Almost there

Kirby Asunto

By Cristina DC Pastor

She has the raw talent of a Shirley Temple and the once-tightly guarded life of a Lea Salonga. At 13, up-and-coming singer Kirby Asunto is at the cusp of something big, something that may yet lead to Fame, but family and, to a certain extent, community are keeping her grounded. And she is getting impatient.

“I wanna go mainstream,” she said, a declaration made in front of her mother, Shirley, and this reporter. “My goal is to be exposed to the world, to be famous.”

Shirley, a food caterer and Kirby’s constant companion, laughed the chuckle of one who thought her daughter was just being flighty and acting cute. It may have felt way, but Kirby betrayed the look of one exasperated at the slow pace of her musical takeoff.

“Sometimes my feeling is when my mom talks to a producer, she’s ruining it,” she moaned. “She always says no no no, always thinking negative.”

The mother said she had reason to be overly cautious to the point of appearing to be a stumbling block to Kirby’s career moving forward. Years earlier, someone in the Asunto extended family offered to take Kirby under his wings. This person pledged to manage her professionally on the condition Kirby’s parents ceded all parental rights over to him.

“Hahawakan daw siya until 18 years old at kami taga-bitbit lang ng damit. Suwelduhan lang kami. Hindi bale hindi siya sumikat, huwag lang siya ma-exploit,” confessed Shirley.

Shirley and Kirby

The generational tug-of-war – pitting Kirby’s gung-ho drive to succeed versus her mom’s fatalistic outlook toward the future – is at the heart of this relationship, the cultural disconnect that is sometimes putting a strain between mother and daughter. But there is a lot of family loyalty and affection and respect for her mother’s decisions that Kirby does not dare defy.

The sweetly voiced Kirby, an eighth grader at Myles J. McManus Middle School in Linden, New Jersey, has been a regular performer at Filipino community events. At rallies, festivals, conventions and private parties, Kirby is likely to be there, with Shirley not minding the ‘stage mother’ label. It’s been five years, and she is still entertaining the same audience, with some organizations skipping on her talent fee. The proverbial “break” that landed on Charice’s lap when she was spotted by Ellen DeGeneres has remained elusive. Charice now has a phenomenal singing career that has caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey and the popular TV show “Glee.”

“I used to have a manager in New York,” disclosed Kirby. “Her name is Toby Gibson. I had her for two years. She sent me to Broadway auditions, like the ‘Lion King.’ It was a good experience.”

But Shirley turned down Toby’s offer to be Kirby’s full-time manager when the two-year contract ran out. She was worried, she said, of losing control — or maybe being stripped of it.

Kirby is now under the care of Filipino musicians. There’s voice coach Bituin Escarcha and guitarist-conductor Michael Dadap who is always ready with a mentor’s advice and insights. Both are believers in this wisp of a girl with a stunningly powerful voice, who started performing before an audience at age 4 and looks to Lea Salonga and Beyonce for inspiration.

Her first concert

Last month, she had her first concert, “Kirby Asunto: Here and Now,” packing the St. Mary’s Church in Rahway with friends, relatives and fans who have supported her through the years. Kirby sang a range of songs – from the bouncy “Proud Mary” to the soulful “Reflection” from the Disney musical “Mulan” — that showcased her vocal versatility.

Shirley couldn’t be prouder.

“Ako naman, shadow lang ako,” she said. Shadow maybe, but she is also the little voice that constantly reminds Kirby never to turn her back on her community. “Sabi ko, diyan ka nag-umpisa. Lingunin mo yung pinaggalingan mo.”

More performances are in store for Kirby through the end of the year. Shirley is laying the groundwork for a bigger breakout concert at the Lincoln Center, as she remains in talks with possible sponsors. If it were a 10-step pathway to stardom, she believes Kirby is somewhere on the fifth step, halfway to where she wants to be: a big name singer.

Eyeing her daughter with a smile, she said: “Konting patience na lang.”

Cristina DC Pastor is the founding editor of The FilAm.

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