I’ve been quiet for the past 6 weeks, as things have become rather busy for me this summer. It’s summer music festival season, and I’ve packed this summer with old-time music campouts in California, Washington and Colorado (I wasn’t able to go to Indiana this year). Add to that paying work that I’m trying to squeeze into the spaces in between. So, my Palauan music exploration is on hold for a few months – but I’ll be back (fear or fear not, depending on whether or not you like my sometimes mis-informed articles on the songs I’ve been exploring). But, I’ve also been working on old-time voicing of some of the old Palauan songs, which has been fun. I had a nice morning session last week, while I was camping at the California Bluegrass Association festival in Grass Valley, with a friend who is a really good mandolin player. As we drank our morning coffee, we serenaded the folks in the nearby tents with some Palauan classics — Meringel Emel, Mangtekang, Chesebreng (Dolib era Sidai), etc. Just guitar, mandolin and voice, like the old days. I didn’t think to record it, so can’t share the moment.
But the main reason I’m posting is I want to share with my readers a film I saw last night that knocked my socks off. The film’s name is “Tanna”, set on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu.
On the volcanic island of Tanna in the South Pacific, a young woman elopes with the man she loves to escape an arranged marriage. The young lovers are pursued by an enemy tribe intent on killing them. They must choose between their hearts and the future of the tribe, while the villagers wrestle with preserving their traditional culture or adapting it to the increasing outside demands for individual freedom.
The film is really, really good, and tells a true story that happened on the island in 1987. The movie stars the people of the village, none of whom was a trained actor and the script developed as they were filming. They basically are telling a story that they all know, so their acting was very natural. Besides the great film making and acting, the story really reminded me of the subject of many Palauan songs – love marriage vs. arranged marriage.
Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie. We got the movie through Netflix.
Today’s song — “Ngcheangel” [Kayangel], also known as “Kayangel a Tara Ungil Beluu” [Kayangel is one good village] or “Ngerbelas” — celebrates the special place for two lovers on the beach of the small island of Ngerbelas at the south end of the Kayangel atoll. I categorize this song, composed by Kebekol Alfonso in the 1950s, in the “kingelled” [our place] group of songs. Its lyrics provide us with the actual date of the tryst (Dec-15-1952) and wonderful images of a peaceful island paradise that many people in the world dream of. The lyric also celebrates Kayangel as a whole, thus earning its alternate title “Kayangel a tara ungil beluu.”
Let’s start by listening to Te-ich Tiou and the Friday Night Club with this recording from the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes from the 1960s. As recording starts, you hear the background sound of frogs chirping that is shared by a number of recordings in this collection. This was truly a field recording! The song is tastefully simple with just voice and backing guitar.
Kayangel a Tara Ungil Beluu, Te-ich Tiou & the Friday Night Club, 1960s
The lyrics are as follows:
Omoeba, natsukasi era Monday night Jyuu ni Jyuugo senkyu hyaku go jyuu ni nen
Anokoro, anotoki omou Oiloled El Ngerbelas mak di ourureng
Ngcheangel a ungil, beluu lodak a bedenged melibuk A reng era rechad el di mo tang
Mireng no, kishita ano yoruwa wasurenu Me sel chelechol mo bedul Ngeruangel
Tsumetai , shiokaze soyogu Yashi no ki no ha yureru
Awai yo-ru no shizukesa ni Umibe De nakua hamachidori
Kinneng rekid, a lius a ngara mor Dilong Me a bebil E ke medengei leng ngara iikr
Nokoru o-moi ngara llel ongor Yumemiru tamana no hamabe
Me di dchachill, era ta le bol deledesed Kau a mei Me kede momes a kingelled
(repeat 3rd line with:) Kau a mei me kede modingel a mla roled
A good bulk of these lyrics are in the Japanese language, and Kaoru Ruluked was kind enough to help me by providing a translation and fixing the spelling for the Japanese phrases.
Recalling the sweet memories of Monday night
in the year 1952
Thinking of those days and that time
Our place to meet
at Ngerbelas island, I am just nostalgic for it
Kayangel is a good village, it unifies our bodies
the hearts of the people to just be one
I cannot forget that night, that is still on my mind
and that beach that faces Ngeruangel
A cool breeze from the ocean rustles
the leaves of the coconuts trees
causing them to sway
Pale silence of night
On the beach
With the cry of the birds
Our souvenir, a coconut tree that is on the way to Dilong
and some others
that you know because they are outside
Memories were left on the leaf of a pineapple
of the beach with the btaches tree
We will just wait for each other until the one time we are both free
When you will come
and we will see our special place
(repeat 3rd line with:)
You will come and we will visit our ways of the past
With the first verse, the song establishes the date of the encounter as December 15, 1952, which, indeed, was a Monday. In the 7th verse, I translate the word “kinneng” as “souvenir”, in the sense that it is something that provides a person a reminder for an event or a promise made in the past. While most of the action appears to be happening on the island of Ngerbelas, the 7th verse is taking place on the main island of Kayangel, on the way to Dilong. The last part of that verse is a bit mysterious, with the meaning only to be understood by the two people in the know.
