Among the pioneers of modern Palauan music, Halley Eriich stands out for his longevity and large number of recordings and compositions. Unlike his contemporary, Johnny B, who has a diverse repertoire spanning many cultures, Halley has focused his repertoire through his deep knowledge of classic Palauan songs and the development of that genre through his own compositions. By his own count, Halley has composed over 300 songs over his 50-year musical career, many of which are now classics within their own right.
I spent a morning with Halley in May 2016 and had a wide-ranging conversation with him in which we discussed his musical career and influences, the meanings behind some of the old songs, and stories about ghosts, guns and late-night run-ins with the police. As I look back on our 3-hour conversation, I realize that we barely covered his extensive career and am left with many gaps in his story that I’ll have to fill in with a future interview. For today’s post, I’d like to look at the first half of his career and his early influences.
Performance of modern Palauan music (beches el chelitakl) through the 1960s was limited to local gatherings within Palauan villages and the government and business center of Koror, but as Palauans spread to Guam, Saipan and the West Coast of the US, Palauan musicians followed to provide entertainmentment to the expatriate Palauans and other Micronesians. One of the pioneer musicians providing this entertain was Johnny Bekebekmad (known as Johnny B.). I had the good fortune to spend some time with Johnny in May, 2016 and he shared with me some of his life’s story. It is a life that has been shaped by remarkable coincidences that now cause Johnny to think that God had a plan for him from the beginning.
Kebtot el Bai
Johnny’s musical story starts with his first performance as an 8-year old boy in 1958 singing at the Kebtot el Bai (twin meeting house) in Koror. The Kebtot el Bai was located where the PNCC building and the Grand Bleu restaurant currently stand, across from the old OEK building. Johnny’s father arranged for him to sing at a fund-raiser that was being held at the bai. Johnny’ memory was that the fund-raiser was to purchase uniforms for the Ngaraard baseball team, Red Torch. It wasn’t his idea to sing at the fund raiser; he used to sing around the house all the time when he was young, which put the idea into his father’s head. Johnny recalled:
Then my father said, “Son, why don’t you sing”. And when I think about it, how could he ask me to sing? How could he be sure that I would do OK? I cannot understand it. I was very young, you know. I said, “you know, Dad …” and he said “no, no, don’t worry about it. I’ll find Kyosi to come to help you. And if you are afraid, just look at the ceiling.” And especially my brother Luke said “if you are afraid, just look at the ceiling.” So when I went there, I sang Blue Hawaii.
Blue Hawaii was written in 1937 and popularized by Bing Crosby. It was a big hit for Elvis Presley in 1961, a singer Johnny particularly liked, when the movie by the same name came out.
Young Johnny was backed by guitarist Kyoshi Ngirangol, a fabulous Palauan guitarist featured prominently on the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes in the 1960s. Johnny recalled that he didn’t understand English at that point in his life, and probably got the words to the song wrong:
[singing] “Night and you …” See, I didn’t know it. Maybe I just said “I and you …” you know. But it was a hit song. And that is what I sung. And I think, it was surprising because, he made me do it. They were surprised to hear a little kid sing an American song. The kids, nowadays, they sing Palauan songs. Of course you take it for granted. Oh, of course. But I was performing with American songs. When I think about it, it was a blessing.
Of course, we don’t have a recording of that first performance, but it must have made an impression.
Johnny was exposed to American songs from a young age, mostly from the juke box at Thomas Remengesau, Sr.’s restaurant, which was close to Johnny’s house. As he reminisced with me, he recalled the songs that were on the jukebox such as Too Young (Nat King Cole, 1951), I Don’t Hurt Anymore (Hank Snow, 1954), I’m Gonna Knock on your Door (Eddie Hodges, 1961), Crazy (Willie Nelson composed this song and it was a hit for Patsy Cline in 1962), and Devil Woman (Marty Robbins, 1962).
Johnny’s father didn’t play an instrument, but he and Johnny’s mother were matamatong dance leaders. They also sang a lot around the house, including Japanese songs.
