Cover Story

The Nation’s Storytellers: Ben&Ben On The Core Of Filipino Folk Music

As the country’s quintessential folk band, Ben&Ben unravel the stories that make Filipino folk music unique.

Miguel Benjamin looks pensive.

He’s asked for 15 seconds to think after I’ve asked my first question — “How would you describe your journey as a band so far?” — and his brows furrow like he’s deep in thought.

He, along with the eight other members that make up the OPM juggernaut that is Ben&Ben, are all spread out around different parts of the Billboard Philippines studio dressing room. Guitarist Poch Barretto and violinist Kiefer Cabugao are near the room’s entrance, eating their lunch. Miguel’s co-lead vocalist and twin brother Paolo is having his hair straightened by the stylist. Bassist Agnes Reoma, keyboardist Pat Lasaten, as well as percussionists Andrew de Pano, Toni Muñoz, and drummer Jam Villanueva are all having their makeup done on the opposite end of the room.

“I think with six years as a band… our journey has been one of constant growth and evolution,” Miguel says after the brief pause. “Every year that goes by sa banda (in the band), our sound always evolves and adds on, in ways that are both connected to the roots and also very different from it.”

While Ben&Ben as we know them today came together in 2017, Miguel and Paolo Benjamin’s signature sound was crafted as early as 2015, when they started performing as The Benjamins. When they became finalists at the 2016 Philippine Popular Music Festival (PhilPop) with “Tinatangi”, you can hear hints of the bongos, strings, harmonies, and melodies that would later become the uncanny hallmarks of Ben&Ben.

However, beyond just the musical aspects of their songs, at the heart of it all are the stories that the two write through their music.

“At the core of every song is the songwriting. Paolo and Miguel wrote most of [the songs],” says Barretto. “Their tastes come out of it. It’s such a blessing and coincidence that everyone in the band, even though we have so many different influences and styles, we have the sensibility to build on whatever’s there already.”

“We’re aligned in the purpose of what the songs should give, or mean. We always make it a point to respect the message of each song, and make it sound in a way that we see fits that message.”

It’s these messages that have made the band’s music stand the test of time. Whether it’s the somber heartbreak in “Kathang Isip” or the feeling of falling in love in “Maybe The Night,” their songs have served as the soundtracks for millions of people’s lives over the years.

The reason for that, Barretto and Miguel explain, comes from the fact that the core of Filipino folk music has always been about storytelling. 

“It’s always about the stories. Sabi ni Joey Ayala noong 2014 sa isang music camp na in-attend-an namin, ay ‘yung folk music, kaya siya mahirap i-define (Joey Ayala once said in 2014 at a music camp we attended that the reason why folk music is hard to define is because it), existed even before recorded music,” Miguel says. “In fact, before, [folk music] ‘yung (are the) earliest forms of recording, kasi (because) they pass it on through oral tradition. Through stories. They pass on songs, any form of literature, through the songs and storytelling.”

Ben&Ben Billboard Philippines Cover

Shaira Luna

“It’s hard to define because all songs are about storytelling, but I guess in folk music, there’s really a bit more focus on what the story is trying to say.”

Over the course of Filipino history, folk music has cemented itself as a way to preserve Filipino culture. They are, in the truest sense of the word, the most timeless types of Filipino songs — never just relevant in one era or decade. 

Miguel continues by saying that for Ben&Ben personally, their type of storytelling happens in different ways, the same way that there are multiple types of folk music today. “But as stories go, there must always be some form of realization. Not always a resolution that’s absolute, but at least an attempt towards that. For us, our theme is often about hope, because that’s one of our values. In the stories that we craft, not just in the words but also in the sound, that’s what we try to make people feel.” 

It’s not just one type of hope that surrounds their stories, but rather, hope in all its forms, whether it be hope for a new chance at love or hope for the country. Ben&Ben are no stranger to either, as they’ve written and continue to write songs like “Courage,” “Susi” (Key) (from the 2018 film Goyo), “Sa Susunod Na Habang Buhay,” (In The Next Life) and many more. 

