‘I couldn’t be Manny Pacquiao, so I joined a band’

By Anna Sian

Last February, I was in the midst of editing a proposal for an engineering consulting firm, when the phone at my desk started ringing. I was called into the Human Resources office and promptly laid off. Well, not the worst thing in the world, I thought, it wasn’t really my thing anyway.

Newly unemployed, living at home — luckily, I grew up in New York City — and dealing with the pangs of a recent breakup, I was open to any and all opportunity. As soon as the unemployment checks started coming in by March, I took a 10-day jaunt to Austin, Texas, to visit one of my best friends from college. The dates I chose to fly out to meet her happened to coincide with two vital events: the Pacquiao vs. Clottey fight in Dallas and the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin, also known as SXSW. And I was determined to attend both.

A friend hooked me up with a solo ticket to see the Pacquiao vs. Clottey boxing match, so I took the Greyhound bus for three hours from Austin and endured a both interesting and frightening ride chatting with a gun-toting, confederate-flag-wearing 18-year-old seated next to me. Finally at the Cowboys stadium, I sat by myself in a nosebleed seat, between two strangers who bought me beer. Though the fight itself was not too eventful, I was nearly brought to tears by Arnel Pineda of Journey’s rendition of “Lupang Hinirang,” and as Filipino flags, t-shirts and capes flashed like confetti in the roaring stadium. I wondered what it must feel like to be Manny. To receive applause, cheers, hoots and hollers, respect from both sides and from the whole world, even. And to be someone who Filipinos everywhere can proudly claim as one of our own. It was like watching the greatest rock star on earth – let’s not forget, Manny sings too.

But arguably more eventful than the Pacquiao-Clottey fight, was the week-long whirlwind of the SXSW festival. I saw five to 10 concerts a day and became a fan of bands I had never heard of. Bodies crowded Sixth Street and Red River Road on serpentine lines to get their minds scrambled by the hottest unknown artist of the year. As I bobbed my head in a sea of sweaty hipsters, I secretly dreamed of being in a band. It seemed more possible than being Manny Pacquiao, anyway.

I had no idea then that the following month, I would be joining a band. Two of my best friends from high school had already been singing in an emerging seven-piece indie band called Ava Luna, described by reviews as post-punk, nervous soul with a ‘90s R&B twist. One of my friends, Siheun, had to call it quits because her day job as a financial advisor was getting too busy. I was called to replace her, and luckily, I was looking for something new to try.

Ava Luna band members (from left) Ethan Bassford, Julian Fader, Nathan Tompkins, Carlos Hernandez, Becca Kauffman, Felicia Douglass and Anna

I’ve been singing in groups ever since I was young, from choirs in elementary and high school to an a cappella group in college. My best friends and I harmonized for fun. So singing in a Motown-esque trio with this band felt natural for me, with the exception of having to learn the complicated song compositions, written primarily by the lead singer and founder of Ava Luna, Carlos Hernandez.

Carlos and Nathan Tompkins started the band after meeting at Columbia University. Carlos sings the lead and plays a Casio keyboard, with Nathan on an Alesis synthesizer, Ethan Bassford on bass guitar and Julian Fader on drums. The x-factor in this band is probably the added blend of three female voices, Becca Kauffman’s, Felicia Douglass’ and mine, reminiscent of ‘50s or ‘60s-era Doo-Wop.

When I joined Ava Luna last April, we were playing shows mostly in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in dark alleys and Pabst Blue Ribbon-scented venues fashioned out of art kids’ basements. The seven of us barely fit into a minivan with all of our equipment on weekend tours to Baltimore or Philly, and we practiced and recorded in the basement of a Korean Methodist church in Coney Island. Then, out of the blue, we were invited to play at the Transmusicales Festival in Rennes, France. We got hooked up with an amazing French production agency that booked us shows in three German cities, Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels and Paris.

Though it may sound a bit more glamorous, touring with a band is actually something like being a trucker. You wake up early, drive eight to ten hours, stop to eat fast-food, sleep a few hours, and do the same thing again in the morning. The only difference is that when you’re a trucker, you don’t have to bounce around on a stage and pretend you’re not exhausted, and you’re not stuck doing everything with six other people.

But a strange sensation came over me in Rennes as we stepped into bright lights from backstage to see over 1,200 faces staring at our awkward bodies, waiting for the first note. This was the biggest show Ava Luna had played thus far, and it made it worthwhile, the nights of sardining in sleeping bags, the long drives and all. Something felt special for those 45 minutes of singing, between trying to focus on the a dot on the back wall so my eyes wouldn’t wander over the crowd, and getting lost in the music and the precious reality of the moment.

To my surprise, our band was chosen to play at SXSW this past March, only one year after I had gone to the festival as an unemployed fan. And now, I have a full-time day job to juggle, too. Things move quickly in your mid-twenties, I suppose, but I’m happy to go along for the ride.

Anna Sian is a Filipina American born and raised in NYC. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2007 and works for Staple Design, a creative agency. For more of Anna’s photos, visit annasian.carbonmade.com. For Ava Luna’s music, visit avaluna.posterous.com or facebook.com/avaluna.


  1. Jocelyn Angeles Espinoza wrote:

    Enjoyed reading this!

  2. Hernan Hormillosa wrote:

    pretty and cool ! pretty cool.

  3. Alex Pastor wrote:

    A very good read.

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