Chamorro Web : Music : Tsamorita Singing

Tsamorita         Kantan Tsamorita      Kantan Chamorita

Traditional Chamorro dialog song of the Mariana islands

By Michael R. Clement

This project has been funded by the Guam Humanities Council and in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Chamorro Language Conference 1996
Language Conference
Tsamorita singing has all but faded into the past on Guam. This has come about over the past two generations, roughly since the Vietnam War. This is due to the rapid global communication that has reoriented family, community and workplace on Guam to the American way. Contemporary society is incompatible with the type of communal society that has nurtured this dialog song poetry for centuries. The Chamorro culture has adapted by taking the name of this precious dialog song form and applying it to any song in the Chamorro language. This has salvaged the name tsamorita but it ignores its traditional roots that extend back through the Spanish era (1668-1898) to ancient times. This documentation will help identify and preserve the traditional meaning of tsamorita singing. It is a cherished museum piece; it is the highest form or artistic expression in the Chamorro language.

Tsamorita. n. Also chamorita, kantan chamorita. 1) extemporaneous poetic song dialog in the Chamorro language; 2) Kantan chamorita (a) tsamorita singing (b) name of a master tsamorita singing group; 3 ) a dear or precious song in the Chamorro language; 4) a continuation of the ancient poetic song dialog mari. Tsamorita: the ts spelling reflects Chamorro pronunciation of the ch sound and the single r is derived from the word chamor; Rodriguez: chamor = “friend” (Levesque, Vol. 2, 1992, 95). As pertains to song, tsamorita/chamorita is not a diminutive of Chamorro. It first appeared in Spanish documents in 1779 but after that usually referred to the language rather than the people. During the Spanish colonial times, the indigenous people were called naturales or Marianos and under American military rule, Guamanians. Lourdes Leon Guerrero and Francisca Franquez recall that as of the mid-20th century, a young Chamorro girl was called senorita, not chamorrita (personal communication, 2004). George Fritz’s ethnography was the first major document to refer to the Mariana Islanders as Die Chamorros. In this, he commented on the traditional dialog song debate: “Little is sung today. Besides religious songs in the church and during novenas, [and speaking of tsamorita singing] there is only one Chamorro song … [“An gumupu si paluma,” (“AGSP”) “As the dove flies”] …the number of verses is unlimited, each singer invents new ones”(Fritz, 1904,158).

Tsamorita singing 1) is conceived and sung in the Chamorro language, 2) embodies metaphor and other figures of speech that have been passed down for centuries and that reflect how Chamorros have felt about their lives and surroundings, 3) follows the parallel construction in dialog song that Proschan describes as “a core characteristic of Southeast Asian cultures [and its islands]” (1989, 257), 4) is extemporaneous and can be competitive depending on the situation, and 5) is built on musical motifs that have roots in an ancient 4-tone scale (Clement, 2001b, 60), as reflected in the song melody “An gumupu si paluma.”

Song dialogs are sung in quatrains of four lines per verse in two 8-syllable couplets with the second and fourth lines rhyming. The second singer repeats the last two lines of the first singer and then adds two new lines. Singers incorporate popular stock phrases that act as fillers, giving them time to think and giving on-lookers a chance to join in, especially on final cadences. Tsamorita singing was originally a capella.

History of the term tsamorita

Pellacani Notation
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Gertrude Hornbostel, c.1925, asked U.S. Navy Band director Ermete Pellacani to notate the melody to “An gumupu si paluma” and she named the song type tsamorita. In 1932, anthropologist, Laura Thompson changed it to chamorita. In 1949, Ernest McLain and Robert Clopton of the University of Hawaii interviewed Chamorro music teachers about the dialog song poetry but not one referred to it as tsamorita singing; therefore it may never have been a grass-roots term. In the 1970s-80s interested Chamorros began an effort to promote tsamorita singing. This coincided roughly with the formation of a popular island dance group, Jimmy Dee and the Chamorritas and the Ike and Tommy Charfaurous’radio program, The Chamorrita Hour. The association of chamorrita with a young Chamorro girl confused the origin and name of the dialog song poetry. The public came to believe that chamorrita was the traditional name for any popular song in the Chamorro language. In order to restore the original meaning of tsamorita, a group of music scholars decided on kantan chamorrita and used it to name a group of master singer-poets representing Guam at the 1988 Festival of Pacific Arts held in Australia. For the sake of distinguishing the dialog song and debate from popular song, and for accurate historic preservation, the correct spelling should be phonetically kantan tsamorita, tsamorita singing or with the alternate spelling kantan chamorita.

Saipan Radio Broadcast
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Nothing of the ancient culture has been described by outsiders as well as the Chamorro penchant for dialog song poetry. In 1683, Padre Francisco Garcia noted that “they admire poetry and believe poets to be men who perform wonders” (Higgins, 1985). In 1823, Jacques Arago reported that “singing may be in some measure an emblem of their life” (1971). In 1824, De Freycinet spoke of “la conversation”… recalling or chanting the adventures of their ancestors” (1824, 397). In the 20th century, Kim Bailey commented that “poetically imaginative interpretation of the subject through the use of figurative expression in rhyme and meter was the quintessence of the [dialog song poetry] genre…” (1981, 2). Dr. William Peck referred to “poetic artistry and layers of meaning … in the verses” (1981). Dr. Laura Souder said that they “tease and ridicule one another without causing shame or embarrassment to anyone” (1993, 190). No other aspect of Chamorro culture has been maintained with such continuity from the earliest days to the present

Ancient roots of tsamorita singing

In 1602, Fray Juan Pobre reported that Chamorros called their poetic debate mari, a proto-Malay term meaning “come to the speaker”(Clement, 2001b, 50). As Ledesma described it in 1672, “they would compete to see who could sing the most verses about the fables and events of their ncestors”(Levesque, Vol. 5, 483). Since its content was based on the ancestor religion, in 1676, the Jesuit missionaries condemned the practice and the teaching of mari. With the gradual extinction of the Chamorro males who owned this oral heritage, the allegorical significance of mari and its connection to ancestral spirit images, aniti babao, was lost. The Criollos from Mexico, and the Pilipino and Mexican mestizos who followed, knew nothing of the Chamorros’ ancestral oral heritage.

