Keeping Chamorro culture alive through music

Johnny Sablan, a pioneer Chamorro recording artist, received the “Island Icon Award for 2011” in a vote among fellow musicians and islandwide audiences at the Island Music Awards.  This is the latest of a litany of accolades for Sablan who has promoted the island’s indigenous language and culture through a music career spanning more than five decades.  The award is not surprising, considering Sablan’s 1968 release of “Dalai Nene,” the first commercially recorded album in Chamorro, marked the beginning of the Chamorro music industry.

Although an accomplished singer, musician, composer, producer, and entrepreneur, Sablan humbly defines himself as more of a “contributor” to the preservation, perpetuation, and promotion of the Chamorro language and culture.  His recording career actually started at the age of thirteen after winning a talent contest in Los Angeles on a popular TV show.   After that performance, he landed a contract with a Hollywood studio.  However, a decade later, Sablan reached a turning point his life–he discovered his cultural identity and decided to act on his passion to share and teach his Chamorro heritage through music.

This life-long mission is rooted in his familia (family).  Born in 1947, Johnny Guevara Sablan is the eldest son of Francisco and Rita Guevara Sablan of Hagat (Agat).  With their ten children, Tun Francisco and Tan Rita owned and operated the southern village’s general merchandise and grocery store.  Sablan characterized his parents as hard-working.  They taught their children to serve and love the Lord, and the value of hard work and a good education.  He credits his iconic “Hafa Adai” personality to his mother, from the friendly atmosphere she perpetuated in the family store, and he always looked to his father for balance and patience.

In 1958 at the age of 10, Sablan’s inadvertent music “debut” occurred because of his desire to watch a movie.   Upon hearing that singers were being recruited from Hagat to perform for the hospital patients at the old Guam Memorial Hospital in Tamuning,  Sablan and his favorite uncle and best friend, Vicente “Tarzan” Sablan, auditioned by singing and dancing to Elvis Presley songs from a coin-operated jukebox at the door steps of the Agat Store.  The audition, however, was really a means to get the two boys a ride to a movie theater also located in Tamuning.  His parents did not even hear about his singing debut until later.

Nevertheless, singing was a way of life in Guam’s southern villages in those days, especially in Hagat where Sablan grew up and learned to sing.  He was surrounded with talented musicians and singers, both young and old.  To this day, Sablan continues to give credit to his friends of Hagat village for his musical success.  He remembers hearing groups of singers around the village creating beautiful harmonies every evening, their voices blending songs of the past with present-day tunes.

Before long Sablan himself was performing at fiestas, parties (also known as the “pala-pala circuit”)  and other community gatherings.  He continued to sing for the manamko and the hospital patients.  He entered singing and instrumental contests, perfoming on the Alan Sekt Talent Show and Crown Motors Talent Show on KUAM, Guam’s only television station at the time.  Sablan also took music lessons at the Guam Academy of Music and Arts in Hagåtña to further develop his musical ability.  It was at this time that he began singing “Agat Town” as part of his repertoire.  The song was a popular village tune and the most requested song during his “pala-pala circuit” shows.

Still in his early teens, Sablan was simply enjoying his music and performing around the island.  However, this ended abruptly in 1960, when his father took a job and moved to southern California, along with his three eldest sons. The Sablans lived right off of Wilshire and Western Avenues in Los Angeles, and watched the era of rock and roll unfold with Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley singing on the popular American Bandstand TV show.  His break into the music business came when he auditioned for a televised talent contest.  Taking second place, Sablan caught the eye of Columbia Artists of America management and the young Chamorro from Guam soon signed a three-45 rpm record deal.

Sablan’s first single record featured “Big Fat Lie” and “Will She Agree to Go Steady,” released on Skylark Records.  To date, this second song is featured in a CD compilation of Hits from the Early 60s.  His second release, “I Don’t Wanna Miss You,” and the song “Agat Town,” became a big hit on Guam and gradually got Johnny Sablan’s name national recognition.  But it was the third 45 rpm record release which included, “Imitation Heart” that hit the top “100 Billboard in Music” Industry Magazine.  This song is also featured in a CD compilation of “Hit Songs of the Fifties and Sixties”.

Signing with Columbia Artists brought Sablan under the tutelage of industry professionals, where he received technical training to refine his music and performing skills.  Part of that training included touring local music circuits.  Sablan toured with other up-and-coming artists such as The Penguins (who had just released “Earth Angel,” a song that eventually became a big hit in the Top 100 BillBoard Magazine).  The youngest in his group and still a minor, Sablan had to be accompanied by a family member while on these tours.

However in 1963, Sablan left his Hollywood music career and returned to Guam at the request of his parents.  They were not as comfortable with their teen-aged son pursuing a music career thousands of miles away from home.  His parents also did not really understand the music industry, and they simply wanted to keep the family together, Sablan recalled.  They taught him that i familia mattered most.

After graduating from Father Duenas High School in 1965 Sablan returned to California to attend Monterey Junior College with an interest in studying medicine.  While there, he became an active member of the college’s International Club.  Although his peers were unaware of his professional recording background, Sablan participated in the Club’s cultural night music performances, featuring music from members’ respective countries.

In 1967, the Club asked Sablan to feature a “Guamese” night of music, which turned out to be a defining moment for him.  Realizing that he did not know anything about Chamorro music, Sablan vowed to learn about his Chamorro identity, and to sing and produce Chamorro albums.

