.Between Worlds

The Sampaguitas explore the culture of the Philippines through music

On their debut album, Folk Songs from the Philippines and Beyond, the Sampaguitas offer a glimpse into the musical, political and cultural history of the Philippines. The trio includes Aireene Espiritu, who was born in the Philippines; Jenevieve Francisco, who is Filipino-Mexican; and Cristina Ibarra, who is Filipino-Italian. They all know each other from gigs they’ve shared on various Bay Area stages.

“My band, Aireene Espiritu and the Itch, has been playing at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival for many years,” Espiritu said. “Cristina helps put on the festival and sings with Jenevieve in the Hitsville Soul Sisters, doing Motown covers and originals. She asked me to open a show for them, and we got to talking about our shared Filipino heritage. We began kicking around the idea of doing something as a trio.”

She continued, “Jenevieve works at Piedmont Gardens, a retirement community. They have a hootenanny every month, organized by Vangie Buell, a Filipino-American singer-songwriter, who is also a resident. I suggested we get together and sing ‘Oras Na,’ a song by Coritha. It’s a protest song from the ’70s that addressed the feelings people had about the American occupation of the Philippines. We worked up the harmonies and loved the way our voices melded together.”

Someone videotaped the performance and put it on YouTube. Jim Pugh, head of the Little Village label, saw it and contacted the trio about making an album. “That gave us a push to build up our repertoire, as we did gigs,” Espiritu said. “Cristina came up with our name and wrote ‘My Sampaguita.’ It’s a love ballad about those, like ourselves, who find themselves between worlds and cultures. The Sampaguita is the national flower of the Philippines and, like the people in the diaspora, it’s beautiful, no matter where it’s planted.”

“I wrote the other original, ‘Mama Did Her Best,’” Espiritu added. “It’s about an immigrant mother coming to America to live a better life. It’s a look back at my family history. I grew up hearing my uncles playing guitars together, then the whole family would gather around and sing. Since we had to expand our repertoire, I went back to those songs.”

The experience led the trio, collectively, to more nuanced concepts of culture and identity. “As we polished the vocal arrangements, it took the three of us on a journey back to our roots, which has been a beautiful experience,” Espiritu said. “We’d meet at one of our homes, make dinner and sing together. A sisterhood has come out of the experience. We’re not just Filipino-American. There is Mexican and Italian and the third culture that came about, as we shared each other’s experiences. It’s become bigger than this recording, more than the sum of its parts.”

She continued, “Christina sent me a letter that said, ‘I’ve always felt like my identity was an island. Since no one else had my particular mix, or experience, it felt isolating. Now, I realize that, like the Philippines themselves, identity is an archipelago. Each island is unique, special, singular, perfect and connected to a culture that is beautiful and bigger than any of us alone.’”

The trio worked collectively to develop their harmonies and come up with original arrangements of the songs. They cut the album at Greaseland Studios, with producer Kid Andersen, known for his work with Rick Estrin and Mark Hummel. “We had everything ready, so he set up a mic and we sang live, with my acoustic guitar,” Espiritu said. “We’d been singing most of the songs in our sets, but a few of them were hashed out just before we recorded. They’re simple enough, so we just had to make sure our harmonies were tight. A couple of takes for each song and that was it. Our friend, John Calloway, came in later to put flute overdubs on two tunes. He’s a Latin jazz artist, a professor of ethnic studies and also a Filipino-American.”

The close harmonies on Folk Songs from the Philippines and Beyond are impressive. “Planting Rice/Magtanim Ay Di Brio” is a folk song, with alternating verses in English and Tagalog. The trio opens singing them a capella, then Espiritu enters with her guitar, singing a bluesy version before the trio begins their wordless improvisations, calling to mind the hook from a girl-group single of the ’60s. Pending ecological disaster is addressed in “Masdan Mo Ang Kapaligiran,” written by the folk rock group ASIN in the ’90s. The trio sings it simply, letting the understated lyrics speak for themselves. Translated, they read: “Look at the water in the sea, it used to be blue, now it’s black.” 

When performing live, the Sampaguitas sing songs that delve into every aspect of their multicultural backgrounds. “We’re all songwriters,” Espiritu said. “Cristina and Jenevieve both love soul, rock and R&B, so there’s a taste of that in their songs. I bring in the folk, blues and Americana influences. Sometimes we perform as a trio, sometimes we’ll bring in more musicians. Jenevieve’s husband, Avo Chalaganyan, may sit in on cajon, along with [guitarist] Brian Judd and [bass player] Paul Olguin from my band.” 

The Sampaguitas introduced the album at last week’s celebration of Filipino-American History Month at the Freight & Salvage. Espiritu said she put together the bill, discovering many local Filipino-American folk artists in the process. “This gig helped us get to know more about each other,” she said. “It would be nice if this could become a yearly event.”

The Sampaguitas will play at the annual free Freight Fest at 2pm on Oct. 14 at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley. More at: thefreight.org/fest/. The trio will also perform a free set on Friday Nov. 11 at the Karl Roesler Gallery as part of the SF Open Studios Project. More at: artspanart.org/sfos2023.

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