As long as the public likes what I’m doing, I will continue writing songs],” he says with a quiet resolve.
With a huge dose of unforgettable lyrics and timeless melodies, it looks like Lito Camo is bound to be around for a long while, and more and more Filipinos will continue to take his songs by heart.