In the 8th verse, he gives the location of their special place as being the beach with the “tamana,” which is the Japanese word for what is called “btaches” in Palauan , Alexandrian laurel ball tree in English and has the latin name Calophyllum inophyllum L. The nuts on this tree are very distinctive and can be used to play marbles. Maybe that’s what our two friends were playing in this song?
In any event, the secret rendezvous of the two seems to go well, without the usual separation and ending in heartbreak. Although, their relationship isn’t permanent, as he suggests that they do it again when they are both free. “Let’s check our calendars and see when we might have some free time!”
This song was recorded by the PM-AM band and released with the title “Ngcheangel” on their 2002 tape of the same name. That band included Sikitong and James Beltau, Fidensia Tangelbad and Edwin Ongrung. On their tape they credit the composition of the song to Kebekol.
Ngcheangel, PM-AM band, 2002
Way-Way Elbelau sang this song at the Friday Night Market in 2016. Here’s a video of that, with the song given the title “Ngerbelas” on the video. Note that there is another, completely different song that has the title “Ngerbelas.” Nice guitar playing by Opi on this video.
The song was sung in waltz (3/4) time in the Tei-Ich recording from the 1960s, but the last two recordings shifted the time signature to 4/4 time.
How wonderful that 65 years later, we are still remembering that night on the beach of Ngerbelas.
Cis (ti plant), an important plant in the Palauan funeral ceremony and for marking the family grave site
There is a flow to life that we accept as normal and the “model” life sees us enjoying our youth from within a stable, loving family, raising our own family when we reach adulthood, growing old and dying after we’ve finished contributing to our family and community. Of course, for many people, the realities of life, including losing a loved one to an early death, complicate that idealized flow. Such a shocking loss can leave us with so many things unfinished, children not ready to be on their own, a partnership with our lover still incomplete. In many ways, a life cut short wastes the potential of what could have been. That is the subject of today’s song — Meringel a Rengul [a pitiful waste].
This is the time of year I love at my home in Northern California, and especially after the very rainy winter we just had. Our flower garden is now in full bloom, and as our neighbors walk by our house, they stop and admire the beautiful flowers. Seeing their joy is worth the effort of the hours I spent pulling weeds. One can easily become obsessed with nurturing and protecting the beautiful flowers. That’s what I originally thought today’s song — Tal Becheleleu el Bung [one white flower] — was about: the obsession over a beautiful flower. Have I learned nothing in the past year? In the end, it’s always about sex and heartbreak.
This song is beautifully metaphorical, with the white flower representing purity and innocence and the loss of that purity and the flowering tree (sakura) possibly representing the woman herself (or, maybe just another word to describe the flower). The singer of the song is actually the good guy in this story: he falls in love with a young woman he see in the bar, but then sees her become the purchased good (kaimono) of another guy, a transaction that cuts short her innocent laughter. He leaves the bar without her, but can’t get her out of his mind. In the end he says he doesn’t care about the other guy or her loss of innocence, that he really loves her and makes a request of the Gods to do everything in their power to bring them together in answer to his prayer.
Today’s song — Wakai Inochi [young life] — is another song of heartbreak, although I’ve left it untranslated because it is mostly in Japanese. The song was composed by Tekereng according to Diane’s lyric collection . This is possibly Tekereng Sylvester, who was born in 1920 in Yap, moved to Palau at age 5, then Indonesia at age 14 to further his education. He then went to Japan in 1942 and worked as a translator for Japanese and Indonesian soldiers during World War II. He returned to Palau in 1953 to work as a telephone operator and then moved again to Saipan in 1966, where he spent the rest of his life , passing at the age of 95 in October, 2015 . I don’t know the year that this song was composed, but with his life’s story, it would make sense that he was the Tekereng who composed this song.
The earliest recording of this song I have is from the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes, recorded in the 1960s, sung by Kui-Roy Arurang and backed up by the Friday Night Club. The recording is good and Kui-Roy’s voice is very strong. The tape box was labeled with the title “Ng Kol Mo Oingerang,” a line which comes from the last verse of the song. Diane’s lyric collection  listed the title as “Wakai Inochi”, as did Gailliard Kladikm’s tape. And since there is another, different, song with the title “Ng Kol Mo Oingerang,”, we’ll use “Wakai Inochi” for this one.
