Meet the Force Who Ruled the Philippine Jazz Age

Luis Borromeo popularized an exciting new sound from the music halls of the West and ushered in the age of jazz in the Philippines.

He had been dubbed the country’s “King of Jazz” and “Paderewski of the Orient,” but Luis Borromeo will always be known and recognized as the originator of orientalized classic jazz in the colorful vaudeville years, popularizing an exciting new sound from the music halls of the West and ushering in the age of jazz in the Philippines.

JAZZ THE WAY YOU ARE. Luis F. Borromeo of Cebu, came back after hitting it big in the American entertainment circuit. He introduced jazz music to the Philippines by way of his song-dance-circus-magic revues that livened up the Carnivals. Ca. 1922.

Luis Borromeo is from the prominent Borromeo family of Cebu, but his love for music began in Leyte, where he would begin his early musical training. Like a few of his siblings, he went to America where he furthered his studies in piano, while quickly imbibing its lively musical culture.

In 1915, his fascination for the performance arts brought him to San Francisco to see the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition which featured stage shows and similar entertainment. In one such show, he was egged on by compatriots to show off his piano-playing skills at the Dutch Pavilion, which led to his discovery. 

Taking on the stage name “Borromeo Lou,” the talented jazz pianist was signed to perform on the Orpheum Circuit, a chain of U.S. theaters that featured films and stage shows. He often performed with singers and dancers, and his three-year stint with Orpheum enabled him to see much of America—with tours to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

LEADER OF THE BAND. Taking on the name “Borromeo Lou,” the jazz pianist played his way across America through the Orpheum Circuit, and before long, became a bandleader.


As part of the trio “D’avigneau’s Celestials,” Borromeo’s act became a headline attraction, drawing crowds who came to see and hear the jazz man and his Chinese-American companions—tenor Shun Tok Sethe and Men Toy, a beautiful danseuse. From 1919 to 1921, the Chinese costume-clad trio mesmerized audiences with their unique, jazzy sound that one reviewer called “oriental syncopation,” which set them apart from other stage acts.

Philippine newspapers regularly reported Borromeo’s success on the highly-competitive American entertainment circuit, often commanding one thousand pesos per week for his performance.

An opportunity to return came in 1921, at the height of the Manila Carnival craze, an annual national event that featured spectacular stage shows from here and abroad. So, in 1921, Borromeo returned to the Philippines, and put up a band that played classical-jazz music. This music genre found favor in the local entertainment circuit, which integrated such performances in the variety shows, later named “vod-a-vil” by Borromeo (from the French vaudeville). It was Filipinized into "bodabil" and the term stuck.

BORROMEO’S FOLLIES. Loosely modeled from the Ziegfield Follies, Borromeo Lou’s revue featured beautiful dancing girls, exotic Japanese singers and talented musicians. He often played many of his original piano compositions.

His big band music repertoire often included his own early compositions like “My Beautiful Philippines” (about a U.S. sailor pining for his Filipina sweetheart in the islands), “Jazzy Sound in All Chinatown,” “Manila Mia,” and “My Vamping Sweet Guitar.”

Borromeo Lou’s familiarity with the latest American music trends made him and his group much in demand in Manila. He was often invited to grace important events and high society functions. The Borromeo troupe was the featured group at the Philippine Columbian Party held on Sept. 30, 1921, with Philippine Gov. Gen. Francis Burton Harrison and future president Manuel Quezon in attendance. 

He found lasting renown in his native land when he was tapped by the Manila Carnival committee to stage his own revue called “Borromeo’s Follies”-- at the 1922 edition of the national fair. The enterprising pianist-impresario went beyond spreading his jazz music by organizing his own repertory of artists known as the “Borromeo Lou & Co., Ltd.,” which had magicians, dancers, acrobats, comedians, singers, and musicians in its roster of performers.

He and his troupe were thus introduced to the Carnival audience as “Manufacturer of Jazz, Joy, Melody and Funny Noises” while Borromeo Lou himself was described as “a pianist of rare skill and ability, and champion of all ‘round mirth provoker of the Far East.” To hype his show, it was announced in promotional ads that the appearance of Borromeo Lou and his group was made possible through a “royal appointment by her Gracious Majesty, the Queen of the 1922 Manila Carnival.”