Johnny was also playing guitar and ukulele from a young age. He started with the ukulele, initially learning from one of his classmates, Emmen, who knew how to play and would come to Johnny’s father’s house to teach Johnny. Emmen also played rhythm guitar. Johnny initially learned 3 chords (and their 7ths) and then looked for songs to sing that didn’t have any minor chords:
So I only found songs with the major chords. Like Hank Locklin “Please Help Me I’m Falling in Love with You” and the 7 (th chords). I can go to the 7, but not the minor.
Eventually, Johnny graduated to the guitar, learning from his friend Emmen and Johnny’s older brother Luke.
Johnny went to Maristella grade school and, while a student there, his teacher’s would ask him to perform for the class. He said that if he refused, the teacher would write on the board that Johnny was “ousimang a redil” [show off to the girls]. That embarrassed him into singing for the class. They didn’t have music classes at Maristella in those days, but they did have a choir for the church, and Johnny sang in the choir.
In 1966 or 67, Johnny was 16 or 17 and started singing at the Cave Inn with a band called the Cave Men. That band was led by Toribiong Siangeldeb, the brother of Polycarp Basilius, who supplied Toribiong with the band’s instruments including drums, bass guitar, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. This band was playing mostly surf music like the Ventures. The guitar player was Rodger from Peleliu, the brother of Dr. Kuartei. Johnny continues the memory:
When I hear the Ventures that Diaz always plays, because he is from that age, he always plays the Ventures, Ollei, I feel like I just become very emotional toward him because he plays like “Wipe Out”, he plays it good. He plays it good. So he was our lead guitarist. So I heard that they had a band. So I asked one of my classmates, he is the cousin of the leader of the band, Toribiong, brother of Polycarp, I said “where does he stay”? We were in Midzenty [High School] together. He said “Ollek, you know Ruluked, Polycarp’s brother that is the Prinicpal of the High School, former Principal, he is probably at Leong’s house.” So after school, at 3 o’clock, I walked all the way there instead of going home. And then when I went there, he is … when I think of it now I think the Lord really made the way. When I went there I saw that his house, the front was sort of like an abai, and that is the entrance to the house. And then cement, and both benches on each side. And then the shoes were in front. And then when I went there, this guy was sitting by himself on one of the benches. So I was kinda looking, and he said “Ollei, ngera soam ollei?” [brother, what do you want my brother?]. I said, Ollek, I’m looking for Toribiong. And he said “Ollek, ngak a Toribiong” [I’m Toribiong] So I said “Hey brod. Kau ngar ngii a band er kau?” [do you have a band?] and then he said “Ollei, why do you ask a question like that?” And I said “Ollei, sebechek el obeng … join er kemiu?” and he said “Ollei, ke mo chad a ngerang?”[what can you do?] e ak uai sei “ak mengitakl” [and I said, I sing]. “Chollei, soam el mo mengitakl?” [do you want to sing?] “Choi choi”. [Yes] “Sebechem el mor tiang e mengitakl?” [can you go to this spot and sing?] Right in front of him. Yeah, Ollei. So I stood right … only two of us. There was nobody walking. And I stood up and sang.
So Johnny takes a chance, finds the band leader, and gets an audition on the spot singing the Elvis song “Take Good Care of Her.”
I hadn’t finish it and he said “Ollei, you are a member of the band”. Right there. See, this is really amazing. And when Toribiong died, Kathy Kesolei, who just died, asked me to sing for his funeral. It was a completely different funeral. So, I felt like … see, he didn’t even complain, he didn’t even say anything. Like, “Ollei, you are too young” or “How come your voice is a little bit …” He just heard that song and said “Ollei, mei era practice era Cave Inn” [brother, come to practice at the Cave Inn]. Right there. A very smooth transition.
