Blues for Wally, a personal tribute

Yesterday I received the devastating news that a beloved aunt of mine passed away due to cardiac arrest.

The rest of the day went by in a detached sort of way with only this distinct awareness that I had something seemingly stuck in my throat as I went about my usual.

As the day wound down, I dealt with my grief in the way that I know how. By picking up my electric guitar and wail blues rock styled progressions and phrases that were both, to my credit, beautiful and maybe indulgent at the same time.

I had to thank Wally Gonzalez partly for that.

So, it is with another jab of shock that I heard of another loss this morning.

Wally Gonzalez died in his sleep in the morning of July 23, 2021.

The news was posted on Facebook by his son John Gonzalez, who also mentioned that the remains of his late father will be cremated soon after.

The legendary guitarist battled diabetes and suffered a stroke early this year.

Wally was 71 years old.

What I know of Wally Gonzalez is confined in the albums he made with the iconic Juan Dela Cruz Band he made decades ago.

But it was enough to set me on a journey that continues to this day.

My first encounter with Wally’s blues was through an old, scratched up JDC record called “Maskara.” I got that from my aunt’s eldest son’s old record stash. It was missing the whole sleeve and was handed to me as is: An old LP with the magenta Sunshine label that had the songs “Maskara,” “Pinoy Blues,” “Nadapa Sa Arina,” “Rak En Rol Sa Mundo” “Palengke” and a couple more titles printed on that old decal.

Said vinyl would even get more worn with the mileage as I must have played it a couple of hundreds of times as I jammed along with the mighty Juan Dela Cruz Band, stumbling and awkwardly at first, but gaining confidence and a semblance of fluidity on the guitar after the first few dozen plays.

Wally would know about fluidity. He had it in spades. In fact, there was an agile smoothness to all his guitar solos on said record. Listeners would automatically mention “Beep Beep,” and “Balong Malalim” as the quintessential JDC tracks from the “Maskara” album. But I think those that do really didn’t absorb that record. Because then they would know of a poignant, string-laden ballad called “Nakatagong Mata” that Wally sung on (the only track on the JDC catalog that he did) and whose solo break is one of the prettiest that Wally’s deft Pentatonic and Blues-scale based soloing had the pleasure of playing over. It was beautiful, it had soul and he nailed the changes. And in the context of all those songs he’s known for, that’s saying something.  

Check out Wally’s fiery minor key soloing on a lesser-known song, the Mike Hanopol-sung “We Love You” as he lashes out in the last minute-and-twenty seconds of the song and plays over the classical-inspired orchestrations that seem to egg him on underneath. And how about that frenzied solo on “Last Song”? It’s an empathic punctuation mark to a goosebump-inducing, electric performance ever set on record by a Pinoy lead guitarist. And to think it was recorded way back in ’74 is just amazing.

As I write this, I listen to another “Maskara” deep cut in “Naglalakbay.” A meditative number that employs strings, pianos and those iridescent arpeggios from Wally’s guitar that after all these years, still whirl the right way in my ears and puts a calm in my mind. Which is how I imagine Wally Gonzalez went in his final minutes on this Earth. Serenely and at ease.

Thank you Sir Wally! Say hi to my Aunty Inday if you ever bump into her into that great waiting station in the sky as they sort out the new arrivals.

Rest in peace to you both.