DUDU-IT-YOURSELF. One of Borromeo Lou’s prized performers was the Moro singer, Dudu, who sang beautifully, accompanied by his own banjo and guitar.


The cast was headed by Borromeo Lou himself (“The Human Dynamo, Director and Classic-Jazz Pianist”), Miss Toytoy ( the “captivating China girl that has won the hearts of all Manila with her character songs and distinctive dances”), Datu Mandi (a superb and inimitable Moro baritone “who interprets with perfection the most difficult operas and sings the exquisite melodies of modern composers”), Dudu (the Moro musician who accompanied himself with his banjo), Lucas (an impersonator who was known as the miniature Harold Lloyd), Hayoki and Maruki San (the demure Japanese twins who sang Japanese folk songs and dances, and Osolev (Moro dancer).


HAYOKI AND MARUKI-SAN. These twin siblings sang Japanese ditties and performed traditional Japanese dances in Borromeo’s Follies. They were in fact, Filipinos.


There were also musicians like Sulubi (a saxophonist, “a victim of saxiphobia”) and Swasing (slide trombone player). Of course, Borromeo’s jazz orchestra, capable of “producing about 240 jazz explosions per minute”, top-billed the Carnival show.

Under Borromeo Lou’s superb direction, his troupe dished out quality entertainment for the Carnival crowd, furnishing “the joy racket of the big show,” night after night.

“If you’re sick, come and be cured. If you’re going to die, come and have a good laugh first. If you’re well, come and help carry out the Jazzophobia victims”—so went Borromeo Lou’s call-to-action to Carnival visitors and revelers. And, indeed, the crowds did not go disappointed; in time, the whole nation was consumed by big band jazz euphoria.


EAST MEETS WEST. Borromeo Lou’s distinctive sound was described as having “Oriental syncopation.” The bandleader often presented Asian stereotypes in his performances, by way of costumes and language.

After making a triumphant splash at the carnival, Borromeo Lou and his vaudeville troupe stayed on at the Olympic Stadium across the Bilibid and continued performing as “Borromeo Lou’s Stadium Vod-a-Vil”. Other companies began sprouting up and by the end of 1925, Manilans had a choice of watching the Nifties at the Savoy, Variety Stars at the Rivoli, and the Lux Peaches at Lux Theater.

Borromeo took his act on the road and toured Philippine provinces, captivating local audiences with his free-form jazz music, while his dancers titillated—and sometimes scandalized conservative townsfolks with their skimpy costumes and flirtatious dancing.

His “bodabil” shows would thrive for the rest of the American occupation—staged in fiestas, petit fairs, and theaters—and jumpstarting the careers of well-known artists as singer Katy de la Cruz, dancer Bayani Casimiro, and the Charlie Chaplin look-alike, Canuplin. Not much is known about Borromeo’s later years, as birth and death records in Cebu were lost during the war. His children, however, remained in the U.S., a country which he had come to love.

The Jazz craze would continue to endure for many years, providing leisurely diversions to Filipinos, especially during the war years. In the 50s and 60s, musicians like Exequiel “Lito” Molina and the Jazz Friends, Romy Katindig, Romy Posadas and Angel Peña melded folk tunes with jazz music, a distinctive sound that found wide acceptance with the mainstream audience. Fusion music was all the rage in the '70s through the '80s, as innovative artists like Eddie Munji, Ryan Cayabyab, Boy and Eddie Katindig, Bong Peñera, and Rudy Lozano dabbled in jazz mixed with rock, pop, and Latina elements, ushering a new golden age in Philippine music—thanks to the pioneering king of vaudeville jazz who started it all—Borromeo Lou. 

Pinoy Jazz Traditions. Pasig City: Anvil, 2004
Castro, Alex R., Manila Carnivals 1908-1939 
Walsh, Thomas P. Tin Pan Alley and the Philippines: American Songs of War And Love, 1898-1946.
Himig: the Music Collection of FHL.
Marvin, David. From Madison to Manila: Filipino Music icon Redisovered
The Politics of “Oriental Syncopation,” by Fritz Schenker
The American Colonial and Contemporary Traditions in Philippine Dance 

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