Playing the vibes

Louie Gombar is an accomplished musician on Guam known for his playing of the vibes (vibraharp). Gombar started out as a musician at the young age of twelve using bottles filled with water and playing them as if they were the vibes. Soon after, Gombar began to get exposure to Guam’s music scene.

During a time of heavy construction on Guam, just after World War II, women were brought to the island from Hawaii as “taxi dancers” as entertainment for construction workers. These women would dance with customers for a fee and Gombar played with groups at dance establishments despite the fact that he was a minor. When police officers visited the establishments Gombar would hide behind a curtain until they left.

Gombar went on to play at a variety of clubs on Guam at a time when the demand for skilled musicians was high in Guam’s entertainment scene. Musicians playing during these times were often required to play a diverse range of musical styles to meet the diverse preferences of club patrons. Gombar and fellow musicians would play up to three gigs a night that often over lapped. They played at a variety of military and civilian establishments including “The Bottle Club,” a popular establishment remembered for charging high entrance fees to customers who had to bring their own liquor. They also played at the popular “Mi Club” near the location of Pigo Cemetery in Anigua. Gombar played with many local musicians including Forrest Harris and Joaquin “Ding” Palomo.

Gombar admired and drew inspiration from many famous American artists including Stan Kenton and Cal Tjader. Upon hearing that Tjader, Gombar’s idol, would be playing for First Lady Imelda Marcos in the Philippines, Gombar saved his money and traveled to see him. Unfortunately, Tjader suffered a heart attack fifteen minutes into his performance and died. Also instrumental in Gombar’s development as a musician were a variety of acts brought to Guam by the U.S. military from Los Angeles, California, for short gigs on the island, including the brother of Nat King Cole.

An educator by profession, Gombar has been a teacher on Guam for twenty-seven years.

The vibes he plays today are the same vibes that well-known musician Benito Bautista once played. Francis Tydingco of “The Downbeats” also uses the same vibes. The set has been passed around throughout the generations Guam’s musicians.

By James Perez Viernes, PhD

Editor’s note: The photos and initial research for this entry is courtesy of Mico and Stevie Scott’s Jazz on Guam: An Oral History, a project funded by the Guam Humanities Council and in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.