Sunday, October 26, 2008

Arnel Pineda: Born to Sing

by Carmelita C. Ballesteros
Journey, one of the best bands in the world, was founded in 1975. It has a long and illustrious career. But since the departure of its most famous lead singer Steve Perry, it has signed up other singers but none could quite capture the Perry magic.

Founder and guitarist Neal Schon had expressed frustration over not having a lead singer for almost a year. It had been a long and exasperating search, but he never lost hope. Finally, on December 5, 2007, Journey announced in its website:

Born in Sampaloc, Manila. Orphaned at 13. High school drop-out. Homeless street child for two years. Tan. Five feet, three inches. Shoulder-length hair. Goatee. 41 years old.Band singer since 15. Singing since his mother conceived him.

Born to sing!
Neal Schon said that he was blown away after listening to Arnel Pineda’s soulful rendition of Journey’s signature ballad “Faithfully” and “Open Arms” on YouTube. Arnel sounded just like Steve Perry, yet he was original. His tenor is higher-pitched and has an unbelievable range.
Here are the opening lines of “Faithfully”:
Highway run into the midnight sun
Wheels go round and round
You're on my mind
Restless hearts sleep alone tonight
Can Arnel perform live to millions of loyal Steve Perry fans around the world? Performing in restaurant-bars like Hard Rock Café is child’s play compared to a world tour.
Rising to the occasion, Arnel’s been touring South America, North America and Europe since February 2008 and the reviews rave about his phenomenal talent and energy. The original Journey band members say they feel reborn.
Where does Arnel get the lung power that makes his tenor soar? Where do the awesome, raw emotions come from? Where does he get the inner drive to sing on and on and on?

Born on September 5, 1967 in Sampaloc, Manila, Arnel is the eldest among four children. His parents were both tailors. His mother loved to sing and always listened to and sang along Karen Carpenter’s and Barbra Streisand’s songs on the radio.

Arnel, being the first child, grew up listening to and singing along the same songs his mother loved. And he had the voice, the talent, and the interest. His father would ‘bribe’ him with new pairs of pants to wear to amateur singing contests.

He and his siblings went to Quiapo Parochial School. Arnel was involved actively in the glee club, the rondalla, and other activities. His family thrived although his parents had to work hard as tailors. Then tragedy struck.

After a long illness, Arnel’s mother succumbed to rheumatic heart, leaving the family bankrupt with huge hospital bills and unpaid rent. Even the funeral expenses were a big challenge to deal with.

Broke and broken-hearted, Arnel’s father had no choice but to move his grieving family out of their rented apartment. He decided to ask different relatives to act as foster families for his young children while he tried to put the pieces of his life back again.

Arnel decided to strike out on his own. He was thirteen.

The streets became his school; Luneta Park, his home. There were days when he’d go unwashed so he’d drink and bathe in the fountain at the Luneta Park. There were days when all he could afford to eat was a small packet of biscuits.

He found work buying and selling metal scraps, old bottles and newspaper. Whenever he made a few extra pesos, he’d go and pay a visit to one of his brothers who lived somewhere near. He’d give his brother some money.

Arnel had a friend, Monet Cajipe. Monet had a guitar and he’d ask Arnel to come to his family home. They’d sing and entertain Monet’s family who’d feed Arnel in return.

When Arnel was 15, he and his friend Monet joined the Ijos Band. It was the humble beginning of a 25-year career as a rock band lead singer. Arnel was paid thirty-five pesos a night and was given a small room as his sleeping quarters.

Arnel must have been so happy. He must have shared the wonderful news with his father right away. The same brother Arnel had been visiting every now and then narrates that his father came to fetch him from their relatives’ house.

