Aluminum Work is Fun

Kebruka Tracks in Ngardmau

If you hike to the Taki waterfall in Ngardmau, and look around at the hills, you will see scars of red dirt that are remains/reminders of the bauxite (chidudes) mining that occurred in Ngardmau from 1940 to 1944.  Bauxite is the raw material that goes into making aluminum and it was mined by a Japanese company using the labor of Palauans, Okinawans, Koreans and other Micronesians.  As you hike down the trail you’ll come across the remains of the cable-car [kebruka] railroad that was used to transport the bauxite from the hills where it was mined to the processing facility and then to the dock.  And when you see those tracks, you might start singing to yourself (or your friends) that classic song of Ngardmau, Arumi no Singoto [Aluminum Work], also known as “Kebruka.”

The song was composed by Rechucher Kaske [1], [2], [3], [4], probably in the early 1940s.  The earliest version of the song I have found was recorded by Lisa Sandei on the tape “Mai Tai” that she and Halley Eriich put out in 1992.  This recording has a bit of a glam-rock sound to it, and I can picture a “flying-V” electric guitar playing the lead.  The musicians are not listed on the liner notes, but the recording was made in the Philippines.

Arumi no Singoto, Lisa Sandei, 1992

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Sera Dekot el Tibir el kmo

The Hinode Band from Ngermid included Evasio Marino and Ymesei Ezekiel

When we first fall in love, we cannot imagine a future without our lover and we might say that only death will end our love.  But too often, that initial infatuation fades away, and the love does not survive the harsh light of daily life.  That fading away is most cruel when it happens to only one of the lovers.  That can lead the other lover, the one not willing or able to release their heart, into a downward spiral of depression.  That is the subject of today’s song:  Sera dekot el tibir el kmo (kodall a ulebengelel) [When we first planned that death would be its end].  Kind of a long title, and so it is sometimes named “Tibir el kmo” [planned that] or “Sera Dekot” [When we first].  This song was composed by either Evasio Marino [4] or Ymesei Ezekiel [1], probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Here is Evasio Marino singing with the Hinode band in the mid 1960s.  The backup musicians include a mandolin, guitar and someone playing rhythm.

Sera Dekot el Tibir el Kmo, Evasio Marino & Hinode Band, 1960s

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Adidil er a Semum

While many of us find comfort in the routine of day-to-day life, breaking from that routine to join in periodic community work days, to celebrate a holiday or to partake in an open hunting season also brings us joy precisely because it is out of the ordinary.  That was the case in Palau for what used to be the annual season for collecting semum (called trochus or “top shell” in English, and carrying the Latin name Trochus niloticus).  The widespread participation in this activity by Palauans led to its reflection in Palauan music, which I’ll explore in this article.


Trochus are marine gastropods, native to Palau, living on the coral reef and feeding on algae that grows on coral.  The “top shell” name comes from their conical shape, looking much like a top.  The collected trochus shells are cleaned and sold to manufacturers for producing shell buttons (among other things).  Commercial fishing for trochus in Palau began during the German Administration [7], probably in 1915 [9].  The trochus harvest in Palau in 1916, 1918 and 1923 exceeded 300 US tons [6] and reportedly peaked in 1923 at 332 metric tons (365 US tons) [9].  Sharp declines in trochus collection in the late 20’s and 30’s were likely a result of earlier over-exploitation of the resource.[9]

Harvesting of trochus under the Japanese administration was limited to short seasons, beginning in the 1920s, in part as a resource-conservation measure.  The season typically occurred in June (Rokungatsu), however some Palauan elders remembered the season occurring in May or July [12].

Trochus collection was interrupted by the war but resumed again in the late 1940s.  The interruption in harvest through the war years allowed the over-exploited populations to recover to some extent.  In the years of 1948 through 1956, the trochus harvest in Palau ranged from about 75 to 160 US tons per year [7], averaging about 100 tons/year.  McGowan related in 1957 [7] that:

“At present the Trust Territory Code limits the taking of trochus to any 14-day period during the months of May, June or July. No trochus may be taken that are less than 3 inches in diameter.  These regulations are a hold-over from Japanese times, and have apparently served to maintain the Palau and Ponape populations at fairly constant levels.”

