Dakila begins their debut album with a call to arms for the young Filipinos, Latinos, and Black kids they rubbed shoulders with as teenagers living in the Mission. “We are all brothers and sisters / Let’s work together,” they sing in Tagalog over a Latin rock groove.
“We were right in the middle of this wave of activism. I was hoping our band would encourage Filipinos to go out there and be counted,” says Dakila’s drummer Frank Magtoto, recalling his youth in the ’70s.
For a band now considered obscure, Dakila can claim some incredible achievements. After Fanny, they were the second Filipino band signed to a major label, and the first to put their Filipino identity front and center. They were the first American band to record a track in Tagalog. In their time, they were popular, playing shows for Bill Graham alongside the biggest names of their generation.
“Santana and Malo, the Pointer Sisters and Sly, and us. We practiced alongside them, we covered their songs, and we sometimes performed with them,” guitar player David Bustamante reminisces.
Along with vocalist Romeo Bustamante and conguero Carlos Badia, Frank and David were part of a crowded scene in the Mission, the Black and Brown counterpart to the San Francisco sound up in Haight-Ashbury.
“We had all these other bands around us. We felt like we had to come up with a brand of our own, in music or in identity. We’re not Latinos, we’re actually Filipinos from the Mission,” recalls David, “and, on our first record, I think we wanted to expand on that.”
Dakila is now getting the attention they have always deserved. Their debut album was reissued in Europe last year, just in time for the 50th anniversary of its release. They are the subject of a documentary coming out this year called Searchin’ For My Soul: The Dakila Story, directed by local filmmaker Paul Abueg-Igaz. And David, the youngest surviving member of the band, is preparing to take Dakila to concerts across the Bay for the first time since the pandemic started, hoping to capitalize on their newfound popularity.
In recent interviews, what he and Frank told me was simply incredible. The story of Dakila connects with the major social struggles shaking the Bay at the time, including the birth of the Asian American protest movement and the United Farm Workers’ fight for labor rights. This political consciousness animated their work — and led to what was likely the first truly Asian American rock album in music history.
The first politically Asian American album
The story of Asian immigrants and their descendants in American music is as long as the history of Asian immigration itself. Every moment in American music history had their representative: Jazz had Japanese American pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, for example, and early rock ’n’ roll had Filipino four-piece The Rocky Fellers. They certainly broke barriers for Asians in American pop culture, but these forerunners generally lacked an explicitly political, pan-continental self-image; after all, they existed before the term “Asian American” was even coined. That broader political identity only came into being in 1968, when graduate students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee coined the term to unify activists at UC Berkeley.
Yellow Pearl’s folk album A Grain of Sand, released independently in 1973, is usually cited as the first consciously Asian American album by music critics, thanks to its radical lyrics and pan-Asian philosophy. But perhaps this judgment reflects a pattern, all too common in Asian American studies, of overlooking the achievements of Filipinos. In fact, Dakila’s self-titled came out a year earlier than Yellow Pearl’s work, in 1972, and clearly expresses an Asian American consciousness, down to the decision to sing proudly in Tagalog.
Dakila wanted their music to represent Asian Americans, and they made several radical choices to support that movement. On their debut album’s promotional tour, they played for Asian American student groups in campuses across the West Coast. They also performed benefit concerts to fundraise for Cesar Chavez as part of the oft-forgotten Filipino contingent of the United Farm Workers movement.
The first track on their album nods to their involvement in local activism; it includes the slogan “Makibaka,” Tagalog for “struggle,” in its lyrics.
“Makibaka was a protest chant that was happening here in the U.S.,” says Frank, who had never spoken about Dakila in the press prior to our interview. “Filipinos were using that when they were protesting our colleges, our government.”
Dakila’s background probably contributed to their prescient activist turn. The band’s history is intimately connected with the issues that animated the ’70s generation of Filipino American activists: the American occupation of the Philippines, the Vietnam War and the search for a uniquely Fil-Am identity.
Dakila’s rise to fame
Every Filipino member of Dakila has family ties to the military bases that dot the Bay, the legacy of a government program that granted citizenship to those who served in the Army or Navy during the American occupation of the Philippines. For the Bustamante brothers, Romeo and David, as well as their cousin Frank, the rhythms of military life defined their childhood. Their dads’ army band music was the soundtrack of those years, but once they caught the Beatlemania bug as teenagers, they ditched it for the electric sound of rock’n’roll.
David and Romeo got their start rocking out for the school crowds of Vallejo, while Frank did the same over in the Mission, where they respectively grew up. But they didn’t get together and try to make it big until many years later, after Romeo got back from his Vietnam War conscription in Germany with an itch to make a change in his life.
David, who was younger than Romeo by almost a decade, was still a senior in high school when his older brother informed him of his plans. “Romeo wanted to form a band because when Santana came out in ’69, he fell in love with that music,” says David. “He had moved to the Mission and his tastes had changed — before that we were playing R&B and funk for school crowds. So he told me that when I got out of high school, I should go play with him in San Francisco.”
Romeo assembled a talented, multiracial group of musicians for his band, including the Ancheta cousins, two Filipino guitarists who went on to found the first Asian American hard rock band Golden Dragon, and Michael Gopaul, Romeo’s brother-in-law who was also a timbales player.