The Cave Men included Toribiong on drums, Rodger on lead guitar, Sus Ngiraitbang on rhythm guitar and Skilang (from Aimeliik) on bass. Johnny was the singer. The band played mostly instrumentals, but Johnny initially had two American songs he sang:
… mostly they played Ventures, and then Polycarp introduced me to the crowd. I was young and the introduction was perfect. Just imagine, he was a congressman! And that is really making it more valuable, the introduction. Because he was a congressman of Micronesia. So he introduced me and then I went there and I sang two numbers, and then I kinda sat down. I was young, so he didn’t allow me to roam around inside the bar. He put the chair beside Toribiong, the drummer, so that is where I would go and behave.
As time went on he learned more songs, including Palauan songs like Chebuul a Renguk, Adidil e Adidil Oureng a Soak (aka, Adidil eng Kebesengei) and Soak el Chetitau. And American songs like “Sloop John B” (popularized by Kingston Trio, 1958 and the Beach Boys, 1966), “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (1956), and “500 miles” (1961).
As Johnny remembered it, the Cave Men were not only the house band at the Cave Inn, but also played at Trust Territory government functions. They dressed in matching clothes, wearing Levi jeans and dark-blue long-tail shirts. Johnny also remembered that the Cave Men moved to play at the Factory Club in 1967 and while there he wrote the song Mekngit a Rengum Lekebil, which he recorded in 1982 on his first tape “Micronesia.”
Mekngit a Rengum Lekebil, Johnny B., 1982
Johnny left Palau in the summer of 1967 to attend high school at Xavier in Chuuk. Johnny remembers:
This is another event that I think God made the way for me to sing. Because, when I went there, the boys – the upperclassmen – they said “Johnny, when that Principal was here, you could not sing.” He didn’t like the students playing the American love songs. Then they were telling me “you are very lucky because when you came, the Principal changed.” So when we went there, there was a new principal. But this guy was a very outgoing guy, you know? He heard me and he asked me, “Do you want to be in the band?” So if it was not this principal, I would not have [been a singer].
Johnny formed a band at Xavier with his fellow students including Dr. Yano (lead guitar), Ben Ruwan (a Yapese guy playing drums) and a Marshallese guy playing bass. The band played Ventures songs and rock and roll songs like “Hanky Panky”, “Midnight Hour” and “Hang on Sloopy”. The new principal allowed the girls from the Protestant high school to come socialize with the boys at Xavier, and the band would be hired to play at those dances. But before they could play, they had to get the instruments:
But we didn’t have a set of drums. So we just took the snare drum from the band. And then he [Ben] played it. And then a Marshallese guy played bass. He didn’t have a bass so I had to go downtown and buy thick strings and put them on a guitar. And we didn’t have an amplifier, so we borrowed a tape recorder from the priest – not a priest, but a brother – who was taking care of maintenance. So he allowed us to use it as a bass guitar. We didn’t have microphone stand holders, so we got sticks, and somebody from my class tied the microphones to the sticks. And I was the lead singer.
Dr. Yano was good. He was good on Ventures. He sounded like McCoy. He’d play like [hums tune] “Last Date”? Very good music back then. So he used to play that kind of music. And then I would come up and sing. By that time, I had learned some more songs like the Beatles songs.
And the priests, at Xavier who were teaching us, they really supported me. When they went on vacation and came back, they brought song books for me. And that is where I think I learned a lot.
In 1969, Johnny went to the first Micro Olympics games in Saipan with Toribiong’s band, including two Americans: Bruce Owen as the drummer and Don Vitarelli, son of Dr. Vitarelli who was a key figure in this era of Palau. Rodger was still the lead guitarist. It was there that Johnny met Candy Taman, the Chamorran singer who would later produce a tape with Halley Eriich.
Johnny graduated from Xavier in 1971, came back to Palau, and started playing in the lounge at the Continental Hotel (in Ngermid), managed by a Hawaiian guy. Johnny played by himself, singing and playing guitar.
