MUSIC COMMON BOND AMONG MARIANAS CHAMORROS

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By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 2) – Despite their divergent loyalties and cultural identities, Chamorros of Guam and of the Northern Marianas have a common point to which these divergent identities converge — music.

Guam ethnomusicologist and music teacher Mike Clement, who has delved into the history of Chamorro music as recorded by the Jesuits, found that Chamorros share a common cultural legacy — music — that distinguishes them from other cultures in the region.

Clement who underwent hip replacement surgery and is recovering in Hawaii, was able to prepare a lecture read by Guam Territorial Band conductor Maximo Ronquillo at the Visitors Center of the American Memorial Park recently.

Ronquillo, who accompanied the Guam Territorial Band to Saipan for their band clinic and performances for Mt. Carmel Drama Theatre’s staging of Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast," said Clement was supposed to lecture on ancient Chamorro music that he has been studying since he first came to Guam in 1983.

Having compiled a written history of Chamorro music, Clement said, "Whether on Guam or in the CNMI, Chamorros have not been as concerned about writing down their music history as they have been about perpetuating traditional performances." He points out that"as an oral culture, history writing has not been very important."

Although there were other forms of music and instruments in ancient times, Clement discovered that "tsamorita singing" and "belimbau tuyan" distinguish the Chamorro musical tradition from the rest of Micronesia and Oceania.

His two-pronged research focused on two main themes: (1) extemporaneous song, dialogue, and poetry, which are referred to as "Tsamorita" or "Chamorita" singing; and (2) the Chamorro musical bow, belimbau tuyan, used to accompany songs, at least during the Spanish period.

According to Clement, Ronquillo read, "song poetry is the common element of these types of music, and can be traced back to pre-contact times to an ancient poetic debate called "mari." Based on Chamorro oral history recorded in 1820, Clement said, "It is highly likely that the musical bow or ‘belimbau tuyan’ dates back to pre-contact times."

Having done extensive research on Chamorro music, Clement hoped that his research may eventually become the basis for a written history of Chamorro music. He said, "It is clear that the most assured way of preserving traditional Chamorro music culture is through education. Thus, any written history should be directed to the youngest students and carried through high school."

Through the lecture, Clement also encouraged the audience to check the Web site Chamorroweb.com where he has uploaded his research for readers the world over to read.

"For the first time ever, there is a published article on Chamorro music available to everyone, particularly, to students and teachers in the Marianas islands," said Clement through Ronquillo.

Ronquillo provided the audience an overview of the website where Clement defined Tsamorita singing, discussed its history and ancient roots, social settings, the nature of outside influences on Chamorro dialog song, "An gumupu si puluma" — a song that Clement believes to be a song that dates back to pre-contact times — Tsamorita song techniques, the impact of 20th century society on Chamorro language and culture, recent historic preservation of the Chamorita singing on Guam, and Chamorita singing in youthful hands.

Through Ronquillo, Clement said that it was Gertrude Hornbostel who, in 1920, labeled the first musical notation of Tsamorita, the original copy of which rests in the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. He also said that the first German administrator of the Northern Marianas, George Fritz, called the lyrics of tsamorita singing, "the only true Chamorro songs."

A rendition of the piece "Earl and the Girl," first played by a U.S. Navy bandmaster in the ’20s, included the last phrase of the melody in a short and snappy arrangement.

Based on the Freysinet 1820 ethnographic reports, Clement said, "Chamorros virtually sung their conversations with each other every moment they were awake," This seems to point strongly to the fact, according to Clement, that song dialogues were deeply ingrained in the daily life of Chamorros.

Clement further said that tsamorita singing is a competitive singing dialogue poetry that has deep roots in Chamorro culture and there is no mention in history of solo singing among Chamorros.

Tsamorita singing, Clement said, begins with one person singing a poetic quatrain, and a second person responds with a poetic quatrain of his own, and this continues as long as they can come up with clever replies.

Clement cited the song "An gumupu si puluma" as an example in which he said there is a definite mestizo quality to it with the melody and the lyrics influenced by the Spaniards. Through the song, Clement said it can be seen how the Chamorro expression has been changed by the Catholic church. Despite a melody sounding western, Clement argued that "this does not mean it does not have ancient roots.

He also said that improvisation accounts for how the ancient melody acquired its western feel. He said, "It must be remembered that the melody is sung in oral form. Every time it was sung, it was improvised anew. The singer always had to change the melody and rhythm to match the lyrics he or she was improvising."

Ronquillo conveyed to the audience Clement’s invitation to them to check the Chamorroweb.com website, where, aside from the text, there are photographs and recordings of Guam tsamorita singers and other performers of the Guam Island Fair. Clement also recognized the work of Dr. William Peck of Rota who put a recording of tsamorita on Saipan radio in 1979 which included tsamorita singing by Rota residents. In his several meetings with Dr. Peck while the latter was still alive, he gave Clement tapes of his recordings to be included in Clement’s research.

Clement said that he did not get into analysis and comparison of Guam and Rota tsamorita singing until Dr. Peck’s death. Clement was able to transcribe Rota melodies in more rhythmic detail which led to more accurate comparison between Rota and Guam singing styles.

Ronquillo, through the Guam Territorial Band and the Mt. Carmel Theatre Club, hopes to foster friendship through music and build a musical bridge.

He said, by studying a shared musical heritage, and performing together, a musical bridge will be built to meld the two divergent identities."

The multi-awarded Guam Territorial Ban, formed in 1976 and first performed at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in Washington D.C., provided music for Mt. Carmel’s staging of the hit musical "Beauty and the Beast" on Saipan last week. The GTB has been to several parts of the world inculding Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Saipan, and Japan. Next year, GTB will be performing at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Prior to the lecture, Ronquillo provided a band clinic to students from Mt. Carmel at the Visitors Center where he taught how a band operates and which musical instruments are involved. He gave a brief background as well of the five songs he and his band performed.

His repertoire included "Earl and the Girl", Jose Torres’ "Guam March," Russell Bennett’s "American Suite: Cake Walk," Ashman and Menken’s "Beauty and the Beast" which the band performed in an evening public concert at the American Memorial Park’s Visitors Center.

The performances of the band and their visit was also made possible by the support of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council and Mt. Carmel School.

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