“One of our original members was Raul Rekow,” David says, referring to Santana’s longtime conga drummer. “He actually got his start with us before he joined Santana.” In the final lineup, though, Rekow was replaced by another conguero, Carlos Badia.
They quickly attained prominence in the Mission’s Latin rock scene, then the focus of intense major label interest after the success of bands like Santana and Malo.
“Three record companies approached us and wanted to give us a record deal,” recalls David. “We were in a bidding war with our friends in Malo, but they ended up signed to Warner Brothers while we went with Epic.”
At the time, the band performed under the name Soul Sacrifice — but Romeo felt like they should change their name to something that stood out, something perhaps in Tagalog, their first language. Romeo’s dad was the one who proposed the winning name Dakila, Tagalog for “great.” It put the band’s Filipino heritage front and center, and had another appeal as well.
“It kind of sounded like ‘tequila,’” says Frank, laughing. “And that wasn’t a bad thing for a band to be associated with.”
Dakila tries for the big leagues
Dakila was up to this point a live band, and this was their first time in a record studio. “We practiced every day so we don’t waste any studio time,” says David. “We played like ten original songs for them, which the producers cut and spliced into six tracks on the album.”
David is still disgruntled by the producers’ edits, which the band had no say in. “They were like, you’re done recording, you guys come back in the week. Meanwhile, they sped things up and played things backwards and did studio tricks. When we finally heard it, we thought it didn’t sound like us.”
The meddling didn’t end with their production. For unknown reasons, Epic decided to release Dakila’s first single, the patchouli-tinged instrumental “El Dùbi,” with a comedic spoken word A-side called “Language Lessons,” created without the band’s involvement.
“I didn’t know why [Epic] had to do this language thing,” says Frank with irritation. The spoken word piece posed as an instruction manual for DJs struggling to pronounce Dakila’s Tagalog song titles, but this was just an elaborate set-up for racist jokes about Filipino people (“small but wiry”) and the Tagalog language.
“We borrowed that chair from Mabuhay [Gardens] – it was a Filipino restaurant before it became a punk venue, you know,” says Frank. “A lot of people didn’t know this when it was trendy in the ’70s, but it was a Filipino chair, with Filipino origins.”
The “peacock” chair, as it is sometimes called, was first built by Filipino prisoners forced into manufacturing goods for American export during the country’s occupation by the United States. The band’s reclamation of that chair was also a reclamation of that history. In their image and in their music, Filipinos were now speaking back to their former colonizers.
Epic Records, though, didn’t know how to promote a proudly Filipino American band. After making a last ditch effort to boost sales by touring the band through Asian American hotspots in California and Hawaii, Epic quietly dropped the band and scrapped their in-progress second album.
“In the band, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things were going,” says Frank. “Not just about the label, but also the band. Members were getting restless, saying we’re not making it because of you, because of this.”
“I decided to leave,” says David. “I thought, if this wasn’t going to work out, I’d rather go back to school and get a degree in something that will get me money.”
David wasn’t alone in thinking this way: The rest of Dakila called it quits a year after they left Epic.
The band breaks up, but they aren’t forgotten
Carlos Badia and Michael Gopaul left the music industry and disappeared from their bandmates’ lives after Dakila broke up, while the Ancheta cousins moved on to their other band, Golden Dragon. Frank worked his way up from a floor job at a company warehouse to becoming a programmer for that company, all without a degree, while David went to school for nursing and got a job at John Muir Health, in Concord.
While they got on with their lives, the band had no idea that their music was still out there, circulating in bootlegged copies in Europe, Asia and South America.
“A while ago, some people started telling me that my old band had been up on YouTube for a couple years now,” says David. “I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I wasn’t on the internet back then. I guess there are some underground people, a younger generation, who like our music. I started looking it up, and wow, people were selling us on eBay. Cassettes. CDs. Eight tracks!”
David, now retired from his job, dedicates his time to preserving the legacy of Dakila. He tried to iron out the ownership rights from Epic Records, copyrighted Dakila’s logo and, most importantly, got the band back together.
“David started calling all the band members who were still around for a concert called Voices of Latin Rock,” says Frank. “The promoter of the event wanted to get all the groups that used to play in the ’70s, and he knew Dakila from way back when.”
What was supposed to be a one-off reunion turned into multiple event appearances throughout the Bay. The reunion began with David, Romeo, Frank and a new crop of Filipino musicians playing Dakila’s back catalog, but eventually Romeo and Frank decided to retire. Now, David, a full-time musician again, is the only one keeping Dakila alive, performing both their released music and tracks off their scrapped album that never saw the light of day.
Last year, for their album’s 50th anniversary, the newly reunited band partnered with Spain’s Guerssen Records to put out the only official reissue of Dakila. And David finally got his revenge on the producers: “I asked them to digitally slow the tempo down on some tracks to reflect how we wanted it,” David says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better in my ears.”
As for the rest of the living members, they’re all appearing in the forthcoming documentary on the band, Searchin’ For My Soul, which takes its title from the final track on their album.
“Michael wrote that one,” muses David. “It’s really about searching for your identity, you know? A lot of our music is about speaking up and showing who you are. We were one of a kind; you weren’t seeing people like us on the main stage, or on movies, or TV. Now it’s common. We have a lot of Filipino artists, like H.E.R. What we were trying to say back then is becoming reality today.”