We are four in a brood and Arnel heads the crew, being the eldest. As in his earlier testaments, life indeed was tough but it was bit manageable when our Ima (mama in Capampangan) was still around. Mother was headstrong, feisty, straight-forward and a strong resolve. I can say that our mother still wields a greater influence on Arnel compared to any other personality that he had encountered. He takes after her resiliency and courage; the traits that guide him to this day. Her ability to blend well with people was also instilled on him, in preparation for his future dealings with people of mixed culture and orientation. I marvel at his disarming humility, which erases any more reason not to like him. And all these good things about him were not learned easily; Arnel travelled a long way prior to his long-delayed arrival.
The formative years
Despite our difficulties, Ima still decided to send Arnel to a Catholic school, as she was convinced that the church is still the best source of education in the Philippines. She wanted the best for her children and it was not far-fetched as Arnel is an academic performer during his elementary years. We attended the same primary school and teachers who had guided him before cannot help but to cross-reference us. Yet to me it was a welcome comparison. He was everywhere; singing for school glee club, joining the rondalla troupe and performing during school programs. I think I was in first grade when I first saw him singing live a Karen Carpenter song and it struck me then why he would sing a lady’s song. Must be that Ima was so fond of the Carpenters that she listened and sung them routinely, that the songs were impressed on him, and back then Arnel is already shaping into a versatile artist. His first crowning glory came prior to finishing elementary; Arnel represented our school in a national quiz tilt. He did not actually join the contest as another schoolmate did and won; he sung instead Celeste Legaspi’s Gaano Kita Kamahal. He was on national television for the first time and it won’t be the last.
The hard years
During Arnel’s secondary junior years, Ima finally succumbed to a long, losing fight with rheumatic heart. That episode started a domino effect of misfortunes on our family. We were left bankrupt by Ima’s hospital bills and ensuing funeral expenditures. We never recovered but Arnel rose to the challenge. We all had to quit school and then we lost our rented apartment. The younger ones were distributed among relatives and it was not easy. For years, we hardly saw each other except for some occasional visits from Arnel. Every time he drops by on my auntie’s place, he always wore his faded green corduroy. I was not sure where he lived that time. All I know, he was all hard up and barely surviving, and still able to share some pesos from his shallow pocket. How he earned them, God knows. I later learned he had to do odd jobs to fend off hunger. So bent on fighting on, he must be anticipating of something big to happen.
Then one day our father fetched me and broke the good news that Arnel now sings for a band. And he had asked me to live with him. His place was like a bodega (small warehouse) turned into a makeshift room. There, we had as room-mates roaches, rats and mosquitoes. But it was better. Some months after, he convinced me to return to school with assurance that he’ll take care of the bills. Prior to that, I almost gave up school and his prodding changed my life thereafter. On the other hand, his singing career seemed to head for a click. I never had the chance to watch him live back then but apparently his band was good. I heard them winning numerous contests and then landing some TV gigs. They were on the way up and then they hit a snag. In between, his band assumed the role of music journeymen hitting stages in Olongapo, Makati, Singapore and Hong Kong. I reckon it was a colourful journey and his personal life is taking a parallel course.
At 20, Arnel became a father but did not marry until years after then became a father anew. Sadly those 2 previous relationships didn’t work. Along the way, he dabbled on singing solo but the time was not yet his. He soldiered on, shuttling between Hong Kong and Manila and on the side compiling numerous original materials. As I used to live with him, he would share his penned songs to me regularly. Rushing down the stairs and lugging his guitar, he would sing his latest compositions to me. I never imagined that I am in the middle of a history in the making – why these materials may now end up as rock classics for the days to come. Personally it was a wonder to realize how a great talent can be in hiding. And so I began frequenting his gigs. Seeing that many foreigners are responding positively to his acts – covering James Brown, Robert Plant and Journey – I was convinced that his skills will somehow be appreciated in a different place. The hometown boy will have to spell his name somewhere else.
It turned out that what was slow to come will be expedited by the magic of the internet. A fan uploaded his live video performances on YouTube and the posting came at a right time. A legendary rock band is in search for a singer and in their own words, they were desperate. Arnel Pineda is on YouTube singing their songs. And Journey stumbled upon an uncanny cover and more. As guitarist Neal Schon had mused, “he had to step away from the computer and let what he heard sink in his mind.” Few email exchanges and some phone calls ensued and Arnel boarded a plane en route to San Francisco. And he got the plum gig. Moreover, fate seems to have played a crucial role. As securing a visa entry to the United States is next to impossible in the Philippines, but the man who issued Arnel’s visa is also the same guy he wowed on a previous gig. Like a smooth movie plot, everything fitted into their proper places and his amazing journey has just begun.
The new journey
For Arnel, his whole life has just been given a reboot. Everything reloads into a new start. He now embarks on a journey that will take him physically to different countries, theatres and arenas. The task ahead can both be mentally taxing and physically exhausting; yet there lies the challenge and excitement. As he has intimated before, he is out there to enjoy the fellowship, the celebration and the legacy of a life he has embraced and has embraced him in return. His uphill climb was a tough one but it had proved to be a worthy one. Twenty five years of performing and this single year could well be the defining moment for Arnel. I have seen my brother pull through really tough times. While there may be hordes of unforeseen revelations. I can sense that he is up to the call of showcasing his talent and proving his worth. I believe 25 years are sufficient enough badge of achievements and proof. And the next 25 to come may just well be moments of validation.
– by E.P. (2008)
Video of Arnel singing with his father and siblings. From left to right: Arnel, guitarist/friend Monet, father Resty, brother Rusmon and brother Erik, the author of this biography. Noel Gomez appears at 2:15 in front of the white screen.