by Wolf Gemora
Dondi Ledesma. The name conjures up images of lightning-fast fingers moving up and down a bass guitar’s fret board. Up until his untimely passing in February of 2009 he was considered to be the best bass player in the Philippines. Some could argue that if not for his shyness, he could have become a successful international artist, a true testament to his world-class talent. He would have given Jaco Pastorius a run for his money. Yes, he was that good. He was also an accomplished flutist, keyboardist and a championship medalist in the sport of archery.
Dondi Ledesma was my uncle, my dad’s first cousin. He was tito Dondi. I remember meeting him in one of the big family lunches when I was about 10 years old. My early memories of him were always seeing him every year and he looked the same every time; long hair and dark glasses with a lit cigarette in hand and a pair of earphones plastered to his ears. He always looked like he had just gotten out of bed, which was probably the case.
In my eyes, he’d have easily become the “weird uncle”, but he said hello to everyone, even us kids, before he isolated himself in the corner of the room with his yosi and his Walkman. Every now and then, someone would come up to him to chat and he would always graciously engage with a smile. I never did consider him weird. That distinction would have to go to a couple of his cousins that were actually weird. He just seemed incredibly shy and was very soft-spoken.
In 1985, when I was 14 years old, I lived with tito Dondi in his parent’s house as a boarder because my family had moved to Iloilo and I wanted to finish high school in Manila. I still had not known how talented an artist he was and that he was already brethren to Pinoy Rock’s elite by this time. I hardly saw him since he was probably out all night playing high-octane rock with Pepe Smith and asleep all day.
There was one day though, that our lives would take a turn. Coming home early from school at noon, I had walked into an armed robbery that was happening inside the house. I found myself with a knife to my neck and a very nervous man was threatening to kill me if I didn’t give them everything of any kind of value. Aside from me in the house were the household help and tito Dondi fast asleep in the master bedroom. I calmly led the thieves around the house scrounging out every piece of jewelry and every wad of cash we could find. The only things going thru my mind were “I hope this guy doesn't hurt me” and “I hope tito Dondi doesn’t wake up and come out”. I can’t imagine what would have happened if the thieves saw a tall, longhaired dude come out of the room. It would have been ugly.
By some sort of miracle, we did not go into the master bedroom. Every room was ransacked except for the one tito Dondi was passed out in. It still boggles my mind to this day. Anyway, the devils finally had their fill and left the scene of the crime without hurting anybody. Within ten minutes the police had arrived and the house started to resemble a scene from the “CSI” TV series. Now, at this time tito Dondi is STILL inside his room, oblivious to the drama that had just happened.
I was standing near the entrance when I heard the door to his room open. He emerged from his den, shirtless and unkept. What happened next was classic. He rubbed the sleep away from his eyes while he was walking thru the hall and as soon as he saw the room full of cops he gave this look of utter shock, turned on a dime and walked briskly back to his room and slammed the door. The look on his face was priceless.
That was the last I saw of him until 13 years later. The robbery incident put me on a road that would lead to my adventures with my first band, Hysteria and later with Wolfgang. We saw each other again in one of the last big family lunches. He still looked the same. This time, my hair was as long as his. I guess he knew what I had going on with the band coz he wanted to swap albums. I was very surprised that he even cared about what I did. I gave him the “Semenelin” album of WG and he gave me the second DNDI album. At this point in time, I had NOT yet seen or hear him play. We talked about music that afternoon and that was the first and last time I ever “talked” to him.
Sometime later I finally got to see him play when Wolfgang played along with the late Edmond Fortuno’s band at the time. My jaw dropped and I was in awe for the whole set. I greeted him after and the first thing he said -- with a strong ilonggo accent--was, “don’t call me tito”. From then on, I knew tito Dondi was someone very special. Somehow, I didn’t watch him so much. He was still in “hyper-hibernation mode” at the time. By the time he was regularly playing live with the Wally Gonzalez Band, I had already relocated to the US.
The many basses of DNDI.
I was in Bacolod last January ’09 when I heard a rumor of his condition. By the time I was in Iloilo for the Dinagyang festival I had met a couple of his old buddies and the rumors slowly became fact. I was in shock and naively thought that he would get better and keep on playing. He passed away a few weeks later. I cried that night but I didn’t understand why because we weren’t close at all. I think I cried because Pinoy Rock lost another ESSENTIAL figure. He wasn’t the most popular figure but he was the best at what he did. No matter who came along and thought he/she was the best, I knew tito Dondi was in his private studio, kicking your ass and serving it to you with a smile.
"Hotdancer" by DNDI.
"Medicine" by DNDI.
"Do You Think It's Alright?" by DNDI
I attended the last day of his wake and found myself in the presence of Pinoy Rock royalty. Wally Gonzalez of Juan Dela Cruz, Chikoy Pura of The Jerks and master guitarist Noli Aurelio played an impromptu jam that put tears into the eyes of the people present. His older siblings (Dondi was the youngest of 7) did not fully understand the amount of impact that their baby brother had on Filipino music until they saw the visitors who came to pay their last respects to their idol. The scene inside the room was a very interesting one. On one side of the room were seated all the family/clan members in their semi-formal attire, while on the opposite side were artists, writers and longhaired musicians wearing Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd t-shirts.
The void that Dondi Ledesma has left in Pinoy Rock is a gaping hole that I don’t think any one person will be able to fill. He was the most prolific independent artist in the country (with 9 independent albums) and was a great example to a lot of musicians, myself included. He will be sorely missed. The only consolation we have is that he is probably in the great gig in the sky and Jaco is telling him, “Fuck, it’s good to see you, man. It’s your turn to jam with Bonham, Jimi and Miles.”
DNDI's last project, The Chilekings with drummer Chris Messer
Si Idol in action.