A few evenings ago, my mom asked me to “YouTube” the songs of this 90s singer who had died young.
The first video that played was a medley of his songs with a photo, and being a 90s kid, I was immediately familiar with some songs and the voice, but neither have any recollection of the singer nor the name Rodel Naval. Good-looking guy in photo, but didn’t really catch my attention much.
Next video played and it was of his 1989 TV performance of Muli – one of his earliest songs when Rodel first came back to the Philippines from a 10 year hiatus, and one I’m familiar with. For the first time I saw him perform – stylish, sophisticated showmanship, endearing smile and striking tone. He kinda looked like Rustom Padilla, some comments said Jeric Raval, both actors were handsome but neither could sing. Watching artists for the first time, we aficionados or spectators have a habit of typecasting them, but Rodel I couldn’t quite assign him to the oldies block or the more commercial 90s singers. He was an act of his own with the sway of a classic balladeer, the stance of an action star, with a voice very smooth and masculine coming out of his shy boyish smile. He was an effortless charm, no wonder mom kept talking about him.
Rodel Naval’s magic was on stage, with his effervescent aura. Needless to say, after watching a few more videos that night, I’ve become an instant fan! It did not end that night
My curiosity of his ever-changing hairstyle brought me to look into the timeline of his singing career since he returned to Philippines in 1989, and died shortly in 1995. I found out his comeback song Lumayo Ka Man Sa Akin became a mega-hit sang by the most famous singers of his time like Sharon Cuneta, Martin Nievera, APO Hikings, etc., and that he was a self-made artist producing his own music, albeit in and out of the country yet always remained quite a hit. Also he eschewed the limelight when not performing, he remained reclusive hence the very little write ups on him even at that successful point of his career. Since there was not much write ups I keenly observed his quick after-song interviews with his hair curly or shaggy in 1989, and slicked back in a short ponytail, slicked back without ponytail, or short hair with concealed hairline in the 90s. He looked good all the time, well-mannered, and spoke eloquently in interviews. He was forthright in his expressions but with notable sincerity and elegance. Not showbiz-like. When he abruptly left the Philippines in 1993 due to illness, he still spent what’s left of his vigor on stage, wowing the world this time as one of the cast of Miss Saigon in Toronto, Canada with his family.
What I found really fascinating was his personal life – at least based on the very limited information online based on a book of his life. Behind the image of a good-looking man that surely set many women’s hearts aflutter, with so much talent at that – it turned out Rodel Naval was enduring the ordeals of what could’ve been described as a moral dilemma; a dichotomy between societal standards and his tendencies towards homosexuality.
He was gay and he did not want it, it was said. It went against his Christian learnings, and I guess what he wanted for himself. And yet that part of his nature was real, and bigger than any teaching. And so paralyzed it was, it remained alive. What stuns me is the absence of categorical revelation towards the end of his life, such that he would have set himself free from the hiding. Although it was publicly acknowledged by his family a year after his death that Rodel died of complications of AIDS, there’s none of his sexual orientation.
It seemed that Rodel did not need that validation, or did not really have anyone special to have to reveal it for, or simply did not want to taint an image that had brought so much joy to so many of his fans. Its tragic that he had to sublimate his true self for the acceptance of others, it’s fascinating how he realized a very successful career and stay somehow private, it’s selfless that he wanted to satisfy others more than himself, and really sad that it all ended so early. Rodel left a book behind telling his story, and audio clips of graceful goodbyes – both of which somehow leave his family and fans (I’m now included) with a pleasant and rather consistent aftertaste of every great moments he had offered them in life.
What if he had lived longer, and reached the time when society is more receptive and inclined to be understanding and accepting of his nature’s uniqueness. A time wherein it is not considered wrong. A time where your faith is not based on how strong you hold on to the recommended idea of masculinity or femininity, but to your character as a person – how you take care of others, utilize your God-given talents, how you love yourself and how you allow it to grow and make the world a better place. I did not meet Rodel but all signs pointed to him being a selfless man.
For now, let’s watch his videos and listen to his music. I have been for a week. From Muli, Lumayo Ka Man sa Akin, I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love, to his follow up hits Kailan Kaya, Ikaw Pa Lamang, Once Again, and the many other songs he had recorded immortalized by the internet. Thanks to his sister Delia Naval Contreras who has continued to upload and release them!
Rodel, maybe if you were still alive I would’ve really insisted on writing a song for or with you. For now let me introduce you to the generations who have both missed you and missed out on you.
Mr. Hitmaker, a profound lyricist, extraordinary composer, conscientious music producer, TV and theater actor, performer, painter, speaker and an authentic celebrity of his time and beyond, whose persona continues to be enigmatic, and only punctuated with that charming smile of his.
Ladies and gentleman, RODEL NAVAL!