But even with the limits on trochus collection, it was observed in the late 1950s that the over-fishing of trochus was resulting in a decline in the size of the catch throughout the Pacific. [13]

A 1953 newspaper article [1] written by the wife of the District Administrator for Palau captures the extent to which the trochus season consumed everyone on the island:

The annual two-week season for the collection of trochus shells ended here June 24 with better than average results.

According to Ngoriakl, native magistrate for the Koror District of the Trust Territory, his people have been bringing in the pink, top-shaped shells, which find ready market for the manufacture of pearl buttons, in sufficient quantity to justify the arduous task of diving and searching for them.

Weighing from one half to one pound apiece, the trochus markets at 15 cents a pound this year, as opposed to 8 cents last year.

One young Palauan, Pedro Joseph, son of Chief Uherbelau of the village of Ngerebed, proudly displayed his take of 800 shells from which, after they are cleaned of animal matter and dried, he anticipates to receive about $75 from the Island Trading Co.

At a recent meeting of the Palauan Congress in Koror, the natives themselves voted to limit the season to an annual fortnight [2-week period].  Trochus takes precedence over every other obligation here.

The morning of June 10, opening day, all native office workers on District Administrator Sidney Burnett’s staff were excused for a four-day trochus holiday.

The summer session of the teacher training school in Koror, scheduled originally for early June, was postponed a week to allow the teachers to participate.  One half of the staff of Public Works, released for the hunt, shared with those who would not be spared.

Women and children, too, help in the shell gathering at low tide, although the majority of the trochi are found at three to 10 fathoms [18 to 60 feet] depth.  The rubaks, or elders of the villages, collect their share of the bounty, although the necessary deep sea diving is a young man’s game.

The villages of Aimeliik and Ngardmau on the island of Babelthuap [sic] report the largest collections to date.

The use of trochus shell for button manufacturing fell out of style in the late 1950s, caused by the use of plastics in button manufacturing, leading to about two decades of reduced activity.  The market was revived in the mid to late 1970s when shell button once again came into style and the market for trochus recovered [11].  The price for trochus shell increased by 500% over the decade of the 1970s [13] and further increased from $0.28/lb in 1978 to $0.60/lb in 1987 [14].  The price continued to climb into the 90s to $1.40/lb in 1992 [9] and the same price was reported for 1994.

In 1989, the first OEK (Obliil er a Kelulau, Palau National Congress) adopted and modified the Trust Territory restrictions on trochus collection to declare a prohibition on trochus collection unless the OEK and President declare an open season [8]:

Except during open seasons that are designated from year to year by the Olbiil er a Kelulau and subject to further restrictions by each of the State Governments, the harvesting of trochus (semum, Trochus niloticus) is prohibited.  During open seasons, only trochus (semum) of more than three (3) inches in diameter at the base can be harvested.  Even during open seasons, certain areas can be declared closed by either the National or the State Governments.

That initial OEK legislation included a 3-year moratorium on trochus collection (although the moratorium appears to only have been in effect for the 1990 and 1991 seasons).  In 1992, the OEK once again opened the collection of trochus for June of 1992, during which 241 metric tons were collected and 229 metric tons were exported (worth $1.1 million).  A total of 1438 people in Palau (compared to a 1990 Palauan population of 12,321) sold their collected shells in 1992, which reflects just how pervasive the trochus activities were. [9]

During the 2005 trochus season, which went from sometime in May through June 15, over 400 tons of trochus were collected. [5]  Trochus collection was again opened in 2008, but the season showed very low returns, with only 3.45 tons purchased at Ollei, Ngerchelong, on the first day compared to 20 tons on 2004’s opening day [10].

The numbers of trochus on Palau’s reefs have declined over time, with surveys showing 600-800 pieces per hectare (of reef) in 1956, 961 pieces/hectare in 2002, 341 pieces/hectare in 2010 and 281 piece/hectare in 2016.  This decline led to a recommendation that there be no trochus collection in 2016. [3], [4]

Trochus habitat is on the reef, as shown in the following map produced as part of the 2016 survey [4].

