Napoleon Torralba Abiog was known to most of his friends as “Benjie.”He spent an ordinary childhood in Sta. Cruz, Manila, but in high school, socio-economic troubles leading to social unrest made him join the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK). Disapproving of his decision, his school did not allow him to march during graduation rites in 1970.
In college, Benjie first enrolled for a course in electrical engineering at the University of Santo Tomas. But wanting to be a lawyer like his father, , he changed course and enrolled for a political science degree in 1971 at the Philippine College of Commerce (PCC, now Polytechnic University of the Philippines).
At PCC, he became attracted to Kamanyang Players, a student theater organization that presented socially relevant plays and performances. He soon joined the group as a guitarist, marking the beginning of his lifelong passion for cultural arts work for the people.
Benjie began taking more and more responsibilities in the group, which soon renamed itself Samahang Kamanyang, reorienting itself to identify with the growing mass movement. He started performing as a singer, composer, and reluctant actor. He then became the group’s choir master and musical director.
Drawing inspiration from the works and the stories of the struggles of the activist artists of the time, he decided he was going to be a people’s artist – “artista ng bayan” at a time when the phrase was not yet used.
When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, all forms of protest were banned. But like many artists, Benjie used the performing arts to find creative ways to speak out about the sins of Marcos’ new regime.
He also began working full time as an activist involved in trade union work in the areas south of Manila, helping workers of companies like La Suerte, Philacor, GE, Wyeth, Gatcord, Solid Mills, other factories in Makati, Paranaque, Pasay, Muntinlupa, and Las Pinas.
Bringing his passion for cultural performance, he incorporated music in his trade union tasks of organizing and educating workers. He clearly understood the role of cultural work in the fight to awaken, organize, and mobilize the people. Benjie used his mastery of cultural works to contribute to the broader movement in order to expose the true state of society, condemn martial law, and oppose the unfair policies of the martial law regime.
But it was in 1981 that Benjie helped form the group which fellow activists best remember him for: the cultural group Tambisan sa Sining, which staged performances in strike areas, rallies, and other protest actions.
At a time when worker activism was reeling under the dictatorship’s punches, Benjie stepped up and filled the need to help in the organizing work among the workers. As the group’s resident musician, Benjie wrote songs which gave artistic expression to the plight of workers and poor people under the Marcos regime, helping raise the protester’s spirits. These became a prominent part of Tambisan’s repertoire such that the group was considered by many as the “standard bearer of people’s music and art.”
The group became more and more popular among worker’s groups, until just the mention of Tambisan coming to a worker’s activity or rally was enough to generate excitement.
He was also heard as a performer on the albums “Kalipunan ng mga Makabayang Awitin”, and “Ibong Malaya” Volumes 1 and 2 – collections of songs of struggle and liberation which became very popular and in demand among groups involved in the anti-Marcos resistance. He also helped with the distribution of cassettes of these collections.
He generously kept assisting in the staging of many cultural presentations, awakening and mobilizing workers in various sectors at a time when organizing was very dangerous, and workers were just beginning to press for the right to unionize and vent their complaints about economic conditions (calling for fair wages, objecting to rising oil prices, etc.) Benjie served as musical director for productions with nationalists and progressive themes such as: “Sanlibong Sulo” (1982); “Awit, Tula, at Kasaysayan ng Kilusang Paggawa” (1983, later also performed in Japan); “Sigaw ng Bayan” (1983); “Cara y Cruz” (1984); “Welga! Welga!” (1985); “Mayo Uno ng Ating Paglaya” (1986 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines); and “Sang Bagsak” (1988).
Benjie also took a more active role as an educator, as he was often called upon to facilitate seminars and training workshops on lyric-writing, musical composition, and even public speaking. He created a training module on organization and project management, making sure it was suitable for the labor sector. Those who went through the seminars with him remember him as patient and kind, but passionate in trying to instill pride and commitment to one’s group.
After the fall of the Marcos regime in 1986, Benjie became Chair of Tambisan, continuing in that role until 1991. 1986 was also when he was elected national chair of newly formed Makabayang Alyansa Sa Sining Anakpawis, a federation of people’s cultural groups. He kept helping to organize community cultural groups, such as Silayan in Makati and Palanyag in Paranaque.
In 1988, he helped form Bugkos, a mass-based people’s national cultural center. In the same year, he became involved in what would later be known as the Amado V. Hernandez Resource Center – a new grassroots institution named after the imprisoned labor leader who would later be named National Artist for Literature. There, he kept training cultural groups among workers until he retired in 1992.
Circumstances of death
By 2015 Benjie was helping his wife Chona as a full time parent to their five children, while also working part-time as a music teacher in a school right across their home in Wood Estate Village in Bacoor, Cavite.
He passed on August 6, 2016. He suffered a heart attack amidst a neighbourhood protest against a water company.
Impact of life on family and the community
Friends remember Benjie as a visible figure during the protests of the Martial Law era – exceptionally tall with an afro hairstyle, and never far away from his guitar. They remember how his voice resonated wherever he went, be it in street protests or singalongs. They remember the effort he put into every presentation, big or small.
Most of all, they remember his music.
Filipinos are a musical lot, and Benjie expressed the people’s yearning for freedom and human rights through his songs.
His advocacy for workers’ rights lives on through Tambisan sa Sining, which continues to perform his songs.
The Ibong Malaya albums were one of the very few collections of protest and prison songs composed during the martial law era, and recorded under very difficult conditions. His willing participation in it is truly noteworthy, for the songs today remain significant testaments to the horrors of the dictatorship.
- Sining-Kamanyang, 1971 – guitarist, composer, choirmaster
- GELMART Singers (during martial law) – singer, composer, arranger, guitarist
- Samahan ng DemokratikongKabataan- PCC
- Tambisan sa Sining
- Makabayang Alyansa sa Sining Anakpawis
- Partido ng Bayan
- Bagong Alyansang Makabayan –Mindanao Chapter
- Sining Bugkos
- Kilusang Mayo Uno
- Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas
- Silayan Cultural Group
Literary works, groups organized
- Ibong Malaya (album) Vols. 1 and 2
- Gelmart Singers
- IsangBagsak (song )
- IsangBagsak (play)
- CRISANTO (wrote the song and music)
- WELGA, WELGA (play)
- Sigaw ng Bayan (play)
- Pasko ng Manggagawa
- Mayo Uno ng AtingPaglaya (musical)
- Awit, Tula at Kasaysayan (theatre production)
- Lean: A Filipino Musical, 1997 (production manager)