Mengesang a Reng

Mengesang a Reng el Anata [the troubled heart who is my sweetheart] is an old song that tells the story of the pain that two lovers can bring to each other when their relationship is broken off.  Pain that perhaps might even cause one to become permanently depressed or troubled.  This song was composed some time prior to 1963, although I suspect that it is very old, based on the song’s time signature.  I was told during my 2018 trip to Palau by several people that it was composed by Jonathan (Yonat) Meluat, but someone also said that Abai Ochip actually composed the song for Yonat.  Both Yonat and Abai were from Airai.

The earliest recording I have is from October 1963, when Barbara Smith, a musicologist from the University of Hawaii, came to Palau and recorded a number of Palauan music performances.  This recording comes from a trip she took to Kayangel, where she recorded an evening of matamatong dances in which the dancers sang many songs that are still with us today.  Barbara Smith’s notes indicated that the “leader” for this dance was Augustina Omelau.  Here is Mengesang a Reng as sung in 1963:

Mengesang a Reng, Kayangel Matamatong dancers, 1963

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Lengelem re Ngak

Lengelem er Ngak
Sketch by Steve Minden, 2018

Today’s song, Lengelem re Ngak e Honey [Your cries over me, oh Honey] probably dates from the late 1970s or early 1980s.  The earliest recording of this I have is from one made of Brisia Tangelbad and her electric band playing at the Fisherman’s Tavern in Tamuning Guam in 1980.  Brisia sings the lyrics in the order 1, 3, 2, 3, as presented below.  In this performance she substitutes the word “Seabee” for “Honey” in the first line.  A Seabee, of course, is a member of the US Navy Construction Batallion, who are still present at their Camp Katuu in Airai.  She also substitutes the name of the bar in the third verse (Fisherman’s for Rendezvous), the second time through, since she is singing at Fisherman’s Tavern.  Once again, her band features a great, still unidentified guitar player.

Lengelem re Ngak, Brisia Tangelbad, Live at the Fisherman’s Tavern 1980

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Soak el Chetitau

When my oldest son was about 3 years old, he was with me in a hardware store in Oakland where I live.  While I was lost in trying to find the right pipe fittings for whatever project I was working on, he was looking around at the other shoppers in the store.  My young son points to an African-American man standing near me, also trying to find the right part, and says “black face” and then points to me “white face” and then proceeds to go back and forth:  “black face, white face …”  I was mortified.  But, of course, he was simply stating the obvious as he worked through in his mind the differences in different peoples’ appearances.  While he had been surrounded by people of different ethnicities and races from the time he was a baby, I think that moment was when he began to notice differences.

Palauan skin tones run the full range from very light to fairly dark, but I can’t say that I have ever heard anyone in Palau make a value judgement or discriminate based on skin color.  But I have heard people use skin tone to help identify a person.  Like “you know, that dark-skinned person”, similar to “you know, that short guy.”  And perhaps some Palauans have a preference in their conception of beauty:  There is a story I’ve heard from several different people about a high-ranking man from Babeldaob who, when he was young and while drinking with his friend, decided to make a trip to Angaur to find his wife.  In the story the man relates “You know, I was young and I always loved these Angaur women, because they are light-skinned and all that. And I’m from Babeldaob and there are no light-skinned women there.”

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by Jackson Henry, about 2011

Neterio Henry was born on the island of Angaur, Palau on April 18, 1939. During the outbreak of WWII, Neterio and half of his family escaped the aerial bombings of Angaur by taking a boat to Ngaraard.  Neterio remembers enjoying the tranquility of living in Ngaraard and swimming in the river with the Bells brothers. The other half of his family had to endure the hardship of hiding in caves and having nothing to eat for months during the height of the battle of Angaur.

At the age of 12, shortly after World War II,  Neterio returned to Angaur and met Mr. Isii, a Japanese musician employed at the Pomeroy phosphate mining company .  Mr. Isii taught Neterio the basics of the 6-string guitar.  However, Neterio soon acquired a love for the Mandolin from his brother, Tony Henry.  Tony gave Neterio his first Mandolin, and with the basic knowledge playing guitar, Neterio soon mastered the Mandolin.  Neterio loved the sweet sounds of the Mandolin, so he practiced his instrument daily until his fingers bled.  He often went to bed with his Mandolin. He soon acquired a name from his peers, “King of the Mandolin”.

Neterio’s talent was admired by his friends and fellow Angaurians.  His audience boasted that Neterio had the skill of making his Mandolin strings weep like a bird.  In the late 1950s, Neterio and his cousins formed what is now considered the first organized musical group in Palau named – ABC Band. ABC stood for Angaur Boys Club. All of their instruments were donated by the Pomeroy Mining Company. Neterio and his brother Michael Henry, composers Anaclaytus Faustino, Carlos Salii, harmonica player, Kyoshi Ngirangol, leader guitarist, Jose Itetsu, rhythm guitarist Santos Edward and female vocalist Talya Santiago performed right into Palau’s music history.

Kebtot el Bai

In the late 1950s, ABC Band had their first public concert during the Island Fair held at Keptot el Bai in Koror.  Their syncopated island sounds took Palau by the storm.  ABC became the biggest talk of the town and their musical exploits soon spread to the other villages in Babeldaob like wild fire.

Shortly after their public debut, their first musical recording was completed and aired throughout Palau on the TT Government AM station WSZB.  Palauans got to know the ABC Band and their young and agile Mandolin player named Neterio.  All other band members became musical stars in Palau. “We were the first band in Palau so everyone treated us like stars,” recalls Neterio. “Sowak El Etitau”, was one of their greatest hits, a song about a fair maiden composed by Anaclaytus Faustino.