In linguistic terms, mari is a doublet of magi and both reflect Proto-Austronesian, Pan *mai (Blust, personal communication, 1996; Clement 2001, 49). It is a borrowed Malay term indicating that Chamorro ancestors brought it with them when they migrated to the Mariana Islands sometime during the first millennium CE. It is plausible that magi, also with the meaning “come to the speaker,” is linked to another earlier (or later) migration of people from provinces of the Philippine Islands. In 1747, magi was linked to performance through the term magiganga, a “festivity with slapstick humor”(McClurken, 1987, 23). Magi, “come to the speaker” combined with anga “mouth,” or “to do something with the mouth,” (Quackenbush, personal communication, 1996) could have signified a call to a song debate, speech, recitation, drama, ceremony or joke telling. Thomlinson calls this “diphrasis, the joining of two concepts in grammatical conjunction to signify a third” (1995, 364). Chamorros still use the word magi today, but not in reference to song or any other kind of oral performance. Eventually, the Chamorros adopted the terms kanta and kantan, for song or singing (Span. cantar, to sing).

The Spaniards never reported the sources of ancestral stories and fables, but surely they emanated from centuries of funeral laments going back to the creation myth and the Chamorros’ original ancestors, Puntan and Fu’una, analogous to the Chinese Shang dynasty myth of Pan’ku (Shirokauer, 1978, 23). The funeral laments of the techas (Span. endecha), paid female funeral mourners, eulogized the deceased (Clement, 2001b, 39) and sowed the seeds for future legends. Some ancient content of Chamorro poetry is reflected in the Chamorro legends of the half-girl, half-fish, Serena, and the clan rivalry of Los Dos Amantes (The Two Lovers). De Freycinet hints at the content and character of ancient laments in the following example:

Each woman recounts the life, the deeds of that person … .
She begins with a narrative of his … childhood doings and
the things done when mature …, stature, exploits, jokes,
effort and all … other things [valor] to honor the deceased …
they mourn the dead during their whole life (Levesque, Vol. 3, 173).

A man’s life story remained forever part of his mother’s clan’s oral history. If the circumstances of his life were exemplary, the women would recount his deeds in song poetry and the men would debate them for generations. It is plausible that the story of a chief (magalahi) or other high ranking person of a Chamorro clan, who died of some brave or daring act as a warrior or a fisherman, would become elevated to a venerable position in the oral history of his mother’s clan, and in time become legendary. Chamorros would imagine or dream that his soul would transmigrate to the body of an animal (Clement, 2001b, 24). The aniti babao of that animal could become a totemic metaphor for his life. Family nicknames that Chamorros retain today are reflections of past song metaphor: e.g. Familian Tisu (ibid, 171). The funeral chants of the ancestor religion provided spiritual motivation and ideas for their poetry and debate.

The character of such clan poetry is captured in the following example given by de Freycinet. The original metaphor has been lost in translation from Chamorro to Spanish to French to English, as well as the sense of parallel features such as rhyming or phrasing.

There is no life for me
What remains in me of him
will be nothing but loneliness and bitterness
The sun that enlivens me is eclipsed
The moon that lights my spirit is darkened …
Be it that the valor of our warriors
The honor of our race
The glory of our country
The hero of our nation is no more. (1824, 391).
Chamorros continued to maintain the skills of mari, but under Spanish Catholic missionization, they could think no more of their warriors, race, country or nation, nor could such lyrics enter their poetry again. This stands out in sharp contrast to the romantic Christian poetry expressed in the tsamorita singing.

Social setting for tsamorita singing

In 1602, Frey Juan Pobre reported one ancient debate setting for the dialog song poetry. It fits the description of the magiganga in which the men and women of different villages or clans would come together for a whole day of sports activity, poetic song debate, food and celebration (Driver, 1989, 18). Gertrude Hornbostel (“Trudis Allemagne”) apparently listening to oral history c.1925, recorded “in the olden days rival towns would challenge each other through tsamorita singing from different hilltops or some other neutral ground, accompanied by the belimbau tuyan [musical bow]” (Hornbostel Manuscript, c. 1924, Box 1.2). This is the only known reference that Chamorros used a traditional instrument to accompany the tsamorita. D’Urville describes the belimbau tuyan as having a feeble and monotonous sound (1830, 497).

Tsamorita singing took place in the communal work setting, however it was not a work song of the sea chantey type, for example, in which its rhythm coordinates work movements as hauling on the sheets to set the sails. Dialog song was a social expression related to the work of providing the most basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter. Upper class Chamorro women sang while planting, cultivating and harvesting rice and to celebrate rites of passage. They sang in the village while they wove garments, ropes, nets, sandals, food containers and roof thatches of fibers or leaves of various trees and plants. They sang from the shoreline while casting their nets for reef fish. And they sang in their outdoor kitchens while preparing taro and breadfruit or pounding the nut of the faddang or corn meal to make flour for tetijas (tortillas). De Freycinet preserved the lyrics of a mother singing to her daughter but not the daughter’s reply: “Hodjong akaga” “go out young tease”(de Freycinet, 1824, 369; trans. Perez, personal communication, 1996; Clement, 2001b, 63).

Woman Weaving
Weaving a Thatch
There was communal work like the hodjong songsong where the people of one village would send a volunteer work party to a neighboring village to frame and thatch the roof of a canoe house, bachelor house or a house for a newly married couple (de Freycinet, 1824, 375). Men working together would improvise poetic song dialogs and so would the women. If there was a competitive aspect, in contrast to simply weaving a story, it was informal and arose out of the moment, one person’s clever response gaining approval over another’s. Such activity lasted throughout the Spanish period, into the early American period and during Japanese occupation. At the end of World War II there were still more than 200 thatched-roof houses in the main village of Hagatna and older Chamorros still remember that a roof would be re-thatched about every four years.

