"The blues is grounded in the basic human condition. There will also be people with whom such music will resonate. Not everyone goes to music to escape reality. Some turn to music as an expression of reality."
Thomas Colvin: The Ambassador Of Blues
Thomas “Tomcat” Colvin is the founder and editor-in-chief of BLUES ASIA NETWORK. He is an American expat, residing in Manila since 1986. He has been very active in the Philippine blues scene for two decades. He brings to the network his skills as a communications expert. He was born in 1939 in Winston-Salem, in the Piedmont foothills of North Carolina, USA. Orignally an active jazz drummer from age 15 until 30, Tomcat discovered the blues harmonica while listening to his car radio in the fall of 1969. He immediately changed his route and drove to a music store, where he bought his first harmonica and the only instructional book available. Within a month, he sold his drum set and has never looked back. His musical sensibilities remain influenced by the jazz tradition. He studied jazz improvisation privately with John Mehegan, who was teaching at the time at Julliard. He also attended a summer workshop in big-band arranging led by Neil Slater — and for the workshop’s final concert; he wrote a blues chart called “Don’t Stop Now.”
Despite his devotion to music as his primary passion, his professional career, originally as a teacher and later as a public relations professional for non-profit organizations, took precedence. One job assignment took him in 1972 to Washington, DC, where he found himself playing bass guitar with a jazz trio playing blues-drenched arrangements in the mold of Les McCann. In 1986, Tomcat realized a life-long ambition: to move permanently to Asia. He worked for almost 12 years at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, looking after relations with electronic media and overseeing the Bank’s audio-visual production unit. In 1991, Tomcat met Filipino blues singer Binky Lampano. Together they formed the Newly Industrialized Combo, specializing in ‘industrial-strength blues.” NIC, as it was commonly called, was the first Manila blues band since a blues revolution in the 1970′s. Quickly, NIC was featured on the front page of the Philippine Inquirer Sunday Magazine, an article which led to a new blues renaissance in the Philippines.
After a hiatus of several years, Binky and Tomcat joined together once again to form a new band, LAMPANO ALLEY, with sidemen Edwin Vergara on guitar, Simon Tan on bass and Jojo Lim on drums. Tom shocked everyone who knew him by taking “early retirement” from ADB to join the band full-time. In 2001, Binky Lampano returned to Los Angeles to look after his ailing father, and LAMPANO ALLEY has only performed in special tours since them. The group finally issued its CD, Songs from the Alley, in 2004. The band received a follow up invitation for the 2008 edition of the Mosaic Music Festival. In 2004, Colvin formed the project band Tomcat & The Dawgs to record several of his original recordings. Nowadays, Tomcat performs as guest artist with several artists in Manila. In July 2010, Tomcat launched the Blues Asia Network, turning to the many music contacts he has made across Asia over the years for input and support.
How important was and what has been the relationship between music and photography in your life?
What an interesting question. No one has ever asked that before, though I allude to it on my personal website [which is very out-of-date].
In photography, I try to compose pictures that eliminate distractions, with simple, strong composition. To me, that’s rather like the blues, a basic underlying structure without lots of frills and decorations. Also, I see “MOTION” has being at the heart of life, music and photography. Motion is the most basic expression of life force. And art, be it music or photography, captures motion as an organized expression, where it becomes a “rhythm,” or organized motion/sound. So inside my photos, I try to capture motion/rhythm. Even “stillness” and “silence” are expressions of motion/rhythm.
How started the thought of Blues Asia Network? How difficult is it to be a blues band outside the USA?
First came the band LAMPANO ALLEY, a now-legendary band in the Philippines that was active 1996-2001. The band was instrumental in building a major blues renaissance in the Philippines during the period 1996-2003. The leader Binky Lampano moved to the US in late 2001 for family reasons, though we have had two important reunion tours.
I myself am an American expat who came to the Philippines in 1986. I retired early from my job as an Information Officer at the Asian Development Bank in order to devote full-time to LAMPANO ALLEY. Due to my professional background, it was easy for me to formulate the strategy of promoting blues throughout the region, so I created Blues Asia in 1998. When Lampano Alley disbanded, I soon after dropped my first effort at Blues Asia, after building it for 3 years.
In 2010, with almost no blues scene left at all in the country, I decided to plant a new seed, and I brought together some of the former blues activitists to form the Philippine Blues Society. Our main objective was to send a band to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, in February 2011. Simultaneously, a new blues-oriented bar, Roadhouse Manila Bay, was opened by a visionary expat from Ireland, featuring live blues 7 nights a week. Suddenly inactive blues bands had new opportunities, and within months, Manila once again had a major blues scene, with numerous bands and more venues jumping on the band wagon. PBS has now sent 3 bands to IBC, with last year’s entry, Brat Pack, becoming the first band from Asia to make it into the Finals, along with 8 other bands [out of 130 bands contending].
Because blues is a small niche market in the Philippines, I believe that bands must seek success outside of the country, which will then alert the local music public that blues can be important. That belief is what lead to my second Blues Asia Network, which was formed also in 2010, simultaneously with the Philippine Blues Society.
How do you describe and what characterize Blues Asia Network’s mission and philosophy?
Our initial mission was to identify musicians, bands, venues and festivals active all over Asia, from Korea and Japan down through China, Southeast Asia and into India and Nepal. We found a lot going on locally in most countries, but virtually no one knew what was happening in neighboring countries. Over the next 3 ½ years, Blues Asia Network operated as a Facebook Page and a simple blog, gathering and passing on news about blues in the region and building/promoting regional ties among all of us.