“The stories that we portray in our different songs and themes are mostly, if not all, about our real experiences as humans, as young Filipinos, and about being human in general. That involves every kind of experience that you feel and sa bawat isang (with each) sensation, sense sa katawan (of the body) and your reflections on them. Of course, we experience so many different areas and aspects of our lives, a lot of it — I guess, especially for young people — is about love and heartbreak, but also for young people these days, which we are a part of, [one of things that matter] is being a citizen; an advocate for something. That’s equally a part of our lives. We have our perspectives, our feelings, our insights towards it. I guess [those themes] just naturally comes out in the songs that we write, because they are equally a part of how you experience life. That’s why [civic duty] has always been a recurring theme for us, since they’re such an integral part of a human story. Of you being part of something bigger.”

In the same way that music is a reflection of the human experience in society, Miguel and the rest of his bandmates maintain that music can influence society as well. As music fans and listeners themselves, he says that it happens especially when you listen closely to the music itself and really internalize what the song is saying.

“The beauty of folk music and its storytelling is that it comes from a story the artist creates, but they end up as stories that people own for themselves.”

Miguel goes on to say that songs hold a lot of meaning, and can impact either one person or groups of people. It’s intentionality that guides their storytellling process, precisely because it has the ability to seep into people’s lives. For sure, it’s a heavy responsibility for nine people to carry. Behind just being the biggest band in OPM not just at home, but all over the world, Ben&Ben are also just humans like everyone else. However, it’s a responsibility that they continue to carry on everyday.

Shaira Luna

They recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants in folk music that came before them — Miguel lists down Bullet Dumas, Johnoy Danao, Ebe Dancel, Joey Ayala, Gary Granada, Cynthia Alexander, Bayang Barrios, Heber Bartolome, and countless others — who were all strong influences from their very beginning as a band. Miguel calls them their heroes; their guide for how they live their lives as musicians from the past, present, and even until the future. 

“Going into the future [of folk music], just like what’s happening with so many genres right now, we see the future as more of a blend of different sounds. That people don’t pigeonhole or box it into a certain sound anymore.” 

That fusion is something that Ben&Ben say that they’re trying to do now, such as their recent single “Could Be Something” that plays more on electronic elements. “Because as long as the storytelling remains, then the sound in itself can evolve. The future of Filipino folk would probably still involve so many beautiful stories to be told, but it would be a fusion of so many different sounds.”

“The more open you are [to the evolution of folk], the more surprised you will be,” continues Lasaten. “Wala akong (I don’t have any) expectations. I’m excited to see what’s next.”

In the case of the band’s personal future, what will remain is their integrity — not just to their music, but to themselves as individuals. As Miguel mentioned, the sound may evolve, but the core of what makes them Ben&Ben will stay true. Despite the spotlight shining so close on even their personal lives, the music will always come first.

“Of course, in an ideal music world, it’s just all about the music. However, ever since we started and until today, our mission of sending messages of hope and realizations to people, sometimes, sharing a bit of your life (especially if there’s a lesson there) can also help,” says Miguel. 

Barretto continues, saying that even with their differences as individuals in terms of what they share to the world, it should not, and will not, hinder them from what the band should be. “Because, at the end of the day, it’s really about the music. We came together because of the music. As long as that remains, that will hold us together as a band.”

For Ben&Ben, there is no looking back. Just more stories to tell.

A version of this story appeared in Billboard Philippines’ folk issue, dated February 15, 2024.

Ben&Ben Billboard Philippines Folk/Acoustic Issue

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Photography by Shaira Luna, assisted by Emelito Lansangan & Albert Calaguas. Creative and Fashion Direction by Daryl Chang. Art Direction by Nicole Almero. Styling by Daryl Chang and Shaira Luna, assisted by Kurt Abonal and Maria Paz Gamus. Hair & Makeup by Nix Institute of Beauty. Production Design by Justine Arcega-Bumanlag. Shoot Coordination by Mikaela Cruz. Story by Kara Angan. Billboard Philippines, February 2024.