You might have been in your car one day, minding your own business, when a familiar dialect starts to play on the radio—"Ay kog labda, last na lang ka. Ayaw lage kog atika, di ko mada sa imong tama (Don't give me a headache, this is your last straw / Really, don't fool me / I won't get carried away by your charms)." That's the sweet siren call of Karencitta, real name Karen Ann Cabrera, and what you just heard was her hit song "Cebuana," which has clocked 4.6 million views on YouTube as of this writing:
We don't get songs about Filipinas very often, let alone one about Cebuanas: there was Marcus Davis Jr.'s "Filipina Girl" and Bamboo's "Probinsiyana," to name a few (and we really mean a few), but those have been long forgotten. Karencitta's dancefloor-ready tune brings Cebuano pride to a global level without being cheesy or patronizing.
"My goal [as an artist] is to amplify Original Pinoy Music on an international scale. And since I am a fully-fledged Cebuana, it only made sense to give gratitude to my roots," Karen shares.
The infectious beat was produced by 14-year-old—yep, you read that right—Austrian producer Tc-5 and Grammy Award winner Jon Ingoldsby (who previously worked with Madonna for her 1998 album Ray of Light). Jon found Karen back when she was doing YouTube comedy skits, and she was initially hesitant to accept his offer for a collaboration, believing it to be too good to be true. "Around that time, I gave up on music na eh, and I went back to college, so I declined. Nawala na ang gana ko sa music and akala ko another scam 'to, pero sa sobrang persistent ni Jon na makipag-collab sa akin, binigyan ko lang ng chance. My family pushed me by saying, 'Don't close your doors. Just meet him.'"
During the early phases of the "Cebuana" songwriting process last year, the Sinulog Festival in Cebu was approaching, and Karen was insistent on including a uniquely Cebuano element in the song: a Sinulog-inspired xylo beat (which you hear in the track around the 0:50 mark). "Sobrang inspired po ako sa Sinulog Festival. That's why I released the record two months before [the festival]," she explains. "I wanted to create a song for Cebuanas to chant. In the Cebuano dialect, the word sinulog means 'graceful dance.' I think the word 'grace' encapsulates the Cebuana, too." She describes the spiritual aspect of making the song, considering Cebuano culture's centuries-long history with the Child Jesus: "While creating the record, I had the statue of Senyor Sto. Nino's statue in front of me."
And that's where "Cebuana" succeeds: by incorporating modern elements that appeal to a global audience without compromising fierce loyalty to her roots. The music video features dancers of all ages, races, genders, and cultures, which was by no means a happy accident. "I want to make the world dance by injecting danceable music," Karen says.
"Gusto ko mag-showcase na kahit professional o non-professional dancer ka, enjoy pa rin ang buhay kapag marinig mo ang record. Unity in diversity. World peace will always win. There's too much negativity going on in the world. This is my centavo of positive vibration."
Fresh from a live performance as part of the JaDine Revolution Concert roster on February 9 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, Karencitta's got plans outside of music as well: she'll be filming the movie Indak alongside Ella Cruz and Yassi Pressman this summer.
These days, millennials tend to shy away from the phrase "Pinoy pride," given that its negative associations leave a bad taste in the mouth. But Karencitta has given it a whole new meaning, especially for Cebuanas, a regional group that very rarely gets their rightful place in the mainstream spotlight. This is only the beginning for Karencitta—an artist who not only knows how to conjure up a viral hit but also isn't afraid to wear her pride on her sleeve.