The ulitao song societies (Freycinet, 1824, 398) provided the setting for the love songs and dialogs prior to Catholic missionization. In this bachelor setting the young ulitao warriors and their maiden rajao could express themselves freely. “Hosgnon gofdja,” may serve as an example of the melody that they used. As a ceremonial song, it mixes secret nonsensical language, peace and love metaphor. In this song, the post-pubescent warrior expresses his sexual attraction and desire by alluding to pugua (betel nut) and suni (taro root) (Clement, 2001b, 58). That Freycinet did not include a reply from the rajao in his transcription of the song does not mean that it was never sung in dialog form. It was characteristic that symbolic peace and love motifs would be intermixed in song as the ulitao were both warriors and lovers who expressed themselves poetically in the tradition of mari. The traditional instrument belimbau pachot (jew’s harp) was “an actual passion” (D’Urville, 1830, 497) with boys, and it probably accompanied some of these songs.

Pilipinos brought the tradition of tapping the coconut tree for its slightly alcoholic sap, tuba, and of distilling aguardiente from sugar cane. Jesus Charfaurous (personal communication, 1996) was a tubero and recalls singing such dialogs among fellow tuberos up into the 1960s, often based on the theme of a girl of whom they were dreaming.

Public Market Song Poets
Public Market Song Poets
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In the early 20th century, tsamorita singing was featured at fiestas such as birthdays, saint’s days, or the fandango (wedding party). Sometimes formal competition between singer-poets would be arranged with people betting on who could sing the most verses. This is similar to the duplo dialog song tradition of the Tagalogs in the Philippines except “the duplo only was sung on the last night of a novena” (Jose, 1977, 95). Informally, tsamorita singing could break out spontaneously between a man and a woman in place of conversation; they would exchange a verse or two as a form of flirting.

Bernadita Dungca recalls how the tsamorita was sung between her father and “his greatest contestant” a woman from Talofofo:

There was a joy going to the Talofofo fiesta to hear this duel.
To us it was fascinating because there was a skill to it; one
debater would sing four lines of the tsamorita; the next singer
would begin by repeating the last two lines of the opponents
quatrain and adding a new couplet of their own. Then they
would repeat the four lines including their new couplet. In this
way they would respond to each other, each time creating a
new challenge for their opponent. … We would begin sitting
in a circle and after it got going, we would move behind our
own contestant and the others would move behind their
[contestant]. The duel was always a delight when it was
nearing the end and a lot of people would have gathered
around. I’m delighted to say that my dad would keep it going
in the spirit of competition; if the lady was running out of
words he would give her some. Also, he avoided the use of
off-color words. If another contestant used them, he would
just not pick themup. A couple of times he was declared the
winner becausehe would not go that low. There is a lot of
euphemism used in the songs to protect whomthe song is for.
We have a saying in Chamorro that we cantell the miracles
but not the saints … you can tell the deedsof a person but
you can never mention the name. A lot of skillis required of
the debater to create mystery and riddle in theverse (personal
communication, 1996).

Outside influence on Chamorro dialog song

From the earliest days of Spanish missionization, European melody, harmony, rhythm and meter were introduced to Guam as this request by Padre Sanvitores indicates:

It is also necessary that your Reverence send us all kinds
of musical instruments, harps, guitars, lyres, cornets and
all these other instruments which belong to the musical art,
together with some music books. Also an organ and organist
so that these boys may acquire these skills (Levesque, Vol. 5, 143).

With these instruments, including violin, cello and tambourine, the Jesuits taught dances of Christian conquest from Mexico, inspired by the European moresca, to the students of the Collegio de San Juan de Letran in Agana [Agadna]. From these, Chamorros experienced a larger pitch range than the four tones of their ancestral dialogs and chant, becoming accustomed to the diatonic scale, key feeling and the all-important leading tone. They also learned 7-tone, non-metrical plainsong based on the ecclesiastical modes of the Church. And the Jesuits adopted the dialog song poetry skills of mari as their means of teaching Catholic doctrine to schoolchildren (McDonough, 1994, 432). This was auspicious for the survival of these ancient skills in the Christian era.

It is clear that the Jesuits and criollos were the conduit for new musical ideas. But given the long time between Manilla Galleon visits, it is questionable how much of an influence new song styles from Mexico or the Philippines such as “Spanish metrical romances, the Mexican verso” (Bailey, 1981, 9) or melodies of corridos could have had on Chamorro song style. During the last 100 years of this trade, 1715-1815, a galleon stopped for about one day every four years and they were Guam’s only connection to the outside world. It is more likely that how Chamorros conceived the lyrics of their song dialogs was inspired by social changes brought about by Catholic missionization; specifically, the changes in courtship and marriage custom that influenced how Chamorros expressed ideas of love and romance.

Padre Sanvitores commented on “the worthlessness of their marriages which do not even merit the name for their lack of perpetuity” (Higgins, 1985, 233).

Padre Monroy set the date of the wedding of a native girl who
resolved to be married in the Church for a fiesta day, in order
that the other Indios might be impressed by the sacred ceremony
and note its difference from their own barbarous rites (ibid).

Chamorros did not have a concept of marriage, husband, wife, love and romance in the European sense. A young couple came together to procreate, perpetuate clan lineage and create a common ancestry, as the adolescent antics of the ulitao and rajao in the guma ulitao showed. Custom dictated that the magahaga (oldest female) of the boy’s family approached the magahaga of the girl’s family who, if she approved of the union between clans, offered betel nut as a sign that the proposal was accepted. Once the male had done his job, his “children belonged to the mother’s achafnak [lineage]” (Cunningham, 1984, 38). From then on the male was considered irrelevant.

This ancient social norm was replaced by the concept of a husband and wife, obligated to each other through a holy union vested in Catholic doctrine. From this flowed the Spanish system of chaperonage, and the European style of courtship, romance and romantic love, that became manifest in song lyrics that the boy composed to propose to the girl. Strictly speaking, tsamorita dialog song was not used during Spanish courtship because “girls were not permitted to leave the house to speak with boys, and seldom ventured out without a chaperon” (Bailey, 1981, 5).