Arnel had sent for him. Arnel had a job and a place to sleep. Arnel wanted him to stay with him. It wasn’t much of a bedroom. It was infested with roaches, rats, and mosquitoes, but it was theirs and they were happy. Two of them brothers had been re-united. And his brother Arnel sent him back to school.
Arnel has occupied his niche as a rock band lead singer since the time he joined Ijos Band in 1982. He and his friend Monet Cajipe would re-group and would form new bands with new names, but the two of them stuck together -- Arnel as the singer; Monet as the guitarist.

In the 1990’s, Arnel and his band found their way to Hong Kong. It must have been a steady, well-paying, and enviable gig, singing six nights a week. But Arnel lost another important woman in his life. It devastated him. He turned to drugs, unable to deal with the indescribable pain.

One day, he lost his voice. He just couldn’t sing any more. A doctor told him to retire from singing. He was only 27.

What?! Retire from singing?

It was a wake-up call for Arnel. If losing a girl friend had devastated him, losing his voice knocked sense into his head.

He went home to the Philippines and refusing to believe the Hong Kong doctor, he re-trained his voice. He stayed clean and sober, determined to rise from the depths of despair. Six months of disciplined vocal health care and training paid off. He was able to sing again!

In 2002, he went back to the Hong Kong rock band circuit. Somehow, in 2006, Arnel met Bert de Leon who convinced him and Monet to relocate to the Philippines. They signed up as talents under Bert de Leon’s entertainment company and formed a new band called Zoo. They began performing in restaurant-bars in Metro Manila and Olongapo again.

In 2007, a fan and friend, Noel Gomez, started posting on YouTube video clips of the Zoo performing songs by Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Air Supply, Kenny Loggins, and of course, Journey.

What was Noel thinking when he started videotaping Arnel’s gigs at Hard Rock Café? What was he planning when he started posting on YouTube Arnel’s performances with his band Zoo? What made him insist that Arnel reply to Neal Schon’s e-mail which Arnel had dismissed as a hoax?

Noel must have recognized the magnificent talent that Arnel is blessed with and a tiny voice must have told him to do what he had done. He was the bridge which connected Arnel and Journey to each other.

International stardom as a rock music celebrity has made Arnel hot copy. Everyone wants to interview him for a live TV show or for a print medium.

During some interviews in the US and in the Philippines, there were unguarded moments when Arnel would choke up with emotion. His voice would break, trail off, and he’d wipe a tear from his eyes. Those were the moments when he would be asked about his late mother and the homeless, hungry years he spent after her death.

Arnel’s mother was the first and most significant woman in his life. He said in his interview with John Blackstone of CBS that his mother taught him how to sing. She taught him to be brave, to fight on when the world isn’t too kind, and to keep on believing…

Such impact a parent has on a child!

Wherever Arnel’s mother may be right now (she must be in heaven), she must be singing alleluias in gratitude and with pride. Not only has her voice pupil become a phenomenal success around the world, but he has also remained humble and human.

A fan writes about the precious pre-concert moments Arnel spent with her and her wheelchair-bound brother who has cerebral palsy. Arnel thanked them profusely for coming to the concert, for buying Journey’s new CD, Revelation, and for supporting him.
Eric Caruncho of the Philippine Daily Inquirer writes that Arnel doesn’t think of himself as a rock star. He says, “I’m more of an OFW than a rock star. I’m just like you guys—I’m working.”
Today, Arnel is on vacation in the Philippines. Having performed in 69 sell-out shows in South America, North America and Europe, his vocal cords need plenty of rest and he deserves time with his family.

He has announced on Philippine TV two pieces of good news. First, he’ll be organizing a foundation for streetkids. And second, he and his fiancee are getting married early in 2009.

How did Arnel pop the question? He didn’t say, but he must have sung one of Journey’s signature ballads:

So now I come to you, with open arms
Nothing to hide, believe what I say
So here I am with open arms
Hoping you'll see what your love means to me
Open arms
This was originally published in the Filam Weekly MegaScene, Illinois, USA on October 14 & 17, 2008. The publishers may be reached at
Copyright © 2008 to Barangay OFW. All rights reserved.

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