With its cane lounge chairs, colonial-era jungle ceiling paintings, storied history as a foreign correspondents’ hang-out and an oft-touted Jackie Kennedy connection – Raffles’s Elephant Bar oozes old-world sophistication. But it wouldn’t be the same without the tinkling melodies of pianist Roel Manalo. For the past seven years, at cocktail hour, the self-taught Philippines-born musician has been lubricating the atmosphere of the iconic hotel bar with a seemingly endless repertoire of songs, from Gershwin to Abba.
With his dark suit, combed hair and an air of serene jolliness, 50-year-old Manalo summons the era of the bar with more than just his florid finger work.
“When I come here, I look around and if there’s someone in a meeting, I play something quite soft – a little classical. Then, when the crowd is getting a bit wilder, I adjust to a louder song – but the piano is higher than the pool table, and I have to adjust the sound.”
Life at the five-star hotel – where he lives in a guest room and plays six days a week from 6pm to 10:45pm – is “excellent”, he says, and his extensive songbook deflects any monotony.
For some months before he arrived from the Philippines to play at the Phnom Penh hotel, the bar was without a resident pianist. Without music, the only sounds echoing the cream, high-ceilinged space of the Elephant Bar are clinking glasses and the desultory knocks of billiard balls. How does he set the mood?
“Love songs,” he says. “Mariah Carey. I start with Hero and then Open Arms. But sometimes [guests] don’t know I’m just practicing and moving my fingers. I do it for 10 minutes [mimics fluttering his hands up and down the keys] and then start from the book.”
A hefty bound songbook, with literally hundreds of song titles like a karaoke catalogue, sits near the upright piano for people to choose from. A Mariah Carey ballad might seem an unlikely choice, but Manalo keeps himself entertained with his own improvisations. He has been known to play a 15-minute long – Summertime.
“I play mostly standards from the age bracket . . . but sometimes a standard song I have to play a new way and make it longer and longer. In the Philippines, I played in a five-star hotel, but I like playing abroad. In the Philippines, there’s a lot of competition.”
With a small but musical Filipino community in Phnom Penh, it’s not hard for the musician to find fellow jamming partners on his nights off. Every now and then, after playing until 10:45 or later – for two-hour stretches – the pianist ditches his suit for shorts and joins with Filipino rockers at bars like Memphis.
“Sometimes I go there for guest keyboard. We do some rock ‘n’ roll – it’s a nice change,” he smiles. Karaoke is huge in the Philippines, adds Raffles’s marketing manager, Noemi Payumo, who is also Filipino and has noticed a relatively high number of working musicians in Phnom Penh.
“Maybe we’re gifted,” Manalo suggests.
His preferred jam is jazz, but despite his prodigious song knowledge, there are music requests he gets in advance from guests that he must teach himself on his keyboard in his room, with help from YouTube.
Sometimes the midday movie feel of the nostalgic piano music is no joke: the hardest-to-learn request he has received was the theme to the Shirley Maclaine tearjerker Terms of Endearment [“I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”] or a Beethoven sonata, by the highbrow bar-goer.
From picking up the piano from his nieces in Quezon province, Philippines, to replacing a whole house band on a cruise ship and entertaining elderly folk in Japan, Manalo has had a varied career, but says he is content filling the Elephant Bar with his melodies.
“Everything is magic”, he says, smiling like a pro, before preparing for another shift at the ebony and ivory.