Some wedding traditions that have been handed down reflect ancient customs as well as Spanish customs. “There are four steps leading to the alter. The first is the Mamaisen Saena [asking for the permission to marry the girl]. The second is the Complimento, the third, the Casamiento and the fourth is the Fandango” (Cruz, 1983, 65). For the Complimento, the boy’s family would recite a poetic announcement of their arrival at the girl’s house and the girl’s family would return a poetic welcome. This is known as the amaga chant (Flores, 1999, 173). Tsamorita singing found its place in the fiestas that accompanied each stage of the courtship and wedding process. Souder describes tsamorita singing at the Fandango:

The bride and groom’s families, the father and mother-in-law
of the bride, might begin singing … about what they anticipate …
[the] daughter and son-in-law are doing, what their future life
might be like, the kind of family background is joining together
from the two sides, the old disputes in the family that are finally
being resolved through this marriage (Jon Anderson Show,
K-57 Radio, 9/17/87).

It is difficult to imagine that such strict courtship rules were in place at all levels of Chamorro society and that dialogs never occurred when a boy courted a girl. “A certain style of double-talk developed, almost incomprehensible to non-teenagers. This jargon and other figurative expressions were imbued in the songs which males sang to females from a distance outside the house” (Bailey, 1981, 9). This double-talk is reminiscent of fino gualafon, the secret nonsense language of the ulitao bachelor and rajao maiden: diku, diliku, dilin diliku, as they carried on in the guma ulitao (Freycinet, 1824, 398). Perhaps, this incomprehensible, secret language implies hidden dialog. Thus, there was the metaphor of the paluma and the donne tree, to disguise where a young couple would escape to be together.

The social change represented by the entire courtship and wedding process was so strong that it can be considered most responsible for the change in the poetry of the love song and tsamorita singing. It would have predisposed Chamorros to the outside influence of Spanish metrical romances, the corrido and the Mexican Verso, if or when these song types reached Guam. In this atmosphere, it is possible to see that the same predisposition for something new that Lumbrera (1968, 630) described for the Tagalogs of the Philippine Islands would have prevailed among the Chamorros of Guam.

There can be no simple explanation for the tremendous appeal
that the metrical romances held for Tagalog audiences. It is easy
to see the fantasy world of these tales as a refuge for a people
seeking relief from the rigors of foreign rule. … The formation
of towns created a society of men and women living together in
the same district, so that a person’s mode of behavior came under
the scrutiny of his fellow townsmen. Thus arose a search for norms
by which one could live in harmony with other people; in short,
there was a groping for sophistication.

After 1815, the nature of the influence changed. The Manila Galleon Trade collapsed and the era of international whaling and trade in the Pacific began. The waltz became popular in Europe and migrated to Mexico as the balsa and to Guam as the batsu. The swinging triple meter of the batsu greatly influenced the Chamorro taste in song and this carried over into tsamorita singing.

For c. 210 years (1670s-1880s) the Spaniards had consolidated the Chamorros from all the Mariana Islands on Guam thus bringing them under the same musical influences. This accounts for “An gumupu si paluma” being the only melody commonly used by the singers of these islands. In addition, Rota, Tinian and Saipan singers also have their own distinct tsamorita melodies.

“An gumupu si paluma”

Mr. P. Murillo said that “the inhabitants, nearly all poets, have conserved in their national songs, some historic traditions which will be difficult to perceive through the fabulous veil of their poetry (D’Urville, 1830, 494). The metaphor of the dove is an example of this veil. Father Coomans, 1673, a Belgian Jesuit with Padre Sanvitores reported that “the Chamorros had only one bird” (Levesque, Vol.6, 77; Clement, 2001b, 100) the tottot (fruit dove). Prior to missionization, the dove was a totemic figure and fits anthropologist Laura Thompson’s suspicion that Chamorros sacrificed fowl (the dove) as an offering to ancestral spirits. When setting up the mission on Guam, Padre Sanvitores requested that his superiors in Manila should not send an image of the dove because “it is not appropriate for explaining the Holy Spirit” (Levesque, Vol. 5, 143). The ancestral significance of the dove was repressed by the Jesuits for a few generations before they allowed it to re-emerge as a Christian symbol of peace and love, However the deeper, subconscious indigenous meaning persisted, and surely has had something to do with the ability of the metaphor to survive as the “kick off” phrase for the dialog-song poetry: “as the dove flies.”

Song Metaphor
In colonial times, the dove was seen to alight on the tronken donne (hot pepper tree) and, as used in song, the dove and this tree represent young lovers and their place of rendezvous. Traditional tsamorita singer, Vicente Meno says that, in the 20th century, the tronken donne became the symbol for any meeting place of lovers (Personal communication, 1996). There were other alighting places for doves in song such as a windowsill, but the most popular lyric metaphor was the tronken donne.
An gumupu si paluma
As the dove flies
Ja tumoh’gue gi tronken donne
And sits down on the donne tree
In 1925, Hornbostel gave the lyrics to a love song dialog that used the metaphor of tiau,
a small fish, for a lover.
Ti gumadi dso pot tiau
I don’t go fishing [at night] for tiau (small fish)
Na gumadi dso pot hago
I go fishing because of you.

Both lyrics are sung to a melody transcribed by Pellacani c.1925 at Hornbostel’s request (see music notation). Judy Flores relates another set of lyrics and melody used for tsamorita singing.

I have heard a more ribald form of kantan chamorrita which was traditionally sung in the back kitchens after several drinks had been consumed, and was not considered appropriate for children to hear. The tune is more lively, with more of a Mexican or Spanish melody; and the lyrics usually carry sexual connotations or bawdy references to a person’s body parts or age. The chorus, for example, starts with “Lelu, lelu … (nonsense words with no remembered meaning)” with the next line referring to the wrinkled-ness of an old lady – who, when
young, had a fine shape – but now consists of wrinkles. The four-line verse, whose couplets rhyme, may have completely innocent words on the surface, such as “birds who fly … straight to their holes” with sexual innuendos that are hard to miss (1999, 172).