So, I played there for less than a year. And then Congressman Lazarus Salii came to Palau and he saw me playing at the Nikko [Continental] so he asked the assistant “when he takes a break, I’d like to talk to him”. And when I went there, he said “hey my brother … ollek, kau a ngalekel a Bekebekemad?” [brother, you are the son of Bekebekemad?] e ak uai sei “Cho choi” [and I said ‘yes’]. “Ngdiak a soam el mora Saibal”? [You wouldn’t want to go to Saipan, would you?] That’s how he brought me there. I said “I’d like that”. And he said “Ak di nguu er kau e mong” [I’ll take you to go there]. So then I said, let me ask my Dad. So I went and asked my Dad and he said “it’s OK son” so I went and I said, “It’s OK”. And he said, “no, first, we go there together. So you see the lounge where I want you to play. At the Royal Taga Hotel.”
Johnny went to Saipan with Lazarus Salii, liked the lounge, and then went back to Palau to await the final arrangements. Eventually, he gets to Saipan, with Lazarus Salii getting him situated:
When I went there it was Monday, then he came to the airport with his wife and 3 kids and he said, “it is Monday today. But I want you to start opening night this Thursday”. So when you open on Thursday, not only is it Thursday, but it is payday. So when you open, then after that, the word goes out. And then Friday is the next day, so, it is gonna start. So that is what I did.
Johnny again played solo and sang mostly American songs, but expanded his Palauan song repertoire– including Tsurai Wakarete—as well as some Chamorro songs, which greatly impressed the Saipanese patrons. There wasn’t dancing at the hotel bar, it was a lounge with small comfortable chairs for drinking and relaxing. Johnny played at the Royal Taga for 3 years and then moved over to the Hafa Adai hotel. Johnny continued to work in Saipan until 1988.
Saipan was the seat of the Trust Territory government and many Palauans and other Micronesians who worked in the government lived there and were a natural audience for Johnny’s music. Additionally, Saipan was a popular destination for Japanese tourists. During those years, Johnny worked on a musical style that would appeal to his audience, trying out different material and effects and watching the audience reaction. What they liked, he stuck with. While in Saipan, he switched from acoustic to electric guitar and played a red hollow-body Fender guitar.
Johnny B from his tape “Micronesia”, 1982
Johnny recorded his first tape — entitled Micronesia — in 1982, in California. This was the first commercial recording of a Palauan and included such hits as “Continental Air Micronesia“.
In 1988, a Japanese businessman took Johnny to Japan to sing on a TV special highlighting Enka music called the “Enka Festival,” which featured professional Japanese Enka singers along with outsiders. Johnny sang one solo and a duet with a Japanese woman, Ishikawa Sayuri.
In 1989, Johnny returned again to Palau. At that time, the keyboard had become the popular sound, so Johnny initially teamed up with Amos Mesubed on keyboard while Johnny sang and played guitar at the Hombal restaurant at the Palau Hotel. They played there for about a year, and then it was time for Johnny to take a break from music, kind of disappearing for awhile. After more than 20 years of nearly continuous performance, he was getting burned out.
Johnny B’s 2nd release was Island Love in 1995
Eventually, though, he returned to performing, first at the Taj Restaurant and now at the Jive Restaurant. Johnny has made his living as a working musician for 50 years by giving the audience what they want. And now, as the clientele at the restaurants is changing to include Chinese tourists, Johnny has expanded his set to include Chinese songs. As I watched him perform at the Jive, I saw him scanning the audience, figure out their nationality, and then sing a song that he knew they would recognize, which, of course, they did. During his set he played Palauan, Japanese, American and Chinese songs, with appreciative reactions from each of the tables.
Johnny has come a long way from his young debut at the Kebtot el Bai. His father recognized his love of music and destiny has taken care of the rest.
Yesterday’s song was about the first time. Today’s song is about what will be the last time for their relationship. Oh! Somebody Keleng Saingo tells the story of a couple breaking up, filled with tears and angst. After their tryst, the man has gotten his fill and is satisfied. But for the woman (the singer’s voice), she’s looking for more in their relationship. He’s being a jerk by not considering her feelings and ignoring her cries. She puts her foot down and tells him to “be a man” and he reacts by throwing a temper tantrum, like a small child whose food or favorite toy is taken away. In the end, she says “I’ve got people waiting so, sorry, I really must go home”.
