The hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean over the past few weeks have reminded me of how susceptible we all are to damage from an earth heated up as a result of our consumption of fossil fuels over the last 100 years. While we need to do everything we can to halt and then reverse the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere, we also need to guard against the stronger storms that are generated by a warmer ocean. Our planning needs to include protecting the defenses that we already have. For Palau, those defenses include the mangrove swamps (keburs), which serve so many important purposes for the island.
I find it interesting that the Palauan word for one of the types of mangrove trees – tebechel – has the alternate meaning of a “leader or guide (of group); guardian.” Profound wisdom buried deep in the language. The mangrove can be a guide and guardian to help Palau survive this new reality of a changed climate.
I came across this word in the context of the lyrics of a derebechesiil sung by Keng-Ich Ucharm entitled Di Obeso er Ngak [Just about to forget me]. At the end of the first verse of that song, the singer says that now that her lover has left, she hopes to find a new person to act as her guardian (tebechelek).
We are pleased to announce the digital release of the album “Adidil Tial Buil era Ongos,” a collection of Palauan String Band Music from the 1960s. This album contains 25 songs, representative of the recordings that were restored from the reel-to-reel Ngerel Belau radio tapes that had been found in storage in the Belau National Museum. The recordings were originally made by the radio station staff of ordinary Palauans singing songs composed mostly by Palauans in the 1930s through the 1960s conveying musical images of love lost, yearning and village pride. The singers are accompanied by acoustic, stringed instruments — guitar, mandolin, fiddle — and sometimes along with harmonica and percussion. The song melodies were either directly borrowed or influenced by Japanese Enka and/or American Country-Western music.
All proceeds of the sale of these recordings will go to the Belau National Museum to assist in their work of preservation and promotion of the Palauan heritage, exhibition of natural, cultural, social and historical values, and the development of arts at all levels.
Visit the CD Baby site to listen to short clips of each recording, read the background on this music and read the transcriptions and translations for selections of the songs. If you like what you hear, you can buy individual songs or the entire album for download. We hope these newly-restored sounds of 1960s Palau bring you joy and inspiration.
I’ve been occupied over the past few months with work and traveling, and haven’t had a chance to post about the latest songs that I’ve been listening to. But I’m back home again and wanted to get back in the swing of things. Today’s song I am giving the title “Mireng no Yamai” [my lingering affection is my illness]. This song was identified as “Mireng to Mayami” on the Ngerel Belau Radio Tapes, “Mireng to Nayami” on Halley’s tape, and “Chosengkid” on Sikitong’s tape. Instead of using either of the first two titles, I took the title from the last line of the chorus. There is another, more modern song called “Chosengkid“, so I didn’t use that one either. I don’t know for sure who composed this song, but am currently tracking down a lead as to who it might have been.
Let’s start with the oldest recording I have, which has Sawako Mabel singing with the Friday Night Club. The song starts with a mandolin instrumental, which very tastefully states the song’s melody before Sawako starts singing. The song is composed with separate verse and chorus and Sawako sings the chorus twice each time through.
Mireng to Mayami, Sawako Mabel & the Friday Night Club, 1960s
The melody of the song is in a major key (Ionian mode) using the I, IV and V chords, but it sounds like the guitarist is playing a 7th chord at times which sounds interesting against the melody.
The lyrics to this song, as best I can determine, are as follows. Kaoru Ruluked provided the transcription and translation of the Japanese lyrics, which helped immensely.
(V1) Mama ni naranai ukiyo wa Ng diak a boldak aikel rengud e mosisiu Me aikel soad me ke doureng a ng diak a lemei E a diak era rengud a bai melatk el mei bedul er ngii
(C1) E kau a mei me [ke] chosengkid Chosengkid el chobulid e ngmai bedengem Me chelechae ng olamet er reng e rakt er uriul Nokoru mireng no yamai
(V2) Jiyu ni naranu kono negai Me aikel doruul a diak lebol ungil a besul Moshi dekirukoto ninareba E ngak a me renguk a mei mak di obengkem
(C2)[Itoshi ki] [Siki, siki] kmal [mle] betik era renguk itsudemo yume ni nu sungata Sidai nayami wa tsunoru Nokoru mireng no yamai
The lyrics presented in brackets are alternate lyrics within the 2 versions of this song I’ve heard. I translate these lyrics into English (taking some liberty with the Japanese – English translation provided by Kaoru) as follows. And, as always, I owe a debt of gratitude to sensei Mar for helping with the subtleties of the lyric.
Life didn’t turn out as I hoped
These hearts of ours don’t join and become the same
And those things that we want and hope for, they don’t come
Since our hearts can’t be together, my thoughts instead go toward her
And you come and cause us trouble
Trouble us, make us miserable and take over your body
While we are pleased now, the sickness will come later
My affection for you remains, the cause of my illness
My wish hardly comes true
And these things we’ve done will not improve its situation
But, if it could be so
then I and my heart would come, I would just be with you
[My beloved] [Siki, Siki] was the one who found my heart
Any time I dream of your image
It makes my suffering become stronger
My affection for you remains, the cause of my illness
Halley Eriich recorded this song on his 1991 tape “Sel Hillside” with a real country feel to it. Thanks to Lorilei, I can post Halley’s recording. He listed this song with the title “Mireng to Nayami” (instead of “Mireng no Yamai“, which I am told is the proper Japanese expression, and are the words he sings at the end of the chorus, at least to my ears). The song structure he uses is: V1 – C1 – C2 – V2 – C2 – C1 – break – V2 – C1 – C2. This song was recorded with a studio band in the Philippines that included Rey Cristobal on Keyboard, C.B. Cas and Rudy Lozano Guitar, Roy Mercado on drums, Roger Herrera on bass and Maximiano Alcaide on percussion; most of these names are familiar from other Palauan tapes recorded in the Philippines. Amos Mesubed also played keyboard on the tape.
Mireng to Nayami, Halley Eriich , 1991
Sikitong Beltau recorded the song on his 1997 tape “Ongiwaruno” under the title “Osengkid” [which I’ve normalized to chosengkid based on the dictionary spelling]. In Sikitong’s version he starts the 2nd chorus with “Siki, siki”, a shortened form of his name. Sikitong’s vocals are backed up by Edwin Ongrung on keyboard.
Osengkid, Sikitong Beltau , 1997
This is another in a long line of sad songs. The song provides no details on what went wrong, except that what the singer hoped for was not to be, and now his longing eats away at his soul, resulting in his illness (stated both in Japanese [yamai] and Palauan [rakt]).
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.