Semum habitat

So, after all that, let’s listen to a song.  The obvious classic Palauan song related to trochus collection is “Adidil er a Rokungatsu,” composed by Yaoch Iechad prior to the 1960s and sung here by Christa Mersai in the mid-1960s.

Adidil era Rokungatsu, Christa Mersai, 1965?

The lyrics themselves do not refer to semum, but Rokungatsu is Japanese for “June,” the time that the trochus season is normally open.  And in the second verse (1st sung verse in the recording above) she sings:

Adidil er a rokungatsu / me kimngara chelmoll
yohuke ni kikoeru / lengelel a daob er a chiloil

which translates to:

Remembering back to June / and we are at the reef
at midnight I could hear / the cry of the ocean crashing on the rocky reef

Of course, the lyrics don’t explicitly tell us what was going on at the reef, but perhaps the lovers first got together when they were out on the reef collecting semum.  The connection to trochus season has been suggested by most Palauans I’ve talked to about this song.

Another song which makes much more sense to me when I understand it is tied to collecting trochus is “Yuyake Koyake” (aka Bkul a Omelochel).  Here is a recording of that song from the 1960s with Monica Kiueluul and the Tungelbai Band.  This song is very old, being first recorded in 1936.

Yuyake Koyake, Monica Kiueluul and the Tungelbai Band, 1960s

Rosania Matchiau (Masters) and I were discussing this song [15] and she insisted that the reason that the people are out at Bkul a Omelochel, is that they are camping there while collecting trochus.  This would make sense, given its proximity to trochus collection “hotspots” shown in the map above.  Rosania’s take on the song was that the singer was lonely being away from home collecting trochus and writing a letter (meluches a siich) to his loved one.  But, to use an old expression, “when the cat is away, the mice will play.”  Rosania’s take on this was that “when it is time for trochus season, all the men will go out, but those who will remain will ouretakl a bechil a chad” [hunt for the other men’s wives].

What makes a little more sense to me is that the couple was camped at Bkul a Omelochel but the man went out to collect trochus on the reef to the south (the direction she is looking).  Th woman is stuck behind on the island, lonely, wishing she could join him:

Ulekum e decharm a chad e mak mesebesebek er a
kereker lekong a higashi me dekasoes a kuk me remei
e mesubed a renguk e sabisii

If only people were like birds, I would fly to the
reef to where you are, on the east side, so we can meet and then return home
and accept my loneliness

Luis Kaluu composed a song he called “Ekoek” (another Palauan name for trochus) that was released on his ironically-titled tape “Say No to Drugs (Dedicated to Belau Youth).”  Luis was joined by Amos Mesubed on organ and Albino Aichi on lead guitar.  The cassette is undated, but it was recorded at the Olbukl Night Club in Koror, which was around in the late 1980s.  Let’s listen to his song.

Ekoek, Luis Kaluu, 1980s?

The lyrics to the song are as follows:

Kora mesebesebek a renguk
Loutekangel mocha kutmeklak

Kmo okerir
a buik el kiei er a bita er a blimam
Ngmai klekedall e mocha doiderekel

A rael a kemangel
el mora uchul a did
Tia kid sel tebedel a chomeruu el semum

Dimlak kudengei
Kmo deleongel kerior a kuk mei er ngak
Leng uduod a uchul mak di outekangel

Meral meringel
Sel dorael, ngara ses el eolt
Ak di mekerasem e di outekangel
Merael el mo dibus el riedang

I translate this as follows:

It’s evening and
I’m rather worried
about the effort it will take as I start to prepare myself

I go call
the boy who lives next to our house
to gather the gear as we start to get in the truck

The road is long
that goes to base of the bridge
This is that place where you start to gather trochus

I didn’t know
that a relationship some misfortune was about to come to me
because money is the reason that I am making the extra effort

It is truly hard work
When we go, it is very windy
I’m chilled to my bones but I just persist
on the way to being absent as we leave

Luis tells a story about making a special effort (outekangel) to do the hard work of gathering trochus because he wants the money it will bring.  As a side comment he mentions that a relationship (deleongel) comes out of the experience, but he doesn’t give us a clue as to who that relationship is with or whether it is just a friendship or a romantic relationship.