This song was really popular in the 60s through the 90s, but hasn’t been recorded for awhile. Let’s start first with a recording by Margarita Remeliik from the 1960s that was a part of the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes. Margarita is backed up by a very tasty 12-string guitar, being finger-picked. This is a nice, slow lament.
Today’s song – Nanyo Sakura [South Seas Cherry Blossoms] — is a touching song about young love that, for once, doesn’t end in heartbreak. This song, probably composed by Ymesei Ezekiel in 1955 , describes the singer’s first experience (ketengel) at love, made under a cherry blossom tree. The two lovers must have talked about this for awhile before their current encounter and finally the singer says: enough with the talk already, let’s get down to business! As the affair progresses, she gets all nervous with a shaking chest and weak body. But her lover calms her by holding her and then entrusting her with his “things.” All ends well as dawn breaks, and they look forward to the next time.
The first recording of this song was by Rosania Matchiau (from Airai), made as a part of the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes in the 1960s. Rosania is backed by what sounds to me like a 12-string guitar. This was recorded with an echo effect, which muddies the sound a bit.
Today’s song is a Palauan classic, covered, it seems, by nearly every Palauan musician. The song, Chebuul a Renguk [my pitiful heart], is typically played as a slow lament. The subject of the song messed up in some undefined way (started acting crazy) causing his former sweetheart to ignore him and his messages. Now he is full of regret as all he can do is look at his former lover in the evening, maybe as she walks down the path in their village, wishing it all ended differently.
The song composition is credited to Ymesei Ezekiel , year unknown, although the attribution is only given in the PCC song book, and not on any of the recordings.
The first version of the song I have is from the music Barbara Smith collected in her 1963 trip to Palau. On October 5, 1963, she made a field recording of a matamatong dance in Kayangel and the series of dances and songs included Chebuul a Renguk. Her notes listed Margarete Sebakliu as the leader for this song, but this performance features all of the dancers singing as a chorus. The words on this early performance follow the transcription I present below.
Today’s song I am listing as “Adidil e Ochedengei #1″, since there are several songs that go by that title, seeing that it is not an uncommon phrase in Palauan derebechesiil [love songs], (see, for example Ultoir a Uoi Meringel). This song has kind of the standard story — what apparently had been a good thing between the two of them, fizzled out, with the object of the song losing interest and moving on to his next love, a relationship that would presumably put him in a better position (I assume it is a guy that’s being so heartless — no woman would do that, right?). But it is complicated because the two of them still live in the same village (of maybe 100 – 200 people) and would likely come across each other often. But even with that complication, they both agree that they weren’t meant for each other.
The first recording we have of this is Augustina Mechol from the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes. I love Augustina’s voice in general, and this is a real nice recording. The tape box didn’t indicate who was playing with Augustina but listen to the backup guitar – nice tone to the guitar and real nice playing!
Adidil e Ochedengei, Augustina Mechol, 1960s
The lyrics of the song are:
Adidil e ochedengei kurrenges a chais era merael chisem leng kora ngodech a rengum me ke di ousubes a mla sidai
Bedengek me a renguk a mle chemau kau e ke dorderta mle ungil besul e chelechae ke merort ema medengei el kmo kid a chad era beluu
Bechesiil e kau a ngeltengat el bai merort e di ungil besum e dikea molebedebek era deleuiil e kid a chad era beluu
A kuldengei e ochedengei el kmo ng diak era rengum a lomelemii e kede bai mle kasmesumech era telkib e wakare masio
Only three words of Japanese in this one! I don’t know when this song was written or by whom. This song has a fairly simple structure — just the I and V chords — but the melody is not familiar to me as borrowed.
I translate this as follows:
Thinking about my sweetheart
I hear the news that is going around
Your news that you have had a change of heart
And you just overlook the relationship we had
My body and heart were faced toward you
and you started to cut me off so that you could get in a better position
and now you separate from me
knowing that we are people of the same village
Sweetheart, you are fortunate
to be able to divorce to improve your position
You no longer think about
our relationship as people of the same village
I understand, sweetheart
that your heart does not follow a straight path
and we instead said our departing words that
our separation would be a bit preferable
I like the first line of the 2nd verse, describing how both her body and heart (the heart being distinct from the body, since the heart holds all of her feelings — more like body and soul) had been facing (chemau) her lover as a way to say either that everything of hers was focused on him, or to say that things between them had been in alignment.
