Butch Albarracin performs his final encore

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on September 22, 2010

Businessman, musician, lecturer, seminar speaker, concert producer, stage director, emcee, author, community leader and marketing professor Butch Albarracin performed his final encore last week. The Patient Behind the Red-Ribbon Door is a chronicle of his struggle with lung cancer, and his determination to defeat that dreadful disease. Mr. Albarracin lost that struggle, but the “products” of his work will carry his legacy for many years to come.

At last count, The Center for Pop, the music school Mr. Albarracin founded in his garage in 1984, was helping about 1,000 very young, young, and not-so-young Filipinos learn to sing, act, and speak onstage before large crowds every year. Many attain wide acclaim and professional success using the tools and techniques the energetic and entrepreneurial Mr. Albarracin taught, and his enthusiastic cadre of teachers teaches their charges.

The list includes Geneva Cruz, Dessa, Charice Pempengo, Ruffa Mae Quinto, Sarah Geronimo, Nina, Erik Santos, Rachelle Ann Go, Nyoy Volante, Sandara Park, a total of four Kims for Miss Saigon, and Donita Rose. That’s the short, short list.

He also taught through the written word. The Patient is Mr. Albarracin’s fourth book. Earlier works include a creative writing textbook, Spiels Development and Delivery; Talking About Singing, and Emceeing and Hosting.

The Center for Pop has grown into a network of 25 branches nationwide, all company owned. Many wonder why Mr. Albarracin and his wife, Gwen Crisologo, didn’t franchise the concept. To maintain strict control over quality and process, the couple decided to forego franchising, and in doing so, the potential of a significant return on their investment developing curricula and classrooms and producing events.

Many of those events showcased the Center’s students, and plainly provided the venues that would catapult them towards successful careers as entertainers and musicians. As a result of his visibility in the industry-and that of his students-over the years Mr. Albarracin became a virtual spokesperson for aspiring entertainers, and his mind a repository of musical minutia for the curious.

When New York Times reporter Norimitsu Onishi looked into the popular karaoke phenomenon in the Philippines-the early, rudimentary sing-along devices are said to be a Philippine invention-he sought out the perspective of Mr. Albarracin. Mr. Onishi was curious why normally easy-going, fun-loving Filipinos frequently begin fights-and even commit a few fatal stabbings-when drunk, amateur singers have the temerity to warble the Frank Sinatra classic, “My Way” at neighborhood karaoke bars.

Mr. Albarracin offered an “existential explanation” for the officially dubbed “My Way Killings” and other violence. “‘I did it my way’-it’s so arrogant,” Mr. Albarracin explained to Mr. Onishi. “The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. That’s why it leads to fights,” he concluded.

To most people who knew him, Mr. Albarracin wasn’t exactly without a considerable sense of pride himself, so perhaps that accounts for his understanding of the Filipino karaoke enthusiast’s psyche. But he was never arrogant. Opinionated, animated, and loud-Mr. Albarracin was all of those things-but he almost always chose to make his arguments and disarm his critics through music.

Celebrations and get-togethers of all kinds typically involved a premeditated musical event. When the Albarracin’s daughter Gwyneth was welcomed home from an overseas modeling assignment, a hotel function-room was transformed from sit-down dinner to an evening of pop. I wound up nervously singing some country tune on more than one occasion in a crowded mall-which somehow had become the venue for a child’s birthday party.

Most years the Albarracins would produce an especially large concert at which a number of former students would perform. Up until one year, I had assumed that the Center for Pop was a bit like a kindergarten for old children and adults going through midlife crises, rather than a serious school for training serious talent. That notion was erased one year as I sat and listened in awe as Dessa belted out tune after rapturous tune.

Mr. Albarracin-despite the demands of an entrepreneurial and musical life-lived a charmed existence. His lovely and intelligent wife eventually left a promising professional career to help build the Center for Pop and handle its marketing and financial requirements. Their two talented children-Gwyneth is now married and has started her own family; and BG, a towering figure of a young man-clearly adored their father.

For most of the people he knew, however, Mr. Albarracin made living successful-and often charmed-lives possible. It seems to me that it wasn’t so much the skills and techniques he taught that made the difference. But the confidence he instilled.

All of them will remember the patient behind the red-ribbon door.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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