Tsamorita singing techniques

The Chamorros did not have any guidelines for how to improvise the lyrics and melodies of their dialog songs since Chief Apuro renounced his teaching of mari in 1676; unless, outside influence such as “the lyrical corrido, derived from the couplet and song (copla y cantar)” (Bailey, 1981, 8) would qualify. Aside from the propensity for parallel construction with two 8-syllable couplets to a quatrain and alternating rhymed endings, the rest depended upon the knowledge, humor, subtlety and ingenuity of the singer-poet as a wordsmith and musician.

Angelina Anderson stated that “An gumupu si paluma” had two melodies, a high one and a low one to accommodate the different vocal registers of singers” (personal communication, 1998). The low melody allowed for more creative rhythms and melodies and was more responsive to the syllabic patterns of the poetry. Improvisation of the low melody may have accounted for the emergence of new melodies.

According to a tsamorita apprentice, Anderson taught that “performance style dictates that the singer-poet “drag” the melody” (Kantan Chamorrita, 1990). This holding back may account for irregularities in meter such as a 4-beat measure followed by a 3-beat measure or lines being shortened by a half-beat or lengthened by a fermata. 20th century notations and most a capella performances conform to duple meter. Triple meter seems more typical of Guam performances and this may have resulted from the influence of the batsu (balsa, Mexican waltz) during the 1800s.
Impact of 20th-century society on Chamorro language and culture
First Navy Band
It is generally agreed that language “drives” a culture, one must know the language to understand the culture. With the gradual demise of Chamorro speakers on Guam over the past 50 years, tsamorita singing has all but disappeared. The major causes of its demise have been: a) English becoming the official language of Guam after 1898 and the necessity for Chamorros to learn it, b) the advent of radio and phonograph, c) the influence of American country and western songs via the American Navy, d) the disappearance of traditional communal work methods and social situations, e) the advent of television, f) the Catholic Church’s decision in1964 that thereafter the Mass would be celebrated in the vernacular, and g) the impact of American troops stationed on Guam on account of the Vietnam War.
Of the above, the one particularly negative impact was the Catholic Church’s announcement to go to the vernacular, i.e., celebrate the Mass in each country’s official language instead of Latin. As an American territory, Guam’s official language was English so this change struck at the heart of the Chamorro culture. The Church was allowed to keep about one Chamorro service a week, but basically the daily ritual of prayer was officially converted to English. Chamorros did not stop speaking their language but this change foretold the future; subsequent generations have spoken less or no Chamorro. Guam’s sister islands of Rota, Tinian and Saipan, which, after the end of World War II, fell under administration of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, were therefore protected from this change and this has helped to preserve their dialog-song tradition.

Recent historic preservation of the tsamorita on Guam.

Painter, Judy Flores, has been the driving force behind the efforts to preserve tsamorita singing, through both traditional performance and continuing scholarship. In addition to the acknowledged master singers of this song genre, Flores has assisted every effort to preserve tsamorita singing since such efforts began. Her inspiration began as a young girl growing up in one of the more traditional villages of Guam: Inarajan. She recalls that before the days of air conditioning, housewives sang back and forth from their outdoor kitchens, in much the same manner that French Captain Freycinet described la conversation 130 years earlier (see p.2).

Laura Souder Interview
In a 1980s push to save the tsamorita. Flores was involved with Dr. Laura Souder in preparing a group to represent Guam at the Festival of Pacific Arts in Australia. In 1987 she re-created a roof-thatching setting at Inarajan Shores Resort in order to train Chamorro language and history teachers in the techniques of tsamorita singing. Among these apprentices were Bea Duke and Isadora Torres. In 1988 she worked with ethnomusicologist, Kim Bailey, on a project to revitalize tsamorita singing among the manamko in village senior citizen centers. To promote the project, she organized a K-57 radio panel, hosted by Jon Anderson. In 1992 she founded Gef Pago, a traditional village that now provides a work setting for artists and craftsmen, including tsamorita singers.

In spite of recent deaths of many acknowledged performers and scholars, tsamorita singing continues, especially on Rota and Saipan. From Guam, only Vicente Meno survives from the master Kantan Chamorrita singing group that included Angelina Anderson, Marcella Aguon, Clotilde Gould and Mike Laguana, and from Rota, Rudolfo (Atalig) Mundo, Ursula Atalig, Rosina Atalig and Bartola Ogo. Also deceased are tsamorita scholars Carmen (Iglesias) Santos and Illuminada Perez from Guam, Dr. William Peck from Rota and anthropologist Laura Maud Thompson from Hawaii.

The tsamorita in youthful hands

In discussing the future of tsamorita singing, Flores writes that it will depend “upon the success of Chamorro cultural revival” (2001, 24); and further that “A cultural practice will persist as long as it continues to have value and meaning to its members. [Tsamorita’s] demise will mean that Chamorro society no longer values it” (2001, 25). Bailey expressed the problem well: “the crying concern of older people was that whenever we sing these [tsamorita verses] our grandchildren laugh at us …, tell us to go off to the other room … forget it” (Jon Anderson Show, K-57 Radio, 9/17/87).

Tsamorita singing is not even a museum piece today. If it were, there would exist a formal group of song-poets dedicated to preserving this 20th century dialog song form and researching its roots in the culture. The group would be regularly funded and promoted by the government in its official public events. Tsamorita singing would be recognized as the marker of Chamorro music culture and as an art form, in the sense that European classical music is regarded as an art form.

Part of the problem is that not until recently has there been any research in Chamorro music that puts tsamorita singing into its historical perspective as the only true Chamorro song and into an accessible written form by which it might be taught in the schools and be more appreciated by future generations. Flores has written “that [it] intentionally remained hidden from the colonizers” (2001, 20) and so it has been, even up until the present day. Citing James Clifford:

Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances
from (re)collected pasts… the roots of tradition are cut and retied
… they need not take root in ancestral plots (Flores, 2001, 25).

