Handom Circle: A growing, thriving Masbateño busking community

In a typical, normal weekdays, this circle of friends of Handom Circle usually spend their time gossiping and brainstorming their new song and project ideas, complemented with the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee from their friend’s business called Migo’s Café—it’s a small café stall located inside a much bigger coffee shop called Bistrolaza.

At Friday nights, these artists assemble as they’re preparing themselves for an occasional open mic session in Bistrolaza. Their acoustic guitars are amped-up, the vocals are warmed-up, and they are ready to serenade the lovers in the café.

Most of the time, they had their unexpected busking session in other parts of Masbate City. If you are a resident and happen to hear their soothing voices everywhere—it can be on the streets, malls, and parks— then they’re from Handom Circle.

This busking community is not just your ordinary community. What makes these dreamers special are their unique talents and inseparable bond of friendship. As they celebrated their one-year anniversary last month, more aspiring Masbateño artists were made.

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From left to right: Claire De Castro Reyes, Ico Zaragoza, and Lalab Francisco in 2020 (Facebook/Lalab Francisco)

Pre-Handom Circle

Before Handom Circle was created, it all started back in 2019 when singer-songwriter couple Lalab Francisco and Ico Zaragoza both had a vision to have their own coffee shop while pursuing their passion in bringing all Masbateño artists together in the name of music and lyrics.

“[Noong] year 2019 kasi, nagpaplano kami [ni Lalab] ng coffee shop, since nakahiligan ko din ang paggawa ng kape,” Zaragoza told in an interview with ABS-CBN News.

He also revealed that they are both inspired by a Quezon City-based coffee shop called ‘Jess and Pat’s’, where artists have their own freedom of showing their talent in music.

“Habang nag didaydream [kami] ng music scene sa Masbate, nalook up naming ang ‘Jess and Pats’—café sila, at the same time, bahay [na rin] sila ng mga uprising artists,” Zaragoza added. “Kaya, naisip namin, what if yung itatayong shop dito sa Masbate ay maging tahanan din ng mga artist?”

A year later, COVID-19 pandemic happened and people were isolated inside their own homes. However, the couple did not stop dreaming and pursuing their passion in all aspects of art. Ico continued his passion in photography by forming a group of passionate young photographers in Masbate City, which he later called Passionistas. On the other hand, Lalab remained optimistic in life by covering songs on her YouTube channel.

Then, they met Russel Jay Bentor through the connection with their other friend Claire De Castro Reyes. As they all met in a local café called Dfay’s, they all started talking about a lot of things, including their shared experiences through music.

“Noong nagkita kaming apat, kwento [nang] kwento si Russel ng mga experience niya ng music scene sa Legazpi,” Zaragoza said. “Then, nainspire kami ng ganap sa Legazpi, and same ang vision namin, nagka-connect kami.”

When Russel heard their stories, he became optimistic on the future of Masbate’s music scene. Hence, this is where their friendship began.

“Dito ko narinig na halos magkakapareho pala kami ng vision with regards sa music scene sa Masbate,” Bentor shared. “Despite the fact na first time namin mag usap usap nila Lalab and Ico, we’re all connected and naging close agad because of music.”

Fast forward to 2022. When lockdown was almost lifted, the trio met the local band DRMN’s (pronounced as Doraemon) frontrunner Mike Menes during the Obra Masbateño Art Festival—an annual art event held every February where it showcases the artistry of Masbate people.

“Nameet namin siya nong Obra [Masbateño], and na share din namin sa kanya ang gusto naming mangyari sana sa music scene sa Masbate, at dahil do’n, dahil iisa [ang] mga kagustuhan namin, nagkaroon kami ng connection,” Zaragoza shared.

Meanwhile, Russel went back to Legazpi City to review in preparation for his architectural board exam. He met several artists from Albay’s own music community such as The Dawani Project, Inc. and TaBuskCo, and later was inspired to initiate a community in his hometown.

“I happen to attend sa ibang events nila and through chat. Ina update ko sila Lalab about sa music scene sa Legazpi,” Bentor added. “At naikwento din nila na nameet nila si kuya Mike, and he has the same vision as ours, kaya mas naging eager pa kami na ipush talaga yung community na gusto naming mabuo.”

