"I'm really easy to spot," promises Rupert Estanislao, frontman for the Vallejo punk outfit Eskapo. "I'm a five-foot-tall, shaved-headed Filipino guy, and I only wear black."
He's right: It's no trouble locating Rupert among the gaggle of teens smoking Marlboros and chatting on cell phones outside San Francisco's Bindlestiff studio. But it's not his appearance that gives him away; after all, this is an all-ages punk show at the city's only Filipino arts and theater space, so the people who stand out aren't five-foot-tall, shaved-headed, gutter-punk-lookin' Asian-Americans. But 26-year-old Rupert is obviously the most infectious personality among them -- he's throwing jubilant punches at the air and yapping about how cool the show is gonna be. We shake hands no fewer than five times.
That night, Rupert unleashes what his roommate Jamie Kennedy describes as his "baby-faced primal hulk" personality. While Eskapo's drummer Max Fajardo pounds a kick vs. high-hat rumpus loud enough to beat through everyone's brains, and the guitars grind lines as cruel and jagged as shards of glass, Rupert scrambles onto the stage speakers and dives into the crowd, holding the mic out for his fans to sing along.
Eskapo's fans have the lyrics down cold. Normally that's not surprising -- punk songs are generally simple and easy to memorize. But roughly 80 percent of Eskapo's lyrics are in Tagalog, the bandmembers' heritage language. It seems implausible that all of their fans -- non-Filipinos included -- would fluently speak the language. When Rupert asked one fan at a recent Gilman show how she knew Eskapo's lyrics, she said she'd read them on the Web site, memorized the songs, and asked her parents to translate the Tagalog words for her.
Obviously, then, there's permeability between Eskapo's heritage culture and the Bay Area punk scene to which the band has gravitated. By combining the coarse sounds of Tagalog with the strident forms of punk, the guys have created an apt medium to tell to tell their own story and forge their own landscape. To Rupert, this hybrid language is "just what comes natural."
"I got into a fistfight on my first day at Vallejo High School," Max recalls. "A kid was making fun of my accent, so when the teacher turned around, I punched him in the face. After that, nobody messed with me."
Max and his brother Loi immigrated to the East Bay in 1993. In the Philippines, they'd lived on the bottom floor of their family's two-story hotel, which sat about four blocks away from what Max calls the "squatter" neighborhoods, where they'd go to hang out with friends who lived in cardboard houses. Rupert, who also immigrated to Vallejo a decade ago, grew up in a barrio in the Philippines called Project 7, aka Quezon City. "I went to a place called People's Park to see Filipino hardcore bands like Philippine Violators and the Wuds," he recalls. "The music was fast, they always sang in Tagalog, and they managed to stay political through the martial laws of the 1980s."
During that time, Filipinos were caught in the stranglehold of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose pretensions toward "modernization" were undercut by his penchant for throwing lavish parties and depleting the national bank. Meanwhile, his infamous wife Imelda stocked her closet with an estimated two thousand pairs of shoes.
For Rupert and the Fajardo brothers, immigration was like being a wandering zeppelin roving over alien terrain. Despite hopes of job opportunities and a better education, they endured a shaky adolescence: Getting ripped from your homeland and transplanted to -- borrowing Rupert's words -- the "viper pit" of suburbia, where everyone calls you "fresh off the boat," is a damned hard knock. The members of Eskapo came of age in an East Bay bubble where Rupert says the prime leisure activities consisted of "watching movies, getting fucked up, and impregnating somebody."
Having lived in what he considered the epicenter of Vallejo, Rupert's roommate Jamie describes it as a kind of "leeches hangin' out with vampires" world -- after all, the cops showed up at his apartment almost every night, and there weren't many places to have fun if you didn't frequent Marine World or the local movie theater. Rupert admits he became a drifter, fell into petty crime, and eventually got arrested, but mostly because the town lacked better creative avenues: "A lot of the city council must think Vallejo's dominated by geriatrics, but there's a hell of a lot of youth with nowhere for them to go." Max says that during high school he mostly connected with the music of Tupac and NWA, whose lyrics represented a lived experience of violence, poverty, and racism. He could relate.
Given that punk is often considered the sole territory of suburban white kids, it seems odd that punk initially appealed to the Eskapo guys. In Rupert's case, the love affair began at a Skankin' Pickle show: "I was like, 'This is awesome -- the kids are dancing, the lead singer [Mike Park] is Asian, and none of them are beating each other up. I finally feel like I belong." Similarly, Max got indoctrinated into punk through the über-high-octane mosh pit at 924 Gilman. Once they started going to shows on a regular basis, Loi suggested that the guys form a band and sing in their own language.
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