Portraits in Jazz: Ronald Tomas, homeland and music

Portraits in Jazz: Ronald Tomas, homeland and music
Ronald on the sax for Dixie Sheiks —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Second of a series

“I just want to play,” says Ronald Tomas, band leader, arranger, composer, singer, and saxophonist—arguably one of the busiest musicians today who cross over jazz, R&B/ funk/rock/soul, and pop jazz stages with enviable ease, the sort for whom music is air and water. 

Ronald grew up in Pangasinan swaddled by music: His father and an uncle were professional saxophonists, his grandfather was a drummer, and a number of cousins were musicians who played with provincial orchestras and seasonal hometown bands. One summer break when he was nine, his father brought him along to a gig, set him on stage and gave him an instrument to play. By then he had had hundreds of hours of practice on the saxophone, banduria, or clarinet—just some of the musical instruments lying around the house. For his first professional gig he was paid P50.

But it wasn’t as if Ronald had set his heart at a young age on becoming a professional musician either. In an interview in 2022, he told journalist Pocholo Concepcion that he had mixed feelings about his early start in music. “There was an element of bribery there,” Ronald said, because when his father made him choose between cleaning the backyard, where the family kept a few pigs and chickens, and woodshedding, he always chose to practice his instruments; it was the more pleasant task. And when he did, his father encouraged him to keep at it because he might find something there: “Malay mo may scholarship diyan.” 

For a while he thought he might become a journalist (he had always written for the school paper since he was young) or an engineer (he made the cut at Mapua Institute of Technology). But music wouldn’t let him go. He fell more deeply under its spell at the University of the Philippines College of Music where, as a music research major, he started joining bands in the late 1980s into the ‘90s, and playing professionally for almost seven nights a week over the next several years. 

From sideman, occasional singer, and sax player in the well-loved Artstart Band, Ronald moved on as lead vocalist and saxophonist with Parliament Syndicate, where he also had a say in the band’s musical direction. For eight years they played their way into mainstream popularity doing covers and originals. 

Those busy years paid well, too, even if they delayed his studies. Ronald recalls earning upward of P30k a month on a fairly regular basis, often even more when there were private or corporate events, and session work. By the day’s standards he had become a successful musician—self-supporting and -sufficient, he says, “respected and acknowledged by contemporaries and peers.”

Best of both worlds

In his CV, Ronald describes himself as a well-versed artist and performer grounded in both the academe and the real world of the music industry. He is among the exceptions to the disparaging phrase often lobbed at educators: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  By the looks of it, he is as good a teacher as he is a musician. 

Since 2011 he has been with the music faculty of the De La Salle College of St. Benilde, teaching, initially, orchestration, and big band arrangement and ensemble playing for the past six years or so. He is also a woodwinds tutor to kids at the British School Manila.

These days, while working on his doctorate in music performance major in composition at the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music, he divides his time playing sax with the AMP Big Band and Black Cows (the Steely Dan tribute band), and his own Dixie Sheiks (Dixieland-inflected music) and the more experimental Ronald Tomas (RT) Collective (“a revolving door of my close musician friends”). If he sees that his students are curious enough about live performances, he invites them to sit in on his gigs. In fact, some of the most fun singers featured in Dixie Sheiks are his undergraduates. 

As a band leader, Ronald cuts an authoritative figure that fluidly shifts between a mutely peculiar and enigmatic interaction with his band members and talking to the audience about the pieces that were just performed, sometimes even carrying on a conversation about these with whoever among the listeners was so inclined. On the other hand, Ronald the singer shows off both a silken charm and a livewire adept at working the room. 

For someone mostly front and center on stage and in the classroom, he says without irony, “I could be very shy in front of certain people.” 

That may be so, but clues to his lush inner world, one that melds traditional Philippine/indigenous musical elements with jazz, abound in his work with the RT Nonet in 2012—less a gigging group comprising the day’s finest players than a lab for his arrangements. Among the nonet’s recordings is a breathtaking redo of the classic revolutionary kundiman “Jocelynang Baliwag,” among other unconventional interpretations of local and world harmonies. 

No rest for the wicked

Ronald Tomas
Waiting for his cue backstage

Ronald thinks these are interesting times for music of whatever genre. “Kids are more technically proficient because of the sheer ease of getting information,” he says. “I see more of them taking on the mantle, perhaps even opening up new possibilities in both playing and recording techniques. Then there’s also artificial intelligence that’s facilitating creative production.”

What the musical future will sound and look like, he says, is anybody’s guess, and he likes to remind his students to learn music marketing and music business: “The rules of the game are being redrawn, and musicians both young and old at least need to be aware that new things are being used today to both market your music and reach your audience.” 

For now, he would much rather tinker with the possibilities offered by the RT Collective. Because most of his circle of musical co-conspirators are busy, the group’s setup must be flexible so that he can play more than just twice a year. “I could never have a steady lineup even if I wanted to,” he says. So, for his regular shows at Tago, for example, he has three configurations: one a nine-piece (five horns and four rhythm), another a seven-piece (four strings and three rhythm), and the third himself with a jazz quartet. “That way, I know I can still play every couple of months even if some players are doing their thing,” he says. “I am working on a fourth configuration to make it even more flexible—because the bottom line is, I just want to play. Whether it’s my originals or some covers of my favorite jazz tunes, I just want to play.”

On the wish list of this teacher, student, and musician is a university course on the music and songs of Filipino singer and composer Yoyoy Villame. “He has an uncommon sense in the way he writes his lyrics,” Ronald says. “It’s somewhat asymmetric, but it works and, more importantly, resonates with the hearts, ears, and minds of Filipinos. I would love to sign up for that class.”

Read more: Portraits in Jazz: Tots Tolentino in the cool of the moment

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