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Handom Circle in 2023 (From left to right, bottom: Jumilus, Russel, Lalab, Gressa, Dea, Jeruel, Mike, and Ico).

The Start of Handom

Moving forward to 2023. Ico, Lalab, Russel, and Mike have joined forces to accomplish their long-awaited dream of establishing the first-ever busking community in the whole Masbate province.

These five friends decided to participate in the same annual art event in February to showcase their talents as well as to invite fellow participants in joining their newly-created busking community. 

After the event ended, they started to brainstorm their ideas on establishing the first-ever busking community in their hometown. First off, they have to think of a name that describes the Masbateño dream. So, they had to contact Jan Aldrin “Al Jang” Belisario of Albay’s The Dawani Project, and asked him for guidance on establishing the community. 

“Nagpalitan kaming [apat ng] ideas. Nagreach out ako kay sir Jan Aldrin Belisario of The Dawani Project and nag ask din ako ng advise kung paano namin sisimulan, in which naging helpful ng sobra yung binigay ni sir na inputs,” Bentor shared.

Then, the four of them decided to call the participants of the local art event to invite them to their first meeting.

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A 22-year-old singer-songwriter Gressa performed in a busking session at Kefi Café in Masbate (Photo/Ico Zaragoza)

According to Gressa Pepito, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Mobo town in Masbate, she was invited by Lalab and Russel during Obra Masbateño. However, little did she know, she was invited to be part of the busking community that will represent the Masbateño talent to the people.

“I didn’t know that they were planning this circle. Ang gusto ko lang naman noon is magperform sa Obra, but I don’t have any idea about this,” Pepito shared. “Hindi ko naman sila super close, but I was very grateful up until now na they allowed me or they joined me as a part of this circle.”

For Kym Cadao, 20, she has no idea what is the concept and definition of busking. Until Gressa introduced her to Handom, she became enlightened on what it’s like to be a busker.

“At first po, hindi ko po alam kung ano ang mga ginagawa, and even don’t know what busking means,” Cadao said. “I feel shy and awkward kasi ngayon lang ako naka encounter and had connections with other young adults like Kuya Russ, Ate Lab, Kuya Mike, and Kuya Ico. But they’re really good people and treat me like their younger sibling.”

Aside from Kym and Gressa, the Quadro-besties also invited other artists such as DRMN’s Jumilus Cervantes and Jeruel Dela Cruz, Dea Bagaboyboy, Claire and Rosemarie Reyes.

A month later, they all met at a local restaurant called Andoy’s House to conduct their first meeting on their proposed event for the busking community.

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Kym Cadao performs in her first busking at Andoy’s House (Photo/Ico Zaragoza)

As Russel and his friends asked the invited members if they’re willing to join the circle, everyone said yes. 

“Nag-meet kami sa Andoy’s House nung March 1, 2023, where we talk about music ulit but this time nalaman na namin na pare-pareho kaming gusto ng active na music scene sa Masbate,” Bentor said.

Hence, the name Handom Circle was born. 

‘Handom’ is a Minasbate word, which means to desire or to dream. So, the name ‘Handom Circle’ literally means, they are a circle of friends who share the same dream of continuing the momentum of the music industry in their own home. 

“Nag-start ang Handom Circle as an idea,” Bentor explained. “Gusto rin naming sanang magkaroon ng galaw yung music scene sa Masbate, which is inspired by those movement na nangyayari from different parts of the Philippines regarding busking and other music scene.”

DRMN’s Mike Menes performed as one of the front acts in December Avenue concert last June 2023 (Photo/Ico Zaragoza)

Small wins, big achievement

The artists of Handom Circle debuted their night busking at Mangroveteum Park in Masbate City. At first, the atmosphere was quite awkward and people were unfamiliar with the concept of busking. Gressa noticed that they were watching her perform without having any clue about it.

