When singer-songwriter Joseph Gara became a finalist at the 2016 Visayan Pop Songwriting Competition (Vispop) for his song, “Paghunas,” it was the product of three years of discovering what his music could sound like.

He was always interested in music — before Vispop, he had been in an alternative rock band, covering English songs — but there was something about folk music that drew him in.

“That was time nga nakaingon ko na mao ning brand of music na ganahan ko mu-pursue” (That was the time that I said that this is the brand of music that I want to pursue), Gara shares. “I decided that this will be my genre: folk, Bisaya, with a fusion of Western nga vibe.”

“Paghunas” is truly that — a ballad with acoustic guitar plucking leading the song, with a tambourine and strings serving as the background while interpreter Jayneil Enriquez and Gara sing about the sea and stars. This shines even in his later work; his interpretation of the Keith John Quito-written “Para Natong Duha” (For The Two Of Us) has those same tambourines, big harmonies, and a distinct “Bisaya melody.”

“There was one time na naay nangutana nako, usa pud ka songwriter, nga ‘nganong imong melody kay murag nakadungog nako pa sa una, nga inig na pagka dungog ko ang song, murag familiar na daan?’” (There was one time when another songwriter asked me, ‘Why is the melody something like I’ve heard before, that when I listened to the song for the first time, it felt instantly familiar?’), Gara shares, when talking about his song “Uli” (To Go Home). 

“The song is original, pero ang melody is gi-kuha ko sa tanan nga gipa-dungog na nako. Murag this is a compilation of all the Bisaya melodies nga naka-dungog ko sa una” (The song is original, but I got the melody from everyone I’ve listened to. It’s like it’s a compilation of the Bisaya melodies I’ve listened to before). 

You can hear that distinct Bisaya — and to an extent, Boholano — sound in the song. It’s not just the fact that the song is written in the language — even sonically there are elements of rondalla, a traditional form of Spanish folk music that was introduced in the Philippines during the Spanish colonization, that Gara reveals has been a popular type of music in Boholano culture and the Visayas. In Bohol, rondalla groups are present in every city, even the larger ones. 

He explains that a Bisaya melody is simple, with not too many complicated elements. The features of old, more traditional Bisaya songs don’t have that Western-styled song structure, such as rigid stanzas and choruses. Take a look at the folk song, “Matud Nila” (They Say) as popularized by Pilita Corrales, that just has one long stanza throughout the song. How Gara takes those elements to make it his own is by intently listening to the Bisaya songwriters and singers who came before him, people like Max Surban, Yoyoy Villame, and even non-recorded folk music. 

That process results in a fusion of today’s more modern sounds like big drums, Western-style symphonies with instruments and styles like the native string instruments kudyapi and banduria as well as the aforementioned rondalla. 

Beyond the sounds, it’s the stories that they tell through their songs that also make it uniquely Bisaya. “The stories of the songs, the lyricism, is what makes Bisaya songs distinct,” he explains.

This mission of highlighting the Bisaya aspects of his and his bandmates’ songs is to continue championing Bisaya music as part and parcel of the Filipino music industry. John Philip Quinga, one of the band’s keyboardists, says that before, if people used to look down on Bisaya music, now, the genre can be celebrated by both Bisaya people and other ethnic groups in the country.

As Gara and his bandmates look forward to the future, they stay committed to making more songs and albums that tell not just their personal stories, but the stories of the Bisaya people. 

Kung unsa pa naa diha na pwede namo buhaton (Anything else that we can do), we will do it.”

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