I recently received some old photographs from Birgit Abels that she found in the Liebenzell mission archives in Germany. These photos depict protestant missionaries with groups of young Palauans with guitars and mandolins. I have cropped these photos to just focus on the mandolin players, as I am curious to know who they might have been. The first photo was taken sometime in the period of 1930 – 38, based on the presence in the photo of a missionary who was in Palau during that period. These boys look to me to be about 12 to 15 years old, which would put their birth years in the early 1920s, about the same age as Ymesei Ezekiel, who was born in 1921. I was told by his niece, Krete Williams, that Ymesei could play many instruments, including the mandolin, and so maybe one of these boys is a young Ymesei Ezekiel. The boy in the center has been identified by Yoichi Rengiil as his uncle, Tatsuo Adachi (1920 – 1980), who would later become the first principal of Koror Elementary School  and a statistical clerk in the TT government.
Mandolin Players in Ngiwal, 1939
The next photo was taken in 1939 in Ngiwal and shows two mandolin players. To my eyes, the two boys in 1939 are different from the three boys in the earlier photo. Again, these boys look to me to be of high-school age, which might put their birth year in the mid-1920s.
The Ngerel Belau radio tapes, recorded in the 1960s, included the playing of several different mandolin players. As I currently understand it, the musicians playing mandolin on those recordings included Neterio Henry, Hosei Faustino and Kyoshi Ngirangol (Angaur), Yaoch Iechad (Airai, but also recorded with the Paradise Club in Kayangel), Tadao Tadong (Kayangel), Tem Obakerbau and Jose (Aimeliik), and Ngirasob (from Ngermid).
These are times when we should be listening to nature, and so I composed this song — Lengelel a Tutau [the cry of the morning bird] — inspired by the sounds of the Tutau (the morning bird), along with the Biib (fruit dove), recorded in Palau in March of this year. At the bottom of this page is a recording I made as a part of working out the song concept.
The song recording includes bird sounds I recorded at a house in Kesebelau, Airai, Palau on March 10, 2020. I filtered the bird-sound recording to enhance the range (950 to 1700 Hz) of the Tutau bird and then visually identified the time and frequency of the sound using the Izotope RX-5 audio editor.
A sample of the audio spectrum is shown below, with two stereo tracks shown (left on top of right) and the time scale on the x-axis and frequency shown on the y-axis. The strength of the signal for any time/frequency combination is indicated by the brightness (so whiter regions indicate stronger sounds in that frequency range). The arrow points to a bird call at about 48 seconds into the recording with a frequency of about 1000 Hz. That call is followed by the next call at about 51 seconds at a frequency of about 1680 Hz.
Time/Frequency spectrum of audio clip
Based on my measurements on the 2.25 minute sound clip, the Tutau bird sings a series of near-constant pitches, each lasting from 0.6 to 1.2 seconds (average of 0.93 seconds), with a start-to-start interval ranging from 2.4 to 6.6 seconds (averaging 3.6 seconds). The lowest pitch was at about 968 Hz, somewhere between a Bb and B in the 5th octave. The bird appears to sing a scale limited to 6 notes: 1 – 2b – 2 – 3 – 5 – 7b, where 1 is the lowest note it sings and using a tempered scale relative to that low note). The following table gives the average frequencies for each of the similar pitches, along with the ratio of those frequencies to the lowest (root) pitch and a comparison of frequency ratios for the Equi-tempered scale and the Just scale. The error of these two scales was calculated and showed that the equi-tempered scale was a better (but not perfect) fit to the frequencies sung by the bird.
Ratio to Low Note
Ratio for Equal Tempered Scale
Ratio for Just Scale
The sequences it sang over that 2-1/4 minutes, separating those sequences by the starting low note, were as follows:
(start of recording) – 2 – 5
1 – 2 – 7b – 2b – 3 – 7b
1 – 2 – 5
1 -2 – 2b- 7b
1 – 2 – 5
1 – 2 – 5
1 – 7b – 2b – 3 – 7b
1 – 2 – 5
1 – 2 – 5
1 – 2 – 7b – 2b – 3
1 – 2 (end of recording)
Half of the notes were either the 1 or the 2. The 3rd was sung less than 8% of the time.
A 1 note is usually (with one exception in this sound sample) followed by a 2 note
The 5 note was always followed by a 1 note
I used those notes — 1, 2b, 2, 3, 5, 7b or, using C as the lowest note, C, C#, D, E, G, Bb — as the pallete of notes from which to choose in composing the song and had the chorus follow the actual melodic line sung by the bird (shown in bold above): 1 – 2 – 5 , 1 – 2 – 7b, 2b – 3, except that I resolved the sequence with the 5 note (G). While I have expressed everything on the C scale, relative to the lowest note sung by the bird, the song resolves to a Gm ( and so the scale is 1 – 3b – 4 – 4# – 5 – 6, with 1 being a G).
