CHamoru music a key element in modern day Guam

Contemporary CHamoru music is a ubiquitous part of life on Guam at the beginning of the 21st century and a key element of modern CHamoru culture. CHamoru music encompasses a wide variety of styles that reflect the wide variety of musical influences that have gained popularity through various historical eras.

The sounds of modern CHamoru music are diverse ranging from older style batsu, jitterbug and cha cha to country and western, disco, rock and roll and island-style reggae. Most recently, a new form of CHamoru music is being created to accompany the modern versions of ancient CHamoru dances that are gaining popularity on the island. In addition to its entertainment value, CHamoru music has become one of the primary vehicles for the perpetuation of CHamoru language in the now English-language dominated popular culture of Guam.

CHamoru music today

Guam has two local radio stations which focus almost exclusively on CHamoru music and there is another in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The genre has also developed a substantial market in the mainland United States wherever CHamorus from Guam and the Northern Marianas have settled.

An active community of musicians perpetuates the genre by continually producing new albums and playing live at CHamoru dance clubs and parties as well as such contemporary institutions as the twice weekly “Night Market” at The CHamoru Village complex in Hagåtña. It has also been adopted by hotels and many of Guam’s commercial outlets providing both locals and tourists an ambiance that reflects the island’s unique cultural identity.

Although most CHamoru music today is influenced by outside cultural influences that have come to Guam in the post-World War II era, contemporary CHamoru musicians perpetuate a cultural practice with a lineage that goes back to ancient times.

Ancient CHamoru music

Music has been an important cultural element in the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Marianas since the islands were first settled about 3,500 years ago. While much of the information about these years has been lost, the first European visitors during the 16th and 17th centuries made note of the importance of music in various cultural practices on the island.

Various sources mention a call-and-response type of singing that took the form of poetic debate which has come to be known as Chamorrita or Kantan Chamorrita. This is a competitive form of singing in which one chanter wins when the other can no longer come up with a response. The use of this art form ranged from playful teasing to the instigation of war. It is not clear today what these melodies sounded like but it is likely that the “Gumupu si Paluma” melody which is used in contemporary Kantan Chamorrita evolved from one of these ancient melodies.

There were also other forms of chants, and like most Pacific cultures, chants and songs were used both to tell stories and to preserve important knowledge.

Music of Kustumbren CHamoru

Kustumbren CHamoru is the name for syncretic indigenous culture that developed in the Marianas through over 200 years of Spanish colonial rule. The Spanish era was a time when CHamorus converted to Roman Catholicism and incorporated its rituals into their daily lives. It was also a time when CHamorus were influenced by the Filipinos, Mexicans, Spanish and others who came to the island for various reasons and sometimes married into the local population.

All of these influences shaped the music of the islands. In addition to foreign rhythms and melodies introduced by missionaries, settlers and visitors, new musical instruments such as the guitars, pianos, violins and harmonicas undoubtedly changed the tonal values of CHamoru songs. During these years many of the earlier forms of music were lost or transformed, but new music introduced from outside influences was embraced and transformed by CHamoru musicians.

There were various forms of music on Guam during these years. Perhaps the most dominant in everyday life was music associated with the practice of Catholicism as found in the Catholic Mass, novenas, and rituals surrounding the Catholic sacraments of baptism, marriage and death. Many of these religious songs are still sung today by CHamoru speakers.

There were also many folk songs that told of daily life on Guam, of hardships, of love, and whatever else came to the minds of songwriters. Others songs were simply adaptations of popular western songs. One of the most popular songs in pre-WW II Guam was “Hagu i Flores,” a CHamoru version of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Many such songs went hand-in-hand with dance and so conformed to the rhythms of the two most popular Spanish dance styles: the Spanish Waltz (batsu) and the polka (so’tis), dances that maintained their popularity into the early American period. The cha cha and the jitterbug would later become popular with the first post-WWII generation.

