Arnel Quiapo was once down and almost out. But he never let his sorrow and despair dampen his faith in the Divine. The bassist with Whiplash relates his life-changing story to Agnes Alpuerto.
“Music is the healing force of the universe.”
American jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler did not record this song for nothing. A true legend of the free jazz, Ayler knew the power of music himself – holding unto it even without a steady audience, even with critics telling him that his uncompromising style seemed a little aimless.
Like Albert Ayler, Arnel Quiapo found refuge and comfort in music, too – in a deeper, spiritual, healing way.
Arnel, a 30-year old Filipino bassist, journeyed into Cambodia in September 2012.
He had an Information Technology degree from General Santos City in southern Philippines. But his first job in Phnom Penh was in a garment factory.
“I had to fly to Cambodia. I went through a painful heartbreak in the Philippines so there’s really nothing else to do but to leave and rebuild my life,” says Arnel, using his native tongue.
Arnel came from a failed marriage back in his hometown. He was married for two years when troubles led him and his wife to different paths.
With a heavy emotional baggage, a language barrier that’s hard to ignore and a job that didn’t fit his educational background, Arnel found it hard to cope with the life Cambodia was offering him.
Arnel didn’t last for too long in one garment factory. He jumped from one job to another on freelance basis, solely depending on friends’ recommendations and referrals.
Back on track, back to faith
To say that it was an uphill battle is an understatement. Arnel, an innately soft-spoken person, was an emotional wreck – going out and drinking beer almost every night.
“I felt like I didn’t have anything in me anymore. I was so drowned in my pain. I knew I couldn’t go home to the Philippines. I had to prove her (ex-wife) that I can rise and be whole again.”
But meeting another Filipino in one of his freelance jobs changed Arnel – drastically, completely.
“In one of my night shifts, I met a Filipino who was playing instruments. I asked him if he’s part of a musical band in the Philippines or here in Cambodia. He was the one who introduced me to the Church here and pushed me to regain my interest in music.”
Arnel’s passion for music rooted from his active participation in the Church choir back in GenSan. Having a father who also played musical instruments, Arnel practically grew up mastering Christian songs on bass guitars and keyboards.
But his passion, along with his faith to God, took a backseat during the darkest moments of his life.
But after his encounter with a fellow musician, Arnel found himself stepping into the Church doors again and volunteering to play for the choir.
“I went to JIL Church in Borei. After that, my faith in God was restored. I realised that he has not abandoned me after all. That even if I went through so much heartache, I just needed to surrender everything to Him because he will save me from my suffering,” he said, with an obvious glint of strong faith in his eyes.
He offered his talent in playing bass guitar on Sunday Church services.
It was also through the Church that another Filipino musician discovered Arnel’s talent. He was asked to join a band and hold gigs at Riverside’s often crowded bars.
“I didn’t think of music as something I can earn from. But when I started joining the band, I realised that I can actually make a living out of it. It’s really a blessing. God led me to people who encouraged me to stand again and fix myself. I found people who helped me find my purpose here in Cambodia.”
Arnel started with barely anything but his passion. He didn’t even own a bass guitar back then.
“My bandmates had to provide me with bass guitar. What’s more challenging was I really didn’t have much knowledge on band music. All I knew were Christian songs. I had to practice every single day so I could deliver something good.”
Arnel eventually learned the ropes of the live entertainment scene in Phnom Penh.
He also started to expand his circles and connections, meeting new people – musicians and event organisers – who gave him more opportunities to show off his talent and earn a well-deserved sum.
“It wasn’t easy to be part of a band and hold gigs. There were lots of emerging bands in the country so it was hard to book ourselves a gig. But God is really, really good. He provides me with things when I needed them the most.”
Music heals; so does love
In 2013, when Arnel least expected it, he fell in love with a Church mate.
“It took me by surprise. I just fell in love with her. She’s more than what I have ever dreamed of. Everything about her is beyond compare,” he said, noting that their common faith has become the main foundation of their relationship.
“When I met her, I really thanked God. He proved to me that when he takes something away from us, he’s going to give us something a lot better.”
Five years into their relationship, Arnel and his girlfriend have a two-year old son, who Arnel repeatedly described as a “super goodhearted kid”.
Arnel now divides his time between his family and his current all-Filipino band, Whiplash.
Whiplash, which plays at Wonderland KTV from 7 pm to 1 am every day except for Wednesdays, offers a wide variety of music genres – rock ‘n’ roll, Latin, ballad, punk, country and pop. The band plays Chinese songs, too, as many of the KTV’s patrons are Chinese nationals. And having recently signed a new contract at Wonderland, Whiplash is set to take their music to a higher level; to offer better sounds to its avid listeners.
Looking back on his life in 2012, Arnel said he knew everything was God’s making – both the hurt and bliss – to let him find life’s real meaning. And with the big break in his career and the love from his family, he is certain that he has now found healing.
“God is good. He has blessed me with so many things. What I am doing right now for Him is still not enough to express my gratitude and deep faith. I am just glad that I came back to His arms, and trusted His plans.”