Monday, July 25, 2011
Back when little Arnel was born in September of 1967, friends and family in Sampaloc, Manila gathered for a Filipino celebration. The new mother and father had little, but they could sing.
From the earliest days, Arnel’s mother filled her sparse home with music. It brought joy and laughter into the room. When the boy showed his ability to hold perfect pitch, she squealed with delight, showering him with affection and cheers. By the time could put a sentence together, he was entertaining the neighborhood with vocal solos all day long. His favorite singers were Barbra Streisand and Karen Carpenter. He mastered their riffs, their melodies and their lyrics.
The boy’s mom suffered rheumatic heart disease. The Pinedas did what they could to educate their children in the best schools. But when he was only thirteen she died unexpectedly. Her protracted illness resulted in crushing hospital bills. After the memorial service, Arnel’s father called the family together. They were six months behind in their rent. “We must leave our home and live with relatives,” he said. Arnel volunteered to drop out of school to save money. He set out to make it on his own.
In 1980, barely a teenager, young Arnel was not alone in the mean streets of Manilla. Many nights, he would sleep on the streets. He picked up odd jobs where he could. He gathered paper, bottles and plastics for what few pesos he might earn. He worked on the docks for whoever would employ him. Hunger followed him everywhere. But he never stopped singing.
His clear, energetic, clean voice caught the attention of a small group of musicians who called themselves the Ijos Band. Before long, at age fifteen, Arnel and his new friends were winning competitions. As they matured, so did their music and their reach. They changed their name to Amo, playing clubs all over the Philippines, China and Hong Kong. For the next twenty years, he sang nearly every night. He became a local Asian star.
In 2007, some fans put a video recording of Arnel’s rendition of a popular song called “Don’t Stop Believin’” on YouTube. By this time, his Filipino band’s name was The Zoo.
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In 1973, Herbie Herbert, manager of the rock band Santana, put together a new band when Santana broke up. The new group: Journey. In spite of the spectacular talent and track record, the band struggled until 1981 when three of their cuts hit the top of the charts in the same year: “Who’s Cryin’ Now”, “Don’t Stop Believin'”, and “Open Arms.” That one-year run would secure their career.
Rock bands are notorious for their breakups. Journey did just that in 1984. But ten years later, the band would come together, reviving their greatest hits and adding more. For the next dozen years, their popularity as a mainstream rock band held solid, even with the rotation lead singers. Between 2002 and 2006, the two lead vocalists both had chronic throat problems, leading many to charge that Journey used pre-recorded vocals in their concerts. The second quit.
Journey desperately needed lead singer – it had to be someone extraordinary. The band scoured the nation for talent and came up empty handed until Neal Schon stumbled across a YouTube video and a vocalist from an Asian band called The Zoo.
The singer was Arnel Pineda.
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When the former street kid from Manila sang his first concert before tens of thousands of screaming fans in Chile, he was terrified. But critics raved. “Arnel brings the magic of the band’s originator, Steve Perry, back to life,” they said. To this day, the concerts just keep getting bigger.
By 2008, “Don’t Stop Believin’” had become Journey’s signature song. Arnel looks back on all those years of struggle and obscurity and heartache, and considers it his life’s theme as well.
And he chokes back the tears when he speaks of his mother, who way back then from a little shanty in Manila, believed.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011