The cutting has already happened with Chamorros under sixty years of age who, for whatever reasons, never latched onto the tradition of tsamorita singing. The retying process has begun with some young Chamorros have expressed the desire to know more of their roots, the ancestral ties to their ancient culture. Current research that is critically examining how Chamorro history has been written is part of the retying process.

Would it be helpful for youths to learn that tsamorita dialog song history pre-dates Magellan’s landing on Guam in 1521 and the subsequent Catholic missionization of the Chamorro culture? Or that the roots of Chamorro verbal arts are indeed ancient despite the misleading mestizo façade that they acquired during the 1700s and 1800s? Would it be helpful to learn that after condemning the ancestor religion, the Jesuits specifically took the skills of mari and applied them to their teaching of Catholic doctrine enabling mari to continue as an expression of the new Christian basis of their culture?

If the tsamorita, as it has been known over the past century should fade, rest assured that the skills will continue to pop up in regenerated forms. One could argue, for example, that two Chamorro boys or girls raping on the corner of Chalan Pago and Lala are already carrying on the tradition of tsamorita singing with their ancestors cheering from the nearby taotaomo’na tree. Youths might appreciate knowing that rap is not just an African-American phenomenon but a dialog song poetry rooted deep in their own island southeast Asian history… with African connections through their traditional instrument the belimbau tuyan that was once used to accompany the tsamorita.

In 1999, Jess Castro recorded a song “Chada’ fresca” (fresh eggs) and a few months later Chilang Delgado replied to it with Chorisos Pakpak, an onomatopoeic reference to sausages sputtering on a grill. Clarifying the analogy, Flores (2001, 26) notes that “there is a deeper sexual meaning to the song text … appreciated by Chamorro listeners.” The genius of these songs is in the Chamorro talent to inject metaphor, wit and humor into song. They should not be misconstrued as a transformation of the extemporaneous dialog song poetry form. In contrast, the competitive extemporaneous poetry of teen-age rap, utilizing stock phrases and mnemonics in poetry-dictated meter, sung to a simple rhythmic ground, would more closely represent the evolution of tsamorita singing as an expression of changing social values in the world today. If youths could be challenged to incorporate Chamorro verbal and musical motifs into their Afro-Americanized jargon, they might rediscover value in the ancient skills of mari. Such an effort might breathe new life into the extemporaneous dialog song poetry of the Chamorros.

My deepest gratitude to Barbara B. Smith, Professor emeritus in ethnomusicology, University of Hawaii, for her guidance and unwavering support of my research of Chamorro music.

Michael R. Clement, Research Assistant, RFT-MARC at the University of Guam.

Further readings on Chamorro music:

Bailey, C. R. K. (1981, Oct.). Chamorrita Songs: A Surviving Legacy of the Mexican Verso?

A paper presented at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Honolulu.

Clement, M. R. (1996, April). Mari, Magi, Montezuma and the Chamorrita.

A paper presented at the Chamorro Language Commission Seminar. Tumon, Guam

Clement, M.R. (2001). The Ancient Origins of Chamorro Music.

Thesis: Master of Arts in Micronesian Studies. Mangilao, Guam: RFT-Micronesian

Area Research Center at the University of Guam.

Clement, M.R. (2001). Micronesia: IV Mariana Islands, 1. Northern Mariana Islands.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. (2001). London: Macmillan.

Clement, M.R. (2004). Sacred and secular changes in Chamorro music resulting from

Catholic Missionization. presented at the 37th World Conference of the International Council

of Traditional Music (ICTM), Fuzhou and Quanzhou, China, January 4-11, 2004.

Flores, J. (1996, April). Chamorrita Songs and Related Poetic Chants. A paper

presented at the Chamorro Language Commission Seminar. Tumon Guam.

Flores, J. (1999). Art and Identity in the Mariana Islands: Issues of Reconstructing an Ancient Past.

Doctoral dissertation. Norwich, U.K Sainsbury Center for the Visual Arts of Africa, the Americas

and Oceania at the University of East Anglia.

Flores, J. (2001). Kantan Chamorrita revisited in the new millennium. Traditionalism and Modernity in the Music and Dance of Oceania: Essays in honour of Barbara B. Smith. Lawrence, H. (ed.). University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.

Flores, J. (2001). Kantan Chamorrita Revisited in the New Millennium.

Traditionalism and Modernity in the Music and Dance of Oceania: Essays in Honour of

Barbara B. Smith. Lawrence, H. (ed.). University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.

Guerrero, E.A., Perez, A.G., Salas, J.C., San Agustín, J.R. (1989). Chamorro

Music Preservation Society (CHAMPS): Collection of traditional lyrics and tunes.

GUAM Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Peck, W. (n.d). Traditional Music of the Northern Marianas. Text and Cassette

tape, Songfest, Rota, CNMI, unpublished manuscript, Mangilao, Guam: RFT-MARC, University of Guam

Santos Garrido-Iglesias, C. (1989). Umatac by the Sea, a Village in Transition. (ed.) Stephenson, R.A., and Kurashina, H. Mangilao, Guam: RFT-MARC. University of Guam.

Souder, L. (1993). Kantan Chamorrita, Traditional Chamorro Poetry, Past and Future.

Pacific Journal of International Writing, Vol.5, No 1. Summer. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Aguadiente Spanish aguardiente. Alcohol distilled from sugar cane.
Aniti Spirit(s) of ancient Chamorros. Also, anito, anti, ante

Babao Image, emblem, banner in ancient Chamorro. Ancestral spirit image imbedded in roots of the nunu tree. Contemporary usage: Atan baba: to give an evil eye

Belimbau tuyan Musical bow, vibrating belly. Monochord with gourd resonator. String originally made of pago (hibiscus) fiber. Indonesian: verbal prefix be + limbai meaning to wave (or vibrate),

Belimbau pachot Bamboo jew’s harp, vibrating mouth.