Although the culture of the Marianas changed considerably over the years, the ancient practice of Kantan Chamorrita continued to be perpetuated by skilled practitioners throughout the island’s Spanish Era (1668-1898) and Naval Era (1899-1941).

Ethnomusicologist Kim Bailey defined Kantan Chamorita as:

Ancient folk songs, arranged in quatrains of two octosyllabic couplets, which, according to some writers, are composed on a single melody, the variations depending on the individual style of performance. The distinctive features are spontaneous improvisation and a dialogue performance between two or more people, depending on the occasion or function.

Kantan Chamorita was used as a way to make monotonous labor enjoyable, but also played a role in festive occasions. For example, tuberos (a person who taps a coconut tree for the sap to make tuba, a coconut liquer) would often “throw” Chamorritas as they passed their time up working in coconut trees. Another common setting for Chamorritas was roof thatching parties where two or even three-way Chamorritas could be heard. Kantan Chamorrita also played a role in wedding celebrations.

Another popular form of CHamoru music was the serenada (seranade). Men would sing these songs to their love interests as a form of courtship. Seranadas were also commonplace at family gatherings as they were the perfect settings for relatives to get together and sing. This custom can possibly be traced to Spanish times but soon died out after WWII.

Music during World War II

Through almost three years of Japanese administration during WWII, many CHamorus were forced into a more “traditional” lifestyle as they moved to their ranches in hopes of limiting contact with Japanese soldiers.

The CHamoru language, whether through song or simply spoken, served the people as a language of resistance since it could not be understood by the Japanese. Popular songs such as “Ramon San,” “Senindan” and the English language song “Sam, Sam, My Dear Old Uncle Sam” kept CHamoru spirits alive at this difficult time in history.

Music after World War II

In the mid and late-1940s CHamoru lives were radically altered by resettlement in new villages as the island transformed into a massive military fortress as WWII raged on in Asia. The next three decades would see CHamorus reduced from over 90 percent of the island’s population to the brink of minority status. While the CHamoru language was still used in most CHamoru homes in the 1950s and 1960s, it became less likely to be heard in public places and many new settlers to Guam had no knowledge of the language.

For older CHamoru musicians less common use of the CHamoru language didn’t mean that they stopped playing the songs they already knew. However, for the younger generation that was coming of age in the post-war world, there was greater motivation to embrace the new cultural influences that were coming through the airwaves of Armed Forces Radio and later KGTF, Guam’s public broadcasting television station. Musicians during these years also had new opportunities for employment since military clubs needed bands, but opportunities in this case were for playing popular American music sung in English.

Still there were many CHamoru songs written during these years and like the folk songs of earlier eras, these songs reflected the interests and concerns of CHamorus of the time. For example, well known songwriter Roque Mantanona wrote his song Bai Hanao Pa’i Gera” (I Am Going to the War) in Hawai’i as a he prepared to participate in the Korean War.

It was not, however, until the 1960s that CHamoru music began to once again gain a wide following on the island. Among the groups that began to gain popularity in the early 1960s were the Charfauros Brothers, the Delgado Brothers, amongst many others. CHamoru musicians began playing at fiestas, political rallies and on talent shows such as Alan Sekt’s “Talent on Parade” which aired on KUAM television.

Singing in CHamoru during these years took on the added purpose of cultural activism which is best represented in Jesus Charfauros’ Munga Yo’ Ma’Fino Engles” (Don’t Speak to Me in English) which was performed by popular local recording artist Johnny Sablan.

It was not until 1968 when the CHamoru music recording industry really began with the release of Johnny Sablan’s Dalai Nene, the first CHamoru LP. Sablan’s early albums were many cases exercises in historical and cultural preservation since he made an effort to revive songs from pre-war Guam and put them on record.

Sablan also played an important role in promoting local talent with the production of  the Kasamiento album in 1973. This album included the first recordings of future stars Flora Baza, The Charfauros Brothers, Mike Laguana, Terry Rojas and Frankie Sanchez.