Soak el Chetitau, Neterio Henry & Danny He, 1980s

In 1962, Neterio was introduced by his sister-in-law to an aspiring 13 year old singer named Julie Tatengelel.  With Neterio’s Mandolin backing up her first solo, “E Yang Yang Yang”, Julie rose instantly to stardom.  Julie is credited to be the first female Palauan vocalist, thanks to her talent scout – Neterio Henry.

Tsurai Wakarete, Julie Tatengelel Aichi singing, Neterio Henry on mandolin, 1960s

Neterio joined a new band called Friday Night Club which was managed by Aichi. The group took musical tours and played in the different Abais on Babeldoab. Neterio recalled playing at the Abai in Ngaremlengui where the performance lasted until dawn because of overwhelming demand from the audience. Neterio became well known though out Palau, Yap, Guam, Saipan and Micronesia where he traveled, performed and dazzled audiences with his heart warming and sweet sounds of the Mandolin. Neterio’s last big gig was at the WHYS Restaurant (present day Rock Island Café) where High Chief Ibedul contracted him to perform live before the house patrons.

In the words of the late Edobo Temengil, “Neterio is one of the most gifted musicians I ever met”.  Today, particularly among the baby boom generation, the name Neterio Henry is synonymous with the Mandolin. Neterio has left an indelible mark in Palau’s music history and a legacy being Palau’s uncrowned king of the mandolin.

Eleuterio “Neterio” Henry,  the King of the Mandolin, passed away on Sunday, September 5, around 8:15 PM at the Belau National Hospital. He was 72.

Nangaraku Sabisi, Neterio Henry & Danny He, 1980s

[1] — Neterio’s Obituary, written by Jackson Henry based on his interviews with Neterio in his later years, published in Tia Belau, about 2011.


Bechesei Ke Milkerang?

It isn’t often that I get to sit down with the composer of a Palauan song and ask him or her to tell me about what was going on in their life when they wrote their song.  Mostly because I am interested in songs that were written in the period of the 1930s through the early 60s, and most of the composers of the songs from that period have passed on.  So it was with great delight that I got to spend an hour or so chatting with Isechal Sandario Kulas at his home in Ngerbodel in April of this year.

Sandario Kulas in 1961 or 62 [1]

Sandario was born in 1939 in Angaur during the Japanese administration of Palau. He and his family lived through the war and weathered the battles during the American invasion by hiding in a cave on Angaur.  By the late 1950s he was hanging out with Neterio Henry, Kyosi Ngirangol, and Santos Edward when they decided to form the Angaur Boys Club.  He was a part of the club when they did their debut in Koror at the Kebtot el Bai (Community Center, named for its twin roof peaks) in the late 1950s [3], [2].

In the early 1960s, Sandario was living in Koror and working at Fisheries with Peter Wilson and Tosiro (Paulis?).  He shows up in a group photo of men working to build the fisheries boat yard in 1961 or 62 [1].  He’s looking pretty cool, squatting in the picture smoking his cigarette.

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Tonight, My Love, Tonight

In late 1963, when Barbara Smith, the University of Hawaii musicologist came to Palau, she documented the current music scene there through her recordings of the ABC (Angaur Boys Club) band, the Friday Night Club and some matamatong singers in Kayangel, and she also collected music that had been recorded by others in Palau for WSZB, Ngerel Belau (the voice of Palau), which had only recently started broadcasting.  Among the 21 tracks that she collected from the radio station were several that were straight-up cover songs.  Today’s song was sung by “Yoichi,” probably Yoich Rengiil, covering the Paul Anka song “Tonight, My Love, Tonight.”  While this song doesn’t give any insight into Palauan song lyrics, it does capture the musicianship of the accompanying musicians (and Yoichi’s ability to copy Paul Anka’s singing style).  Have a listen:

Tonight My Love, Tonight, Yoichi, 1963

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Mengemedaol er a Irechar

Last March, my friend Tony Phillips and I went to Palau to perform some of the old songs in the 1960s String Band style as “Ngirchoureng“, meet and play with some of the musicians and composers, and talk to folks about how much we love this music.  Since we returned to California, we have been busy recording the Palauan songs that we had worked up for our trip. Just like our performances at the Night Market and Museum back in March, but this time, you can adjust the volume to your liking. Hopefully I fixed the pronunciation problems that you all so kindly overlooked. We’ve produced a CD of 20 songs, and we’re pretty happy with the way it turned out. Thanks again for the wonderful hospitality of our friends in Palau, old and new.

I selected the title “Mengemedaol er a Irechar” because I like the sense that the word “mengemedaol” can mean either “to welcome” or “to celebrate.” The way I think of this word, is through its relation to the word “klechedaol,” the activity where one village invites another to come and spend some time together, dancing, singing and just renewing their friendship. Mengemedaol is like the welcome that one family makes to another, as they come together to share some joy. And it is also the prelude — the first step — to a celebration of shared experiences. And I think that is what we should do with respect to the past: welcome it into our lives and celebrate the beauty that was brought to us by our elders and ancestors. I don’t know about you, but I think it is pretty cool that in 2018 I am singing a song — Tobiera — that two remechas named Dilmers and Degaragas sang in 1936 and was composed by some unidentified person in 1931, 87 years ago. How different their lives were to ours today, but we can cross the bridge to the past (adidil er a irechar) and join them for a song.

Any way, we hope you enjoy these recordings and that we get another opportunity to sing some songs together.

We’re offering only digital downloads of the album through Band Camp. You can listen to the songs by clicking on the titles in the player below or buy them for download (Kebruka is free) at Bandcamp.  At the bandcamp site we’ve included the lyrics and translations, along with some background on each song.  I hope you enjoy listening as much as we do playing this music.