“Dito sa Masbate, ang una-unang busking namin ay parang may something awkward–sa akin lang kasi I’m not used to it– yun ang nafeel nila, lalo na yung hindi artists,” she shared. “Baka nanibago sila kasi knowing na may ganoong segment o program sa street lang na may tugtugan, like informal lang na tugtugan, tapos may nakaopen na guitar case na kung gusto magsupport sa artist ay magdadrop ng any amount of money.”

As time passes, Masbateños are now embracing the busking culture and started to normalize it. For the artists of Handom, it is already a small win. 

Then, they continue to do more busking sessions like their monthly Biglaang Busking (Unexpected Busking) and Busking with a Cause. 

Most of the artists in Handom already performed outside the province and became guests in any radio shows. 

On August 5, 2023, the bestie duo Russel and Lalab participated in the 2nd Songwriter’s Circle—a region-wide event initiated by The Dawani Project, Inc.—where all aspiring singer-songwriters in the Bicol region come together in sharing their songs and their story.

Then, on October 19, 2023, Gressa was invited to be the guest of MOR Entertainment’s show Good Time ‘To. Until today, she is still feeling overwhelmed and grateful for the opportunity they gave to her as she represents her hometown and Handom Circle.

“I was given a chance to be interviewed sa MOR Manila—radio show ng ABS-CBN. So ‘yun, nakaka overwhelm, we are beyond grateful for the support and the recognition na natatanggap ng Handom Circle and matatanggap pa in the future,” Pepito shared.

A month later, Handom Circle was given a chance to perform during DTI Masbate’s Trade Fair in Legazpi City. For the rookie busker Zannjo San Juan, it was a big achievement for him to be part of the circle and to perform with the new set of people.

“Siguro po, yung pag-start namin ng busking last year ng Handom Circle, is a really big achievement na po siya sa para sa amin at mga artist sa Masbate, especially po na rerecognize yung busking scene dito sa Masbate and na-shoshowcase po yung mga talents, mga artworks ng artists dito sa Masbate, na hindi naman regularly naipapakita sa mga tao,” San Juan said.

Aside from performing on the center stage, two artists have recently released their songs for the first time on different digital platforms. 

First, indie rock band DRMN launched their first title track ‘Pauli (Going Home)’ on leap day. This song is about going back to your true love. A month later, Russel released Lakbay—it’s about moving onto the next chapter and facing new challenges in life.

Trials and challenges

Behind the success of these Handom artists, there are also trials and challenges that they’re facing as a group and as individuals themselves. 

According to Mike Menes, their group has faced several issues, internally and externally. However, when they encounter some problems, they always reflect on their own mistakes and their reasons for pursuing their passion in music. 

“Hindi naman kasi naming kaya kung we do it individually,” Menes expressed. “We always support each other, and yung support na yun talagang pinanghahawakan namin na makakaya namin.”

On the other hand, Kym also revealed that she is experiencing frustration in making music. As a student and as a musician, she finds it difficult to balance them both due to the academic stress she endured during school days.

“It was just hard to bear that all alone. Dati po kasi, I find it hard to look for some opportunities, so that I could expose my craft that I don’t have to keep,” she expressed. “Kasi it’s my dream po na maging one of the brightest stars, but yun nga po, mahirap siya na abutin kapag mag-isa ka lang.”

DRMN members Mickhel Fuentes and Jeruel Dela Cruz also shared that they had a hard time adjusting in the nature of performing with many people, especially during their first gig as part of the circle.

“Mahirap siya noong una. Kasi, parang, hindi pa ako nakakaadjust sa nature niya kung paano gumalaw, kung paano mamuhay, at sa pang-araw-araw ko na gawain.” Fuentes said.

“Katulad ng sinabi niya, nahihirapan din ako sa pag-adjust kasi student din kasi ako and syempre, as a local artist, andami rin kasing ibang responsibilities sa labas ng pagiging isang artist, kumabaga. Hanggang ngayon, medyo mahirap pa rin,” Dela Cruz added.

Amidst all odds that Kym, Mickhel, and Jeruel have faced, they are grateful that their brothers and sisters in Handom helped them in boosting their confidence and encouraging them to show the spectators what they got.  