During the early 1970s Jesus and Tommy Charfauros took over the “CHamoru Hour” show on KUAM 610 AM which would come to be known as “Programma Chamorrita.” A problem at the time was that there was not enough CHamoru music to fill the airwaves so they, along with younger brother, Ike, took it upon themselves to record local artists on reel-to-reel tape for their program. They would go on to open their own recording studio in 1977 and produce some of the most popular artists of the time including JD Crutch, Mike Laguana, Flora Baza, The Reyes Brothers and George Cruz. They also recorded the Saipanese group Tropicsette which had become popular on Guam playing at Joe and Flo’s in Asan, one of the first clubs on the Guam to feature CHamoru music.

Tropicsette was important because it was the beginning of renewed connections between CHamorus of the Marianas who had been isolated by the travel restrictions of the Trust Territory days. Members Candy Taman and Frank “Bokkongo” Pangelinan remain among the most well known CHamoru musicians today.

During the 1980s lowered production cost for cassette-tape recordings resulted in a dramatic increase in the production of CHamoru music. Stars of the 1980s included JD Crutch, Gus and Doll, Alexandro Sablan, The Guam Sirenas, Frank Magellan Santos and KC DeLeon Guerrero. Since that time many new artists have emerged.

Today, CHamoru musicians continue to perform and maintain a strong fan base. Some popular artists include KC DeLeon Guerrero’s brother Daniel DeLeon Guerrero, Ruby Aquiningoc Santos and Jesse Bais, among several others.

There is, however, concern that the CHamoru music industry is threatened by the proliferation of digital formats which make piracy easier than ever. Nevertheless artists continue to produce new albums not so much to make money as to promote the indigenous culture of the island.

Neo-traditional CHamoru music

During the 1980s a new type of CHamoru music emerged, this time to accompany the revival of traditional CHamoru dancing. This began with a production entitled “Guahu Taotao Tano” which was developed as an entry for the 1984 South Pacific Arts Festival in New Caledonia. The musical production was directed by the late Silas “Ed” Gould.

Although the production did not make it to New Caledonia, it made a big impression on those on Guam who experienced it and helped awaken awareness of the ancient CHamoru identity. It was eventually showcased in Tahiti in 1985.

“Guahu Taotao Tano” was then taken to the South Pacific Arts Festival in Townsville, Australia in 1988. Today there are several successful dance groups that perform to this new type of traditional music and compete in inter-island dance competitions.

Coltilde Castro Gould, an excellent storyteller, also composed many CHamoru songs during this time. Gould composed songs such as Man Biha na Tiempo,” “Piknik,” “Si Rose” and “Inapinicara.” Most of these songs were recorded instrumentally by Jack De Mello from Hawai’i on the LP Legends of Guam.

By Michael R. Clement, Jr.


For further reading

Flores, Judy. “Art and Identity in the Mariana Islands: Issues of Reconstructing an Ancient Past.” PhD thesis, University of East Anglia, 1999.

Furukawa, Jan. “An Evolution of Sound: Chamorro Music Jammin.” Guahan Magazine 1, no. 1 (July 2003): 28-31.

McClain, Ernest G., and Robert W. Clopton. “Guamanian Songs: Collection of Songs Commonly Sung on Guam and Not Hitherto Notated.” Journal of American Folklore 62, no. 245 (July-September 1949): 217-229.

San Nicolas-Perez, Colleen. “Puti Tai Nobio and Other Hits.” Guam Business, January 2000.

Santos, Carmen Iglesias. “Guam’s Folklore.” In Umatac by the Sea: A Village in Transition. Edited by Rebecca Stephenson and Hiro Kuroshina. MARC Educational Series no. 3. Mangilao: Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1989.

Underwood, Robert. “Guahu Taotao Tano.” Glimpses 25, 1985.