Anna Aichi recorded this song on her 1985 tape “Odanges.” Silver Takada recorded this song for the 1990s tape “Sel Omei.” But I don’t have either of those versions. The other version I have is Halley Eriich on his 1990 tape “Ngeaur.” On that tape, Halley was good about listing the names of the composers for most of the tracks. This one had no composer attribution, probably meaning that Halley didn’t know who had composed it. This track was recorded in the Philippines with Rey Lizardo on keyboard and Beebee and Halley on guitars.
Adidil e Ochedengei, Halley Eriich, 1990
I’m not finding any recordings of this song after the 1990s, so perhaps the bridge by which we can travel back to remember this old relationship has fallen into disrepair.
Today’s song — Oyano Yurusanu [our parents won’t permit us] — is another example of a song of heartbreak, caused by the mismatch in the status between the two lovers: she is from a high clan, he from a lower clan, and their parents will not permit such a match. I previously explored this theme in the song Yoake Mae. In addition, in today’s song, the singer is jealous of or begrudges (uram) his ancestors, presumably because the obligations he has inherited conflict with what he wants to do. But do you think he is over-reacting to this? In the end, after he is discarded by his former lover, all he has left to do is stand around doing nothing, loitering, feeling sorry for himself. I mean, c’mon man. Get back out there!
The first recording we have is by Yaoch Iechad and the Paradise Club (Kayangel) recorded as a part of the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes. Yaoch is backed up by a guitar and mandolin.
Oyano Yurusanu, Yaoch Iechad, 1960s
Junko  attributes the composition of this song to Skiwo Meresbang. I don’t know much about him except that he was from Kayangel and this is the only song that I know is attributed to him.
The lyrics to this song are:
Oyano yurusanu hutari no koi wa Mak di chelitang e di mengebuul era Wanga utsi hitori nayamu
Tsuki himo kawaru leng mocha era ullebengelel Me ke remiid e mo ikrak ema e leng kerior a di okikiuellek
Yoruni nerarenu name oto kikeba E ak mo lotkii a furukawa e mo uram ra rebldekel ra blik
Bechesiil el rasech era remesiich meng di obesbeso chelebuul Le kau e a tar ourakd a reng lechad Meng diak ke bom chubur a chebulang
Mechikung sayanora me lomelemii a rengum mebong E di mchitak e me kungedeau era a wanga semai kono sima
I translate this as follows. I’ve used Junko’s translation  for some of the Japanese phrases.
Our parents won’t permit us to be a couple in love
And I’ve just been neglected and made miserable
I am a person alone with my troubles
Days have turned to months because it is coming to its end
And you wandered off and ignored me
Because misfortune keeps walking behind me
Fortune was not kind to me
I will remember the people back home
And be jealous of my ancestors
Sweetheart, whose blood comes from the high clan
And she is just starting to forget the poor
Because you are one sick-hearted person
And don’t you go pitying the one descending in misery
Goodybye, follow your heart and just go
You have just discarded me to stand around doing nothing
on this small island
I like the image in the 2nd verse of “kerior a di okikiuellek” [misfortune just keeps walking behind me]. Normally, when the couple is walking down the path, the woman would walk behind the man. For the poor singer of this song, the woman has been replaced by misfortune.
Halley Eriich recorded this song for his tape “Sechelik el Sechou“, in 1994, but I don’t have a copy of that.
Vivian Eledui recorded this song for her tape “R’dichel Belau” released in 1999. This tape was recorded in Saipan. Vivian does both melody and harmony vocals and she is backed by Shane Melwat on keyboard and Tio Kiochi on guitar.
Oyano, Vivian Eledui, 1999
Finally, here is a recording of Howard Charles performing this song on the CD that accompanied Junko Konishi’s song book .