Here is OB Ngemaes singing Luis Kaluu’s song “Ekoek,” recorded in 2015.

The trochus harvests in Palau were big events that involved a large number of people when they took place — both those doing the harvests, and apparently those who stayed behind.  These big events were referred to in popular songs, but only in a tangential way.  As appears to be the case in many Palauan songs, you have to know the back-story before you truly understand the context of the song.

[1] — Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 1, 1953.  “Trochus Shell Collecting Season Ends in Koror,”  by Blanche Burnett.  View the article here at, Sha Merirei’s great new web site.
[2] — A Report on the Potential for the Introduction of Trocus (Trochus Niloticus) toTuvalu, Report prepared for the South Pacific Commission and the Government of Tuvalu by Brian J. Parkinson, Conchologist, South Pacific Commission, 1985.
[3] — “Palau’s Bureau of Marine Resource Recommends Ending Trochus Harvesting,” Pacific Islands Report, June 21, 2016 (from Island Times Article)
[4] — “2016 Stock assessment of Trochus niloticus in Palau,” Marine Gouezo, Percy Bitoch Rechellul and Geory Mereb, Palau International Coral Reef Center and Bureau of Marine Resources, May 2016.
[5] — “Palau Harvests 400 tons of Trochus Shells,” Marianas Variety by way of Pacific Islands Report, May 31, 2005.
[6] — Source of data was ultimately an unpublished report by McGowan, 1958, which I haven’t found.  The cited data was from the article “Development and Management of Nonfood Marine Resources in the Pacific U. S.-Affiliated Islands,” Barry D. Smith in “Topic Reviews in Insular Resource Development and Management in the Pacific U. S.-Affiliated Islands,” Univ. of Guam Marine Laboratory, Technical Report No. 88, May 1988.
[7] — McGowan, J. R. “Trochus Studies In U.S. Trust Territory,” SPC Quarterly Bulletin, April, 1957, pg. 22.
[8] — Palau Domestic Fishing Laws, 2012 and 24 PNCA 1243.
[9] — Division of Marine Resources Annual Report, 1992.
[10] — “Palau Trochus Harvest Hits All-Time Low,” Marianas Variety, June 3, 2008 via Pacific Islands Report.
[11] — Chapter 7, Trochus, Warwick Nash, 1993.
[12] — Maki Mita, “Palauan Children under Japanese Rule,” Senri Ethnological Reports, 87:  21-24 (2009).  Memories of Henry Albedul (story 28) and Diraul Mokol (story 32)
[13] — Jerry Heslinga, “A Breakthrough in Mariculture Promises to Bring Back Trochids,” Hawaiian Shell News, April 1980.
[14] — “Development and Management of Nonfood Marine Resources in the Pacific U. S.-Affiliated Islands,” Barry D. Smith in “Topic Reviews in Insular Resource Development and Management in the Pacific U. S.-Affiliated Islands,” Univ. of Guam Marine Laboratory, Technical Report No. 88, May 1988.
[15] — Interview with Rosania Masters (Matchiau), April 2018, Ngetkib, Airai.

Bai er a Meketii

Today’s song — Bai er a Meketii — is partly a place-celebratory song, but also tells the story of a man’s exile from and return to his community.  It is place-celebratory in that it initially celebrates the Bai er a Meketii, the main meeting house in Koror.  At the end of the song, it expands the list of places where you can get your life back on track to two other bais in Koror: the Bai er a Ngerkeseuaol and the Bai er a Ngerbachesis.

I think this is a song from the 1940s, but only by the context of the lyrics.  I asked Suki Rengchol and he said that the song is very old, but he didn’t remember anyone other than Tres doing this song.  According to one of the song books I have, it was composed by “Y. Yaoch,” [1]. Felix Okabe clarified that for me [3] and said the composer was Teteo Yaoch, Tresa’s uncle.

