NEW YORK, N. Y. --
Rush hour is crowded, busy, and fast paced, especially in New York City subway stations. In between the hustle and bustle, you might see a musician with a guitar case stretched open before him, hoping for tips.
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Oliver Dagum, Ramp Services Supervisor, 88th Aerial Port Squadron, 514th Air Mobility Wing, might be one of the musicians you’ll find.
Dagum has been singing and performing since he was a child in the Philippines. When he was nine years old, everyone in his music class had to sing the Philippine National Anthem by themselves in front of the class. Afterwards, Dagum’s teacher told him he could sing.
“I didn’t know that other people couldn’t!” he said. “I thought just everyone could sing. I thought everyone just had that ability.”
After class, his teacher asked him to join the school choir.
“I thought she would fail me if I didn’t join the choir, so I joined! I loved it.”
His teacher then entered him into the school talent show without even asking.
Dagum explained that there were two performances, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. As a young student, without any vocal training, he did not know how to properly pace himself. After feeling accomplished about his morning performance, he became overconfident in front of the judges.
“During the song, ‘The Greatest Love of All,’ I croaked!” he said. “And I lost. Miserably!”
That wasn’t the end for Dagum, however.
“That first time I performed—when everyone clapped—I was hooked,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘I know I just lost, but next time, I won’t!’”
And he didn’t.
The following year, as a fifth grader, he won first runner up, and come high school, he won a singing championship and even sang on the radio in the Philippines. His singing was put on hold, however, when his family began focusing on immigrating to the United States.
In 1996, at 20 years old, Dagum moved with his sister and father to Los Angeles, California, where he began working at a Burger King. Four months later, his father enrolled him in the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Oklahoma. He took a communications technician course, but after graduating, became a grill cook at Cracker Barrel.
“Everyone there knew I could sing! And I was always asking myself, ‘Where do I want to see myself in five years?’” said Tech. Sgt. Oliver Dagum, 88th Aerial Port Squadron. “It wasn’t this. It wasn’t Cracker Barrel.”
One of Dagum’s managers at Cracker Barrel was a former U.S. Marine.
“He said he loved the military service and that if you every get the opportunity to join, do it,” said Dagum. “So, I just went to MEPs and took a chance on the Air Force. I seriously didn’t even think that I was going to get accepted. I just thought it was worth a shot. The next thing I know, a recruiter called me asking, ‘When do you want to start?’”
Dagum said his job choices were limited since he was color blind and not yet an American citizen.
“The books of careers to choose from went from three full books of jobs, to about three pages!”
“I was making $6.75 an hour as a grill. Coming from the Philippines, I didn’t care what they had me doing, they were going to pay me four times what I would have been making in the Philippines.”
The Air Force was going to give Dagum $5,000 dollars just to enlist, and another seven if he chose aerial transportation. Dagum wanted to pick a job he would want to stick with long term.
“I picked air transportation because there are so many ways you can work, like in an airport or in logistics,” he said. “There’s flexibility to it. It’s something that can be applied to jobs in the civilian world too, like a forklift operator.”
Dagum was on active duty from 2000 to 2015, but for the first eight years of his career, his passion for singing was on the backburner.
“I was only occasionally singing the National Anthem for military functions, but that’s how I realized it’s something I still wanted to do.”
In 2008, while stationed at Henderson Air Force Base, Guam, Dagum auditioned for Tops in Blue, an Air Force performance ensemble which toured the world. Dagum became a vocalist for the group, as well as an audio engineer.
“When we got to a venue at 7 a.m., we wouldn’t get done setting up until 3 p.m. We were also the roadies.”
After setting up, they would relax for a few hours, perform, and tear down the equipment.
“Sometimes we wouldn’t finish until 2 a.m.!”
Dagum explained that they would perform four or five times a week, often traveling for a day, performing for a day, then repeating for weeks on end. Dagum was part of Tops in Blue for one year, performing more than 130 shows, not including their time in the desert where they went to almost every Forward Operating Base.
“It was really interesting because I got to see places I never would have thought I’d been able to go to,” he said.
At the conclusion of his tour, Dagum returned to Guam, then moved to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in 2010, where he began working as a ramp services supervisor for the 305th Aerial Port Squadron. His passion for music, however, was renewed.
“In 2012, I was deployed, and then Steve Jobs died,” Dagum said. “That’s when I had an epiphany. I loved what the military had given me and I was grateful for what the Air Force had taught me, but I thought ‘What am I doing here?’”
During this time, Dagum explained that the Air Force was scaling back. He was the only technical sergeant in his shift when there used to be four. His coworkers were getting burned out.
“Steve Jobs died and he was only what, 50?” Dagum said. “I thought I’d do my 20 years in the military, then get out and do music, but I just couldn’t picture myself continuing to do this for five more years and delaying music more and more. If something happened to me, and I wasn’t doing what I loved…I can’t even picture that. That’s when I started going to Berkeley College of Music online, and after I took some courses, really realized that was my passion. I just was not getting tired of it.”
Dagum separated from Active Duty in 2015 and joined the Air Force Reserve at McGuire Air Force Base, transitioning to the 88th Aerial Port Squadron.
“I’m part of a group for aerial transportation. There’s a guy who just turned 60 who recently passed away. That really kind of makes you think about things like, ‘What are you using your time for?’ It’s not necessarily a waste of time, but if there’s something else you really love to do, why not take a chance?”
Taking a chance is exactly was Dagum did in 2015. In April, soon after separating from active duty, Dagum auditioned for “Music Under New York,” a program committed to bringing high level musical talent to the commuting public of the city.
Dagum auditioned among 88 other New York musicians (after thousands applied) for the program; only 26 people were selected. Dagum was one of them.
Dagum later received a degree in Audio Recording Technology from the Institute of Audio Research in New York, using the GI Bill, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Music Business from Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. He has his own office in Merchantville, New Jersey where he does all his own mixing and mastering music. Dagum also continues to perform in New York while serving as a Reserve Citizen Airman with the 514th Air Mobility Wing.
“That’s what I really love about the Air Force Reserve: it lets you pursue your passion. Drill is only two days and annual tour is only 15. It’s really quick, it’s over so fast and the rest of the time you can do what you love.”