The decades since World War II have brought a great number of changes to Chamorro culture and Chamorro life. Practices and trades once considered essential to life have disappeared or been adapted to societal and technological changes. The decline of the Chamorro language is one of the clearest ways you can perceive these changes.
But there is one way in which the Chamorro language, even as it was banned in schools and not taught to children in many homes, remained alive and well, and that was in Chamorro music. During a time of rapid Americanization, where Chamorros were actively giving up and tossing away things that had once defined them proudly as Chamorro, Chamorro musical artists kept the language vibrant and adapted it to new musical styles, rather than simply replacing it with English-language songs.
Today there exists a great variety of Chamorro music, from ancient-style chants, to country songs, to rock songs, to reggae and even a few hip hop or rap songs. In a world that is inundated with social media posts or videos that detail the greatest things ever or provide a seemingly endless supply of Top 10 lists, it is only appropriate that there be a list of greatest Chamorro songs or discuss what a list of the Top 10 Chamorro songs might look like.
If you were to ask your average Chamorro about their favorite songs, two very likely choices would be “Apo Mågi” and “Bente Uno Yu’ Gi Presu” both from the late J.D. Crutch and Marianas Homegrown. Interestingly enough both of these songs were not original, but rather translations from famous English songs. It is a testament to the power of J.D. Crutch and his style that through their reworking they achieved an enduring Chamorro quality.
Before J.D. Crutch however there were two artists who some refer to as the King and Queen of Chamorro music, Johnny Sablan and Flora Baza Quan. Through their songs and albums they helped push Chamorro music into the mainstream on island. Moving it from songs of the manåmko’ or the kusinan sanhiyong to music on radio stations and record players. Early albums of Johnny Sablan in particular helped make that transition as he recorded traditional Chamorro songs such as “An Gumupu Si Paluma,” “ Tippi Tippi Tan” or “Dalai Nene” which previously existed primarily in Chamorrita oral form.
If we extend the conversation to include all of the Marianas we also find artists such as Alejandro Sablan, Frank “Bokkonggo” Pangelinan and Candy Taman. Candy Taman stands out amongst many Chamorro artists by recording a number of songs that went beyond the usual content for Chamorro music: love, heartbreak, food or family. Candy has recorded over the years several songs that deal with history, political movements and even one, “Mount Pagan” recounting the volcanic eruption and evacuation of the population there in 1983.
These are just a few names within a larger constellation of Chamorro musicians. There are far more than I can fit within a single column. There are many possibilities to consider in deciding upon “great” songs and there will always be disagreements in terms of how to reach objective choices about primarily subjective subjects. But in this column I’ve introduced a number of ways of framing the discussion. Should it be determined simply by popularity? Should a great Chamorro song have some strong connection to the past? Should it be something that was pioneering and genre-defining locally? Should it make a strong statement or have a social message? Tune in next week to continue the discussion.
We continue in this week’s column the discussion over how we might determine what makes a great Chamorro song. In a world where social media gives us a wide array of Top Ten Lists and hyperbolic pronouncements about this or that being the greatest ever, it is only natural that we bring the conversation to a more local level and think about what might be the greatest Chamorro song.
Is enjoyment and whether a song is pleasing the most important factor? Whether it makes you get up and dance and shake your body? If so, Chamorro music has a wide array of cha cha songs, that by now have become like muscle memory to most on Guam because of their regular rotation at island parties. But there are ways enjoyability and profundity can intersect and even cha cha songs can carry deeper messages. Take for instance “Amerikånu Po’asu” from Candy Taman. On the surface the song appears to be merely fun, mirthful, teasing and has a verse that simply lists Chamorro dishes. But at its core there is a cultural message. It is also about poking fun at Chamorros who seemed obsessed with Americanization and changed the way they spoke, dressed or acted to try to appear to be superior.
This is one of the powers that Chamorro music has had since World War II. Whereas much of life on Guam, public or private was focused on Americanizing and riding ourselves of “Chamorro” things, the songs produced by a legion of Chamorro recording artists reminded us about continuity, preservation, adaptation and of course pride in where you come from. One of the first anthems in this regard was Johnny Sablan’s “Mungga Yu’ Ma Fino’ Inglesi.” It was released at a time when the social pressure to speak only English was palpable across the island and it challenged that pressure by encouraging Chamorros to remember their roots and keep their language alive.
Music is also about connections, emotions and nostalgia. Chamorro religious songs connect people to their family, their elders, others worshipers both in Guam and elsewhere. Even many people who don’t speak Chamorro today nonetheless feel great love for Chamorro Christmas or religious songs. But the same holds true today for songs, or chants, from groups like På’a Taotao Tåno’, I Fanlalai’an or Inetnon Gefpågo. Chants such as “I Tinituhon” or “Hinatsan i Latte” are performed quite commonly now for public events. Their purpose is not to recreate what Chamorro chanting or dancing was like prior to Spanish colonization, but rather provide a means of respectfully connecting contemporary Chamorros to their ancient ancestors.
Languages exist because of inter-generational transmission. One generation speaks, or sings in a language to the next and it survives. Each generation is a star in the night sky of reality. They link generations across centuries and millennia. And through those constellation it provides a map of a people’s journey.
The strength of a language is not tied to its purity or its authenticity, but rather its flexibility and adaptability. The more it is used, the greater the chance for it to survive for another generation. We should follow the examples of Chamorro recording artists who have embraced a wide range of musical genres, yet continued to tell Chamorro stories, use the Chamorro language and musically evoke a Chamorro ethos. As I often encourage people, “Anggen un lå’la’ gi Fino’ Chamorro, un na’lå’la’ i Fino’ Chamorro.” If you live in the Chamorro language, you give life to the Chamorro language. The same goes for music, “Anggen kumånta hao gi Fino’ Chamorro, un na’lå’la’ i Fino’ Chamorro lokkue’.”