The ironwood tree (whose Palauan name is ngas and latin name is either Casuarina equisetifolia L. or Casuarina litorea L.) is a fast growing but long-lasting tree with extremely hard wood. It’s longevity makes it a useful tree to use as a boundary marker or landmark to identify a location. Plus it is a beautiful looking tree and it’s base or trunk (uchul) would be a nice place to sit on a hot day, especially when it is growing right next to the water, with a cool breeze coming off the ocean.
Ngas Tree, Ulong Island
Today’s song — Uchul a Ngas [the base of the ironwood tree] — celebrates such a beautiful, relaxing spot. This one is on the west side of Ngerekebesang, near the present-day Palau Pacific Resort and next to the small island of Ngerdis (A) and near the village and inlet of Echol (B) and the bay of Ngereksong (C).
Today’s song — Mei Ototo Tomo [Come, Little Brother], also known as Angauru — chronicles the journey of two brothers from Koror to Angaur, to join their older brother, to go to work in the phosphate mines on Angaur. The story and reference to Japanese place names dates this song to either Japanese time or in the years just after the war (when the US continued the phosphate mining operation). I don’t know the name of the composer of this song, but I’ve been told that the composer was someone from Airai. The story is certainly from the perspective of someone from Koror or Babeldaob. I would classify this song as a place-celebratory song, since the lyrics call out significant landmarks viewed or passed during the trip from Koror to Angaur.
The first recording of this song that I have is from the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes recorded in the 1960s. This recording was on an unlabeled tape, so I don’t know who the singer or musicians were. The singer is backed up by a guitar and mandolin. It is interesting how he holds the initial note of the phrase an extra-long time for emphasis.
Mei Ototo Tomo, Unidentified Singer, 1960s
The lyrics for this song are as follows. Place names are highlighted in a bold font.
Mei ototo tomo, bo dekaiuereked a chim e bo doureor era Angauru
Aki bai tobedang era Singhatoba E ngii a di lilangel el di ulureng e di merolang
Aki mocha kirel a Nezumi Shima e ngii a me ukab era renguk a mla sidai era Kokusai Musen
Aki mocha iuekl era Bkul a Chesemiich e ngii a mengemengemed bkul Omelochel mo diak desang
Aki mocha orir era berikel sambasi E ngii a me mukai a aniki era Ritsuo
Sayonara de are minasang de are bokura are Tachibana deAngauru
I translate these lyrics as follows. As usual, orange-colored text is Japanese.
Come along little brother, we will hold each others’ hands
as we go to work in Angaur
We instead were leaving from M-dock
And she just cried and was nostalgic as we were leaving
We were beginning to reach Beab and it
made me sentimental about our past at the international radio tower
As we go around Bkul a Chesemiich
the corner of Omelochel is disappearing from view so that we can no longer see it
We were just arriving at the tower dock
And my elder brother Ritsuo came to pick us up
Goodbye to everyone
who was on the boat Tachibana with us to Angaur
This song contains names of places one would encounter along the journey from M-dock in Koror (Singhatoba) to Ngeaur (Angaur in English, Angauru in Japanese). The trip was taken on a boat/ship named the Tachibana. It is possible that this was the Japanese passenger ship, the Tachibana Maru, that was commissioned in 1934 and passed through Palau multiple times in 1943 and 1944 as a hospital ship. It was based out of Guam in 1947 after the war until it was scrapped in 1973.
Along the journey down the east side of the rock islands, the ship passes Nezumi Shima, which literally translates to “Rat Island” in Japanese and is called “Beab” [rat] in Palauan. In that location, the song mentions Kokusai Musen, which translates to “international radio”, presumably the site of a communication tower. As the ship travels further south, it gets to Bkul a Chesemiich, a point of the rock island Mecherchar jutting out toward the southeast. As you reach that point and face north, the southeast corner of the island Omelochel, which is the south-eastern most point of Babeldaob, is just disappearing from view. Next to the docking place at Angaur is the tower for the conveyor belt (berikel), shown in the picture above.
The Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes included what appears to me to be a demo tape produced by Markus Ngiraked sometime in the 1990s. On this tape Markus is singing backed by a electronic keyboard and one of the tracks was Mei Ototo Tomo. Markus sings the last verse (starting with “Sayonara“) after the 2nd verse, but then goes back to the original progression of verses including the last verse in its proper place. He adds a new verse between the 4th and 5th verses (just after his instrumental break).
Mei Ototo Tomo, Markus Ngiraked, 1990s
Halley Eriich released this song on his 1994 tape “Sechelik el Sechou.” Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of this version.
Quay Polloi put together a nice video (with words and map showing the progression of the journey) of a performance of this song by Lisa Sandei Glover at the October 2016 Night Market.
Mei Ototo Tomo is a fun place-celebratory song with only a few tears in it.