Vehnee Saturno: Isang dakot ng mga panaginip (A handful of dreams)

By Aileen_PYP on 4th Jun 2022


Iconic Filipino songwriter and producer Vehnee Saturno shares his fight with COVID, fond memories of Hong Kong, ponders on his 42-year career and his dreams for the future of Original Pinoy Music


“I REALLY MISS going to Tsim Sha Tsui, I like the hotels and shopping there,” says Vehnee, recalling the frequent trips he would make to Hong Kong prior to the pandemic, “I especially miss going to Tom Lee [Hong Kong’s biggest music store], where I can just walk down the street from the hotel and look at new gadgets for my recording studio.”


Speaking to Vehnee Saturno feels like catching up with an old friend; one minute he’s talking matter-of-factly about his many international accolades and the numerous famous artists he’s worked with, then moments later he’s reminiscing about how he misses playing basketball back in Laguna. Given how iconic he is, this down-to-earth style comes as a pleasant surprise. 


Vehnee Saturno is one of the most prolific songwriters in the Philippines. He has written and recorded almost 900 songs, with at least 150 chart hits to his credit. His 42-year career has seen him work with performing artists from all over the world; he has composed songs for many of Cantopop’s biggest stars – including Ekin Cheng, Jackie Cheung, Vivien Chow and Karen Tong – and has won awards for his song writing as far afield as Bali and Finland. 


And while Vehnee’s international work is impressive, his success in the Philippines is nothing short of legendary. His ability to take a few chords, throw in some lyrics, arrange the music, and hand it to an artist to sing is unrivaled; more often than not, he has created a hit song that will soon be all over the radio charts, stuck in everyone’s heads, and eventually, appearing in karaoke lists up and down the country. You know you’ve made it in the music business in the Philippines if your song is in the karaoke lists – in Vehnee’s case, he boasts a karaoke back catalogue of more than 300 tracks.


Vehnee’s big break came back in 1982, when his song Isang Dakot – performed by Sonia Singson – won the Metro Manila Pop Music Festival. He followed this up in 1983 with another smash hit, a song called Be My Lady, which he wrote for then up-and-coming performer, Martin Nievera.


With a rapidly growing reputation, Vehnee soon crossed paths with a young Ariel Rivera, who was just starting out in the music business. Vehnee’s composition Sana Kahit Minsan – now considered an OPM (Original Pilipino Music) classic – helped propel Rivera to superstardom, with the single achieving No. 1 in the charts and his album going 3 times platinum.


These are just a few examples from a long line of recording artists who have enjoyed chart success through working with Vehnee: Ella Mae Saison, April Boy Regino, Jude Michael, Jaya, Sarah Geronimo and Jolina Magdangal are amongst the many others who have benefitted from his exceptional songwriting prowess.


"I’d love to see more Filipino artists breakthrough mainstream pop culture, that’s my dream" - Vehnee Saturno


One of the bands Vehnee discovered and signed onto his label (Vehnee Saturno Music Corporation) is Rockstar, known for such hits as Mahal Pa Rin Kita and Parting Time during the 90s. Rockstar’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Paul Sapiera, lived and worked here in Hong Kong for many years before moving to the US.


Paul worked the professional musician circuit in the city, regularly performing at 5-star hotels, private events, and Hong Kong’s most iconic music venue, The Wanch. Vehnee recalls with great fondness how he would visit Paul here and just hang out. “Hopefully, when the travel restrictions are eased further, I’d love to visit Hong Kong again,” he says. He also shares memories of another band he discovered – Rockstar 2 – who performed hits including Bakit and Ika’y Mahal Pa Rin, and whose guitarist and vocalist, Wendell Magtalas, also currently lives in Hong Kong and occasionally plays live music via the streaming platforms.


Vehnee’s affection for Hong Kong runs deep, not only due to his ties with the Cantopop industry, but also because his wife Ladine Roxas, herself a recording artist, used to sing at luxury hotels here. Given the time they’ve both spent over the years going back and forth between Manila and Hong Kong, the city has always remained one of their favourite holiday destinations. Ladine is currently working as Director & Head Coach at the Vehnee Saturno Music Training Center, also based in Manila.


Vehnee has met a number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) during his time travelling in Hong Kong. He has a lot of admiration for them: “Ang sisipag talaga ng mga kababayan natin. Kahit papano medyo maswerte narin kayo diyan sa Hong Kong kasi stable yung trabaho (Our Filipino compatriots are very hard-working. Despite everything, you are lucky in Hong Kong because the jobs are more stable [than the Philippines]),” he says.


He continues, “I hope our kababayans are keeping safe because getting hit hard by COVID is no joke. I was in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit] for two weeks. I didn’t think I would survive.” For Vehnee, it took two whole months to fully recover from COVID-19. The experience was a real wake-up call for him: “We have to accept and embrace challenges that come our way. If you can’t accept it, that makes it worse – but as long as we’re still alive, we should be thankful.” 


Indeed, Vehnee as a lot to be thankful for. Even after 40 years, his music label continues to savour the taste of success through the discovery of new artists like Juana Cosme and Esang De Torres; he is also regularly commissioned to write songs for telenovelas, films, and commercial jingles, while his IMDB page attributes more than 150 different films where he is either the composer of the theme song, the soundtrack creator, the musical director, or all three.


With such a long list of accomplishments under his belt, you’d think that this 68-year-old would sail off into the sunset and take some well-earned time to relax. But with such a strong work ethic, Vehnee still has big dreams he wants to fulfil: “I’d love to see more Filipino artists break through the international mainstream pop culture scene, that’s my dream,” he shares enthusiastically. 


“There are many international Filipino performers and singers, but I have yet to see an international Filipino pop STAR. With a lot of really great Pinoy musicians, I don’t see why we can’t make it to mainstream pop internationally. That’s why I still keep my connections with international producers and keep my eyes open for an opportunity.”


Today’s music scene is almost unrecognisable compared with Vehnee’s early days, with the advent of social media and streaming platforms like YouTube and Spotify completely changing the landscape, for artists and record labels alike. “It used to be so difficult to break through the [music] industry; you’d need a marketing machine and the money to back you up. Until you became a hit, you had to pay radio stations to play your song if you were an unknown artist,” Vehnee recalls.


“Nowadays, you don’t need to be signed by a label anymore – you can share your music instantly. If you are good enough, or have enough followers, your music can go viral, and that is an ideal position to be in. Offers will start coming in – commercials, TV show appearances, and fame,” he adds. “But be super careful on social media; it only takes one post to destroy your career and reputation,” he warns.


So what is Vehee’s advice for those looking to embark on a career in music? “Don’t be pusong mamon. You need to learn how to be strong and learn from the criticisms,” he advises. Pusong mamon literally translates as, ‘heart as soft as a sponge cake’, meaning being easily hurt by words. “You need to learn how to stay strong in the face of critics. Improve on their comments – make better songs and keep your song writing to a high standard.”


He continues, “Song writing is a competition; mostly it is a competition with yourself. Continue learning new things and push your boundaries.” When Vehnee quit his job with a photocopying company more than 4 decades ago to focus on song writing, little did he know that he would be pushing the boundaries of his own artistry and talent. His remarkable contribution to pop culture has left an indelible mark on Original Pilipino Music and will no doubt continue to shape the industry for years to come.