In May 2014, with contacts established and reliable sources of information in place, Blues Asia Network dramatically broadened its mission. We are now targeting international media and event organizers with our campaign: Blues from THE OTHER HALF of the world. I firmly believe that blues from Asia deserves a place on the world stage. No major international blues festival should be without at least one representative from Asia.
With that objective, our website is now steadily building a roster of TOP PERFORMANCES, featuring well-produced videos of top Asian blues bands, along with BAND PROFILES, which provides detailed information about bands serious enough to answer a long questionnaire and who are active with at least several gigs a month and who have on-line presence [Facebook, Reverbnation, SoundCloud, YouTube, etc] to demonstrate their seriousness about their music. These bands can range from “hobby bands” that are still serious about their music, to bands that identify themselves as full-time professional bands with international aspirations. We also feature BLUES ASIA RADIO: All Blues, All Asian, All The Time, an internet station that features rotating playlists that serve as an “audition room” for anyone wanting to learn more about blues across the region. You can read more about our mission at our website: bluesasianetwork.com
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
Personally, the blues keeps me grounded, keeps me in touch with aspects of life that matter. For me, the “message” of the blues is at the heart of it all, expressing the deep shared humanity of people across the world. I also, on our website, write about “world blues,” traditional roots music that all spring pretty much from the same deep source and, surprisingly, share a lot of the same basic musical elements of simple scales and improvisation, often with flatted notes giving it all a “bluesy” sound. I try at least once a month to do a feature article about some aspect of “world blues,” including a post about “Greek Blues.”
Are there any memories from gigs, jams and your travels which you’d like to share with us?
Gosh, too many!
I guess at the top of the list must be the performance by Lampano Alley at the 1st Mosaic Music Festival in Singapore in 2005. We set the room on fire!
But I also cannot forget my first trip to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2011. I took with me the Philippines’ first participant, the Bleu Rascals. This band was led by then 18-year-old Paul Marney Leobrera, and the Philippine Blues Society entered the band in the non-competitive Youth Showcase. This teenage band became one of the sensations of IBC that year. The organizers were so impressed that they created a special prime time showcase at Hard Rock Café for the band, something never done before. The place was packed with people wanting to hear this “amazing band from the Philippines.” The Bleu Rascals gave an extraordinary performance. Several women, who learned that I was the one who brought them over to the US, came over to me and threw their arms around my neck and opened wept tears of joy, thanking me for sharing this band’s talent at IBC. It was an astonishing emotional evening for me.
The Bleu Rascals, by the way, have gone on to open for Buddy Guy and Keb Mo in Singapore and headlined at the Jakarta Blues Festival. Leader Paul Leobrera was invited to perform at the Japan Blues Festival in 2013 in a showcase with top Japanese bluesman Shun Kikuta, the former lead guitarist for Koko Taylor for 10 years. In October 2013, the Bleu Rascals won first place at the Cotai International Jazz & Blues Festivals, winning US $30,000, beating out 118 bands from around the world. I guess this victory has been the most exciting blues event of my life, and I was honored to share the emotions with the three young band members.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
Well, without a doubt, what I most miss is my former band Lampano Alley. That band was something very, very special. I expect never to have an experience as a performing musician to equal my experience with that band.
Fears for the future? The always looming possibility that the current blues scene in the Philippines will once again fade away into obscurity.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I long to see musicians generously and aggressively support their fellow musicians. Unfortunately, there is too much criticism, back-biting, scandal-mongering within the music community – but that is part of the human condition. So I guess I will have to do a music lament about it next time I pick up my instrument. Actually, when I am performing with a band I’m really comfortable with and when I “get in the groove,” my harmonica is my outlet for tears over the wretched state of humanity these days. “The Sky Is Crying.”
Make an account of the case of the blues in Asia. Why the Asians are so enamored with the blues?
Asians are simply reliving the experience of the British musicians of the 1960’s. They start out with rock, then start asking questions about “where did this music come from.” That takes them to British blues-rock, then back further to Chicago blues. In every country in Asia, you will find many blues-rock bands, fewer traditional Chicago-style bands – and even, always, a handful of proponents of early acoustic blues. The musicians that go way back to the roots become the local musicians that others respect and go to for advice. Still, blues is not a route to financial success, so most bands learn something about the roots, but then use what they learn when performing music that is more popular these days.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States to Asia and Mexico?
Actually, the blues-rock scene in England in the 60’s is perhaps the most significance influence. The first Asian blues-rock bands of the 1970’s – Purple Haze in Malaysia, several bands in Indonesia, and Juan de la Cruz in the Philippines – all got their start by listening to the British blues-rock invasion. Also, aside from the Philippines, most Asian countries had strong ties with Europe, not so much with the US. [You’ve done your homework to learn about my activities in Mexico. I performed there off and on from 2002-2011, but never found a strong blues scene that would sustain me emotionally.]
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Asian Blues circuits?
Laugh? Hmmm…. I don’t do that very much, other than always finding something humorous in what’s going on around me. My humor is very subtle and sardonic, not real belly laughs. What touches me? The discoveries I make every month uncovering new bands and video performances that are world-class.
Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following around the world?
Because it is grounded in the basic human condition. There will also be people with whom such music will resonate. Not everyone goes to music to escape reality. Some turn to music as an expression of reality.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
I’d go to Chicago and hang out for a day with Sonny Boy Williamson.
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