Chamor Ancient Chamorro word for friend. Pron. tsamor.

Chamorro Spanish name given to the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands. Pron. tsamorro.

Criollo Pure blood Spaniard born in Mexico, as distinguished from mestizo.

Donne Hot pepper plant introduced from the Philippine Islands

Dos amantes “Two lovers,” A Chamorro “Romeo and Juliet” story.

Duplo Pilipino dialog song similar to the Chamorro extemporaneous dialog song.

Faddang Tropical fern or palm-like plant with a poisonous nut rendered safe to eat after boiling. Chamorros believe that by planting it on the perimeter of one’s property, it will ward off the taotaomona.

Fandango Wedding-day party; also a dance of possible African origin.

Four-tone scale As notated in the Jesuit period (1668-1769), the song “Hosgnon gofdja” has four tones that correspond to 1-3-4-5 of the major scale.

Guma ulitao Bachelor house

Jesuit An order of missionaries founded by St Ignacious de Loyola; pioneers in founding overseas missions dedicated to teaching Church doctrine through the arts and music and to creating the first dictionaries of indigenous languages.

La conversation French term meaning that Chamorros customarily sang to each other rather than talk.
i.e. they used song for their dialogs.

Mama’on Pugua and pupulu wrapped together for chewing.

Mariana Islands Padre Luis de Sanvitores named this archipelago in honor of Queen Mariana of Austria, who married King Phillip IV of Spain.

Mestizo(a) Product of mixed Spanish blood or culture: e.g. Indian, African, Asian etc.

Metrical romances Stories set to meter, as in poetry.

Missionization Process of building a religious community around the Church

Novena Nine-day Catholic observation of a person’s death. Ancient Chamorros observed a similar period of mourning for their deceased.

Parallel construction Descriptive phrase for the dualistic elements or opposites of poetry; the natural instinct to express words and ideas in balanced form.

Philippine Islands. Named by the Spaniards after King Phillip II

Philipino/a Originally, a pure-blood Spaniard born in the Philippine Islands.

Contemporary: all people of the Philippine Islands.

Pilipino/a Official Tagalog spelling.

Pugua Betel nut, areca nut. A ceremonial symbol of reciprocal giving indicating possible Malay origin for the Chamorro.

Puguaon Pugua, ancient usage.

Pupulu Pungent leaf used as a wrapping for betel nut and lime powder.

Plupludjan Pupulu. Ancient usage

Rajao Single Chamorro girl, companion of the ulitao.

Rap Talk, conversation. A rhythmic chanting in unison. Rhymed couplets to a rhythmic accompaniment.

Romances Tales of Spanish knights combating Moors on the frontiers of Islam, dating from medieval times. Conquistadores brought them to Mexico; missionaries brought them to Guam and Manila.

Serena Mother/daughter legend in Chamorro; possible Mexican roots.

Songsong Chamorro village

Suni Taro. Staple food of the Pacific islands. In song, a metaphor for the male sex organ.

Taotaomo’na First people or people of before. Post-Spanish conquest term for the angry ancestral spirit of the ancient Chamorro warrior/husband.

Techa Pron. tetsa. Paid female funeral mourner. Spanish: endecha.

Tuba Fermented sap of the coconut palm, slightly alcoholic

Tubero One who taps the coconut palm for its sap

Ulitao Single Chamorro male, bachelor.

Anderson, A. The late master Kantan Chamorrita singer. Provided information on the melodic and rhythmic treatment of “AGSP.”

Camacho-Dungca, B. Associate professor, University of Guam. Interview on tsamorita singing.

Charfaurous, J. ‘Sus Chamorro’. Information on tubero singing and song style.

Cunningham, L. Discussions on Chamorro song history.

Flores, J. Professor, University of Guam. Discussions on tsamorita origins.

Franquez, F. Guam musical family. Interview: early 20th century song custom.

Gould, C.C. The late master Kantan Chamorrita singer. Translations of Chamorro texts and origin of the term tsamorita.

Kasperbauer, L. Location of source material of C.R. Kim Bailey, program to Revitalize the Chamorrita,.

Leon Guerrero, L. Retired school principal. Interview: tsamorita origin

Meno, V. Master Kantan Chamorrita singer, Inarajan. Provided information on tsamorita metaphor, courtship song and chant.

Mundo, A. Rota singer. Interview about his father and tsamorita singer Rudolfo Mundo.

Peck, W. The late medical doctor and tsamorita researcher from Rota. Discussions about the notation of tsamorita performances.

Perez, I. The late teacher/linguist. Translations of ancient Chamorro texts.

Santos, C. The late producer-song researcher: Guam’s History in Song. Interviews on indigenous aspects of the tsamorita.

Siguenza, P. Discussions on Chamorro custom as it relates to tsamorita singing.

Thompson, L. M. The late anthopologist. Recollection of tsamorita field work on Guam and the origin of the term tsamorita.

Torres, I.G. Tsamorita apprentice/Chamorro language teacher. Discussions on the tsamorita singing. Provided video materials.


Arago, J. (1971). Narrative of a Voyage Around the World. Bibliotecha

Australiana #45. New York: Da Capo Press.

Bailey, C. R. K. (1981, Oct.). Chamorrita Songs: A Surviving Legacy of the

Mexican Verso? A paper presented at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Society

for Ethnomusicology. Honolulu.


Banas, R. (1969). Pilipino Music and Theater. Quezon City: Manlapaz Publishing Co.

Barrat, G. (2003). An Account of the Corvette l’Uraine’s Sojourn at the

Mariana Islands, 1819, Louis Claude de Freycinet. Occasional Historic

Papers No. 13. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Division of Historic Preservation.

Bowrey, T. (1701). English and Malayo Dictionary. London: Sam Bridge.

Brownrigg, H. (1992). Betel Cutters. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Clement, M. R. (1996, April). Mari, Magi, Montezuma and the Chamorrita.

Guam: A paper presented at the Chamorro Language Commission Seminar.