“They’re one of the reasons why I choice to continue my life and to pursue music. That’s why I feel so proud of this family kasi kahit they are older than me, pero kuhang nila ang humor ko. Parang ang gaan nila kasama.,” Cadao said.

“…Pero, sa habang tumatagal ang pagiging artist ko, mas natutunan ko kung paano maging matatag at nadadala ko sa paaralan at sa pang araw-araw ko na buhay,” Fuentes added.

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THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME. Some of the members of Handom Circle are singing their hearts out on a karaoke during their post-anniversary celebration on March 29, 2024. (Facebook/Handom Circle)

Handom as a growing circle

Being a “Handom Homie”—that’s what they call themselves—don’t require any audition or interview process to be one of them. What the founders only do is to invite aspiring musicians who has the stage presence and has a good heart to uplift the Masbate’s music scene.

Despite being a well-known busking group in their province, they are often mistaken as a government-based initiative or organization. Lalab and her co-founding best friends clarified that they are just a group of friends who share the same desire in music and songwriting.

“Ang Handom Circle kasi, hindi naman siya organization. Bale, we are just group of friends who want to pursue our art and mahalin ang musika,” Francisco clarified.

“Ang sa amin kasi, ‘di naman kami organization, circle lang, parang group of friends na may parehong passion, at vision sa music community sa Masbate,” Zaragoza added.

As time passes by, it is inevitable for someone to leave their home and have to move on to the next chapter. But on the bright side, the community keeps on thriving and honing more talented people. 

As Handom continues to grow throughout time, more aspiring local artists show support and willingness to join the community. The Handom founders cannot contain their sheer joy on the development of their initiative.

“As pioneers of the busking community here in Masbate, we feel happy and grateful kasi paunti-unti nang naappreciate ng una, ng mga Masbateño ang busking,” Lalab Francisco said. “Through this, may mga artist na siyang natutulungan—to go out to the comfort zone.”

The secret to a successful song performance is to work with each other. Their friendship is the most important aspect in their circle. Without the bond of friendship, Handom Circle would cease to exist. 

“Hindi naman siya talaga sikreto, pero most of the time, talagang pagsasama-sama pa rin kami. We talk each other, at mas pinapahalagahan namin ang friendship namin,” Mike Menes said.

Currently, Handom Circle has 16 members, and the recently added members are Zenly Bagalihog and Aron Dela Cruz.

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Handom Circle artists collaborating with The Dawani Project during the Incubator Songwriting project last March 9-10 (Photo/Ico Zaragoza)

The Future of Handom and Masbate’s Music Scene

Handom Circle believes that their future is bright and productive. They also believe that by propagating and normalizing busking culture, many aspiring artists will be encouraged to join their group and to feel the companionship with one another.

With their slogan—Handom Mapaayo—it depicts perfectly in every Masbateño dream. Ico and his co-founders cannot contain their happiness and contentment on what Handom Circle has achieved in the span of one year.

“As one of the people behind this vision, sobrang nakakataba ng puso. Dahil yung dating pinag uusapan at ini-envision lang namin na movement ng music community sa Masbate ay nagkaroon na ng kulay,” he shared.

Zaragoza also shared that busking paved the way for all artists to step out of their comfort zone and let their voices be heard by the people.

“Nakaka inspire at nakaka encourage pa lalo na ipush forward ang heart ng Handom, ang vision ng Handom dahil nakikita din namin possible pang iangat ang musika ng Masbate,” he added. 

The founders gave a piece of advice to all aspiring singer-songwriters to keep on singing. No matter how small your audience is, do not stop pursuing the thing you love. At the end of the day, people will discover the true potential within you.

“To all future songwriters na gustong din mag-start sa ganitong scene, keep exploring. Also, mahalin niyo ang sining niyo at musika kasi diyan nagsisimula ang growth. Enjoy niyo lang kahit konti palang ang audience niyo. One day, hindi lang kayo ang mapapakinggan sa sarili niyong lugar. Darating yung araw na mapapakinggan kayo ng buong Pilipinas or internationally,” Lalab Francisco concluded. I Meryl Julienne Macenas