Here’s what I came up with
Lengelel a Tutau, Jim Geselbracht, 5/1/2020
The lyrics are:
Ng kuk mocha tutau Lengelel a charm a melatk er ngak a dekasmesumech
Bechesiil ak riedang e a kuchoitii a ngerang? kau a meral churengelak
ak di mle cheleiud e kulsiik a kmong techang e chelechaeng a kudengelii
Sabisii dosumecheklii meluluut a renguk
A charm er a tutau lomes a klengar er kid e lmangel er a klengiterreng er a rechad el chilitii
A charm a lolekoi a ngerang? Ngera belkul a tekoi? lolekoi a lengelel a rechebuul
Ng techa el osisechakl a hu el sabisii lomes a rechad e lodengelii
Sabisii dosumecheklii meluluut a renguk
I translate this as:
The morning light is breaking
The cry of the bird
reminds me of
our saying farewell
Sweetheart, I am going astray
and what did I throw away?
you truly complete me
I just made a mistake
and I was looking for whom, I don’t know
and now I understand it
let’s put things in order
my heart keeps returning
The morning bird
it watches our lives
and cries over the sorrow
of the ones who were discarded
What is the bird speaking about?
What is the meaning of the words?
It speaks the cries of the miserable ones
Who taught it
the melody of the lonely?
it watches the people and it understands
let’s put things in order
my heart keeps returning
I hope you like it.
Just for fun, I challenged my nephew, Zach Armstrong to compose a song using the same 6-note scale. Here’s what he came up with, naming it “Bird Funk.”
I’ve been getting ready for another trip to Palau with my friend, Tony Phillips, where we will be performing as Ngirchoureng. We are hoping to focus our musical energies on the week of March 9 through the 13th, which we are quite presumptuously labeling as the “Palauan String Band Music Festival.” We hope to be having musical activities all week focused on Palauan music played on acoustic instruments (mandolin and guitar) and songs composed between 1915 and the 60s. One of the activities we are planning is that Jim will lead a daily song discussion — from noon to 1 pm, so bring a bento — where we will examine the song lyrics and discuss the thoughts expressed in them and their relevance to today, from a group of 3 to 4 songs that share something in common.
We will start on Monday, March 9th, where we look at 4 songs on the subject of dreams. If you want a head start, you can read about each of these songs and listen to recordings of them by following the links below:
In the session, we will listen to recordings and talk through the Palauan and/or Japanese lyric and my sometimes clumsy translation to English, which will hopefully lead to some discussion of what the lyrics mean to the others in the session. And especially if you know the back story. We want to celebrate the poetry of these composers.
Details on the other four sessions, and the location for the sessions, to be announced next week
Today’s song — Dirk Oltoir [Still in Love], also known as Bekesel Ochik [my destiny] — expresses the inner pain of a one-sided love that has made the one left behind feel like they are in the way, in pain, restless and twisted in knots. While the central theme of this song is the standard “hurt and inert” attitude of the spurned lover heard in many modern Palauan songs, this song lyric is unique in its use of a repeating refrain at the end of each verse: “di melengelakl e diak lodengei el kmo chad a dirk oltoir” [she just keeps passing by and doesn’t know that this person is still in love]. I have not come across another Palauan song that uses a repeating refrain form (as opposed to a full chorus), and it is very effective in this song at driving home the forlorn-lover’s complaint.
The only recording I have is from Wataru Elbelau from the Ngerel Belau Radio tapes. It was labeled on the tape box with the title “Dirk Oltoir.” Wataru is backed up by a rhythm guitar, mandolin and what sounds like some ukuleles.
Today’s song — Te Uoi Chetik a Remekedung [I rather don’t like them, the well-behaved] — sort of takes its title from the last verse of the song in which he claims that he truly does not like the well behaved. Maybe at the time of the recording Keng-ich decided to slightly soften his dislike.
The only recording of this song I have found is by Keng-ich Ucharm from the Ngerel Belau Radio tapes. The title was written on the tape box along with Keng-ich’s name. Keng-ich composed this song to Mitsko [written elsewhere as Mitsuko] Otei, a woman from Kayangel . Mitsko was also a singer, and we have a recording of her singing “Bai Derengul a Ngeltengat er a Chelid” [Lucky to be blessed by the gods]. Keng-ich is singing this song in a falsetto voice accompanied by two guitars.