Tumon, Guam.

Clement, M. R. (2001a). Micronesia: IV Mariana Islands, 1. Northern Mariana

Islands. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. London:


Clement, M. R. (2001b). The Ancient Origins of Chamorro Music. Thesis:

Master of Arts in Micronesian Studies. Mangilao, Guam: RFT-Micronesian

Area Research Center at the University of Guam.

Cruz, J. (1983, Spring). A Traditional Chamorro Wedding. Xanadu II.

Mangilao, Guam. University of Guam.

Cunningham, L. (1984). Ancient Chamorro Kinship Organzation. Agat,

Guam: L. Joseph Press.

De Freycinet, L. D. (1826). Voyage Autour du Monde: Paris: A L’Imprimerie

Royal, Chez-Pillet, Imprimeur-Libraire

Dictionary of Philippine Mythology, (1956, July). Journal of East Asiatic

Studies.Vol. 5, No 3. Manila: University of Manila.


Driver, M. (1989). (trans). The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the

Marianas (in 1602). Mangilao, Guam: RFT-MARC at the University of Guam.

Dumont D’Urville, J. S. C. (1843). Voyage au Pole Sud et dans l’Oceanie sur

les Corvettes L’Astrolabe et la Zelee, Vol.V. Paris: Gide.

Eliade, M. (1987). The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vols. 8 and 9. New York:

Macmillan Publishing Company.

Flores, J. (1996, April). Chamorrita Songs and Related Poetic Chants. A paper

presented at the Chamorro Language Commission Seminar. Tumon Guam.

Flores, J. (1999). Art and Identity in the Mariana Islands: Issues of

Reconstructing an Ancient Past. Doctoral dissertation. Norwich, U.K Sainsbury

Center for the Visual Arts of Africa, the Americas and Oceania at the University of East Anglia.

Flores, J. (2001). Kantan Chamorrita Revisited in the New Millennium.

Traditionalism and Modernity in the Music and Dance of Oceania: Essays in

Honour of Barbara B. Smith. Lawrence, H. (ed.). University of Sydney,

Sydney, Australia.

Fritz, G. (1904). Die Chamorros. Berlin: Ethnologishes Notizblatt, Vol.3, part 2.

Garcia, F. S. J. (1683). Vida Y Martirio del Venerable Padre Diego Luis de

Sanvitores de la Compania de Jesus, primere Apostle de las Islas Marianas, y

Sucesos de Estas Islas desde el Ano de Mil Seiscientos y Sesenta y Ocho,

hasta el de Mil Seiscientos y Ochenta y uno. Madrid: Ivan Garcia Infazon.

Guerrero, E.A., Perez, A.G., Salas, J.C., San Agustín, J.R. (1989). Chamorro

Music Preservation Society (CHAMPS): Collection of traditional lyrics and tunes.

GUAM Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Gutierrez, M. C. (1961). The Cebuano Balitao and how it Mirrors Visayan Culture

and Folklore. Folklore Studies, Vol. XX. Tokyo: Society of the Divine Word.

Higgins, M. (1985). The Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Padre Diego

Luis de Sanvitores, first Missionary to the Mariana Islands, and the Happenings

in these Islands, from the year1668 until the year1681. Mangilao: RFT-MARC

at the University of Guam.

Hornbostel, H. G. (1921-28). Marianas 1936 MSS and Typescripts. Honolulu:

Bishop Museum, Hornbostel Collection, Storage case #3.

Jose, V. R. (July 1977-June 1978). The Duplo. Mindanao Journal, Vol. IV,

Nos.1-4, Marawi City: Mindanao State University.


Levesque, R. (1992). (ed) History of Micronesia. Vol. 1, European Discovery,

1521-1560. Quebec, Canada: Levesque Publications.

Levesque, R. (1992). (ed), History of Micronesia. Vol. 2, Prelude to Conquest,

1561-1595. Quebec, Canada: Levesque Publications.

Levesque, R. (1993). (ed) History of Micronesia. Vol. 3, First real Contact,

1596-1637. Quebec, Canada: Levesque Publications.

Levesque, R. (1995). (ed) History of Micronesia. Vol. 4, Religious Conquest,

1638-1670. Quebec, Canada: Levesque Publications.

Levesque, R. (1995). (ed) History of Micronesia. Vol. 5, Focus on the Mariana Mission.

Quebec, Canada: Levesque Publications.

Levesque, R. (1995). (ed) History of Micronesia. Vol. 6, Revolts in the

Marianas. Quebec, Canada: Levesque Publications.

Lumbrera, B. L. (1968, October). Assimilation and Synthesis (1700-1800),

Tagalog Poetry in the Eighteenth Century. Philippine Studies, A Quarterly,

Vol. 16, No.4.

McClain, E. G. & Clopton, R. W. (1949). Guamanian Songs, a Collection of

Songs Commonly Sung on Guam and not Hitherto Notated. Journal of

American Folklore, July-September, 1949, Vol. 62, No. 245.

McClurkan, C. (1987). (trans.) Dossier Compiled upon the Occasion of the

Royal Funeral Rites for Felipe V and the Proclamation of the Coronation of

Fernando VI in the City of Agana, 1747. Guam: RFT: MARC, Working

Papers #49.


Proschan, F. (1989). Kmhmu Verbal Arts in America: The Poetics of Kmhmu

Verse. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services.

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editorial Gredos.

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London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Rogers, R. (1995). Destiny’s Landfall, a History of Guam. Honolulu:

University of Hawaii Press.

Ronck, R. (1973). Music to Her is All Chamorro. Guam: Pacific Daily News,

July 4.

Santos Garrido-Iglesias, C. (1989). Umatac by the Sea, a Village in Transition.

(ed.) Stephenson, R.A., and Kurashina, H. Mangilao, Guam: RFT-MARC.

University of Guam.

Souder, L. (1993). Kantan Chamorrita, Traditional Chamorro Poetry, Past

and Future. Pacific Journal of International Writing, Vol.5, No 1. Summer.

Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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Dondang Sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

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