To face this challenge, Sablan sought counsel from his man’naina (family elders), recognizing their role as teachers and sources of knowledge about Chamorro traditions and culture.  He met with different elders, including his Tio (Uncle) Greg and Tia (Auntie) Evelyna Guevara, Tan Clotilde Gould, Tan Ana Quintanilla Sablan, Tio John and Tia Bing Guevara, and Tio Roque Mantanona, working hard to listen and learn about his Chamorro heritage and language.

Fueled by his newfound passion, Sablan learned to read and write in Chamorro.  He gathered lyrics through his research, poring over many traditional songs with a common feeling that he could record and format.  Sablan noted with traditional Chamorro songs there are a lot of different lyrics, reminiscent of the traditional kantan chamorita, an impromptu verse-making singing style, but with the same chorus.  He wanted to record as many complete traditional songs with Chamorro arrangements as he could, working to keep them within five minutes but contextually complete.

In the same year that the Elective Governor Bill of 1968 finally gave the citizens of Guam the right to elect a civilian governor, Sablan released the very first all-Chamorro song album, “Dalai Nene.”  Sablan describes “Dalai Nene” as an album featuring beautiful love songs with the music arrangement reflecting the Chamorro feelings of pre-World War II and early postwar Guam.  For Sablan, this album was all about preserving these traditional songs in the Chamorro language so they could be available for others to feature at Guam cultural celebrations.

In 1969, as the Chamorro artist’s popularity continued to grow, Guam’s first elected governor, Carlos Camacho, invited Sablan to accompany him to Vietnam to visit Guam troops at Christmas time.  So moved by their aggradesimiento (gratefulness) for the visit, Sablan returned to Vietnam for Christmas the following two years.

At this time, singing in Chamorro also became a form of cultural activism, especially noted in Sablan’s recordings “Munga Yo’ Ma’Fino Englesi” (Don’t Speak to Me in English), featured in his “Chamorro Yu” album, and “An Gumupu Si Paluma” (Where the Bird Flies).

In 1971 Sablan opened Guamerica Studio in order to grow the Chamorro music industry by developing and promoting local talent.  In fact, it became Guam’s first Chamorro recording studio.  He also taught local musicians the technical skills he learned from his early days in Hollywood.  Over the course of two years, Sablan produced two Chamorro albums, “Chamorro Christmas” and “Kasamiento” that featured the first recordings of future stars Flora Baza, The Charfauros Brothers, Mike Laguana, Terry Rojas, and Frankie Sanchez.  Shortly afterward, Sablan left for California, returning to the island after a ten-year stay.  The early 1980s saw the emergence of a vibrant Chamorro music industry, with new stars like J.D. Crutch, Gus and Doll, Alexandro Sablan, The Guam Sirenas, Frank Magellan Santos, K.C. DeLeon Guerrero, Candy Taman and Frank Bokogno Pangelinan.

Sablan continued to perform and was able to shift his energies to representing Guam in various capacities in regional showcases, especially the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (FestPac).  He contributed to Guam’s cultural presentation in Tahiti 1985, Samoa 1996, and Palau 2004, serving multiple roles from performer, musical director, performing arts director, to task force member, and head of delegation (2004).  Sablan considered it an honor to have served and be appointed by governors Ricardo J. Bordallo, Carl T.C. Gutierrez and Felix P. Camacho to represent and showcase Guam’s cultural heritage at this event, which is the Olympics of Pacific Culture.

Having spent nearly four decades researching the Chamorro language and culture, Sablan believes it is important to know and understand the foundation of one’s cultural roots.  From his vantage point, Sablan’s impressive musical career pales in comparison to his life-long mission to preserve and promote the Chamorro culture.  In fact, he would rather spend his time performing at schools to nurture Guam’s young people to empower them. Un sina’ngan (a saying) he shares with the children when they are confronting challenges: “If it was meant to be, it’s up to me!”

Over the course of his career, Sablan has recorded fifteen albums, has written lyrics and composed music for more than 100 songs about Guam in Chamorro and in English, and published a thirty-page songbook of Chamorro lyrics.  Sablan immediately pays homage and gives credit for his accomplishments to his man’naina and a long list of Chamorro pioneers and local musicians with whom he collaborated.  Sablan feels blessed to have known and worked with great writers as Greg Guevara, Roque Mantanona and music maker Harold De Leon, calling them messengers from above.

Sablan also credits the support of his familia, his wife, Sabrina Cruz, and his children, Jonathan Rai, Camarin Marie, Gabriel Matua, and Kristina Marie, as well as his brother and sisters and their families.  His children, Matua and Kristina, have embraced their father’s music legacy.  At the Island Music Awards held April 10, 2011, Sablan took the stage with his youngest son Matua, performing “Shame and Scandal.”  Staying true to his entertaining “storytelling style,” and playing off the chemistry between father and son, the two brought the audience to its feet in song, dance and much laughter.  His eldest daughter, Kristina Marie, has also become an accomplished musician and well-known performer in the San Francisco bay area.

What began as a love for music and performing evolved into a life-long mission of preservation, perpetuation and promotion of the Chamorro language and culture through music.  Sablan’s iconic stature is founded on the massive contributions he has made to modern Chamorro music history.  He is a favorite singer/songwriter, cultural performer, poet and author for generations of listeners on Guam, and he feels extremely blessed.

By Rita P. Nauta

Johnny Sablan Music Samples

Johnny Sablan, “Dalai Nene” Album

Johnny Sablan Video Sample

For further reading

Government of Guam, Hale’ta Series. “I Manfayi Who’s Who in Chamorro History, Volume II.” Chamorro Heritage Institute Planning Group, Hagåtña, Guam, 1997.