For today’s song I have more questions than answers. I found this song on a recording made at the Bai er a Metal in 1978 of the electric band playing there. The singer is probably Brisia Tangelbad, although I have not been able to confirm that. I am giving it the title “Kucha Kitang Ngara Kosiil,” from the opening line of the song. I haven’t found this song in any of the song books or on any tapes/CDs where it was given a published title. Nor do I have any information on who the composer was or when it was composed. I’ve asked around, but no luck. Anybody have any information to share?
So let’s listen to this recording.
Kucha Kitang Ngara Kosiil, Bai er a Metal Band, 1978
A Eanged a Ungil (illustration in the book of sheet music)
Today’s song is a bit of a change from the other modern Palauan music I’ve been writing about on this blog, and it adds some complexity to the narrative of the story of that music’s development. As I’ve written elsewhere, Ymesei Ezekiel played a large role in the development of Palauan music in the 1950s through the 1970s. His musical education role, both in the schools and in the protestant church, included making arrangements for, teaching and leading choral singing groups in Palau. Today’ song — A Eanged a Ungil [the sky is good] — is a general place-celebratory song, describing the beauty of Palau when the rain has stopped, the sky has cleared and the moon has begun to rise. So beautiful that it attracts the children (and birds) to leave their houses and come to the beach to play. And a warning: this song will get in your head and won’t leave!
The only recording of this song I have is from the recordings collected by the University of Hawaii music professor, Barbara Smith, who visited Palau in the fall of 1963. During that trip she recorded singers and musicians but was also given recordings that had been previously made. This recording was on a tape entitled “Other Dubbings Given to Barbara Smith, 1963,” This track feature four-part choral singing.
AEanged a Ungil, Unidentified Choral Group, 1963 or earlier
Doki, doki is a Japanese expression for the rapid beating of your heart, maybe like the English phrase “pitter patter.” One internet commenter said about it’s meaning: “That is usually a good thing and is usually when you are anticipating something wonderful about to happen.” Another said “It’s an expression for ‘heart pounding’, the reason may be embarrassment, love, fear, etc.” It’s a great onomatopoeia expression that describes, in the case of today’s song, the heart-pounding moment when two former lovers come face to face on the village path. The awkward meeting on the path brings back memories of an earlier encounter, much in the past. And perhaps she was the one that was wrong because they had their favorite places to go hang out and once she told him to go there and wait for her, but the whole night passed until the roosters were consistently crowing (and that is really late in the morning) without her showing up. Since then he has followed his heart elsewhere and so, they step aside, say farewell, and continue on their way down the path.
I only have one recording of this song, from the 1987 Bai er a Metal recording, featuring Sikitong on guitar and vocals.
Doki Doki Sel Tal, Sikitong Beltau and the Bai er a Metal Band, 1978
Growing up in Central Illinois, in the heartland of America, I was certainly aware of the moon, but it did not play an important part of my life, with perhaps the exception of July 1969 when we were all in the grips of the ultimate connection to the moon (a kot el klou adidil er tial buil), the first moon landing. But while living in Micronesia for four years during my 20’s, I learned the connection of the moon to daily life as it relates to the tides and the lives of the fish, crabs, etc. that were our food sources. Nearly everyone in Palau is aware of the current moon phase. Beyond its connection to every-day life, the moon can be breath-takingly beautiful as well and it is no coincidence that the rising moon is the symbol on the flag of Palau.
Well, and also because Palauans were the first people to go to the moon. Listen to this Ngerel Belau radio broadcast from August, 1969, telling the story of Tkud and his wife Remesei who, along with their ever-crying child and their favorite lime tree [kerekur], live on the moon:
Cheldecheduch era Tkud me a Remesei, Ngerel Belau – Palauan, August 1969
Cheldecheduch era Tkud me a Remesei, Ngerel Belau – English, August 1969
Today’s song was composed by a man named Simang in 1935 . I was told by Suki Rengchol that Simang was Baul Dakubong’s father. Simang is also listed in Tutii’s songbook  as the composer of the song Bechesiil a Ulumulak re Ngak [sweetheart, you lied to me] and the entry says “Aimeli” … (the rest of the name was cut off on the copy) after his name. That was probably “Aimeliik,” where Baul is from. I don’t have a recording of that other song, but would love to find it.
This is one of only a few songs in the Palauan songbook whose lyrics ponder the subject of the impending or recent death of a loved one. Ribang seems to me to be about death that is in the future. Compare that to Meringel a Rengul, that is about the impacts of a death in the recent past.
The oldest recording of this song (Ribang) I have is from the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes with Wataru Elbelau singing. The song was titled “Di Ua Blok Bad” and it starts on what is considered to be the second verse.