I only have a single historical recording of this song, done by Tres Rdulaol on her 1989 cassette “Klechi Belau.”  I don’t have any information on who played on this recording.

Bai ra Meketii, Tres Rdulaol, 1989.

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Ringelel a Chesebreng

Julie Tatengelel Aichi

Today’s song was another big hit for Julie Tatengelel Aichi in the 60’s.  It is a such a great song and what is quite amazing to me is that no one, among today’s Palauan artists, seems to be covering this song.  Besides Julie’s recording, I can find only two other versions, and those are rather old.  I don’t know when the song was written or by whom, so any information on that would be welcome.  A note in Cisca Soaladaob’s song book [1] indicates that it came from “Itsko,” which could be that it was written by Itsko or originated from him/her.

The lyric to the song is well crafted, with the first two lines asking the listener “you have known the pain, haven’t you?  You know, the pain of heartbreak [ringelel a chesebreng]?  Then the singer tells his/her story.

Let’s listen to Julie Tatengelel Aichie singing it on her 1998 CD entitled “Echoes of the ’60s.”  The musicianship is very good on this recording, with Tio Koichi on keyboards and guitar and Toshi K. Higa on bass.

Ringelel a Chesebreng, Julie Tatengelel Aichi, 1989.

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A Diall a Mlei

A Diall a Mlei [1]

Last Spring, I had the chance to sit down with Felix Okabe to talk about Palauan music and play some songs together.  Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.  When he asked me to play some American songs, I sang one of my favorites, a song the Stanley Brothers made famous entitled “Rank Stranger,” a song about going back home after a long absence to find that no one there remembers you and all of your friends and family have passed on.  I asked Felix if there were any songs like that in Palauan music and the one he thought of that had a similar theme (although not exactly parallel) is the song known as “Techobei” or “A Diall a Mlei.”  Techobei is now known as Hatohobei (formerly known as Tobi), an island in the Southwest Islands of Palau.  This is a song where someone’s child must suddenly leave on the ship going from Malakal to Hatohobei, what is known as the field-trip ship, and the mother crying and wandering aimlessly from Desekel to Meyungs and either returning or disappearing, depending on whose lyrics you follow. The mother is worried that her child will die before she has a chance to see the child again.

I’ve been told several stories to explain this song. You decide which is correct (or better yet, if someone knows, please comment)

  • There was a man from Echang and a woman from Meyungs who married and had a child.  The marriage didn’t work out and so the man from Echang decided to leave to Hatohobei and take their child.  The mother was horrified at the prospect of never seeing her child again.  In this case, the ship that came carried the child away from the mother.
  • The child was actually a grown man who had died in Hatohobei and the old mother had been informed by radio.  This ship arriving in Malakal was carrying the child’s body.  This story seems unlikely, as the ship was leaving to Hatohobei, not coming from Hatohobei (e remiid er a Techobei)

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Olidoid a Beluu

Te mlo el mo olidoid a banderang

Today’s song is an untitled chelitakl [singing song], recorded in 1936 by Muranushi in Ngeremlengui [1].  It celebrates a military victory by Japan over Russia, in either the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 or possibly one of many border skirmishes between Japan and the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1936, when this song was recorded. The song also describes the Japanese/Palauan relationship as this singer saw it in the mid-1930s, and possibly the singer’s hope that the “olidoid a beluu” [changing countries] was now at an end.  How wrong he ended up being.

The song is described in Muranushi’s notes as being “performed as a war song” and noting that “the text of this chant is recited.” During his field study, Muranushi collected Palauan terms for the different chants and songs and defined the term “chelitakl” as “songs for a sitting dance, sung by old women.”  However, Tatar’s publication also states that Muranushi did not classify any of the collected songs as derebechesiil or chelitakl, and that these classifications were added later by Maria Otto, the Palauan who translated the lyrics for the collection. [1]

Here is the recording of the chelitakl:

Untitled Chelitakl, Unidentified Male Singer, 1936

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