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Jamaica in the Pacific: Reggae’s got a hold on Guam

Posted by Dresonic on April 22, 2007

It’s a cool and breezy Marley birthday in Lower Tumon, Guam, and I’m sitting on the second story veranda of the Tumon Bay Bar and Grill. A reggae roots trio is entertaining tonight, led by Art Chan, a local reggae hero.

By Roger Steffens

Their bassist is ill tonight, so Fanai Tafari features a guest percussionist from the States named Brett, alongside Tomas, a round, sweet-faced 18-year-old ukelele virtuoso. On their first number, a soulful cover of Santana’s Europa, Tomas masterfully duplicates Carlos note-for-note, but with just four short strings. Brett has three large Polynesian-patterned congas, and a rectilinear box that makes a sound like a muffled cymbal.

Guam is an island that knows many RAW artistes, proven by Fanai Tafari’s cover of Bambu Station’s Gunsmoke. Art says, “People ask me all the time how come you love the music that’s from all the way over on the other side of the world.” He pauses, as if the answer is obvious. “It’s the message.” As for his own musical intentions, he is adamant that “the road to success is always under construction”.

I was brought to the island through the good graces of RAW’s members in Guam, a small band of true believers who meet once a week at the small apartment of Math Teacher/Reggae Fanatic Tom Pearson. Tom took over the leadership of this worldwide networking organisation following the retirement of its co-founder, Papa Pilgrim, almost a decade ago. He is a stocky, white-bearded fellow, whose life is devoted to the multi-cultural mix of students at St John’s School, the campus on which he lives.

He acts in loco parentis for at least nine of them, and – though a bachelor – seems to have his parenting skills down, a mix of discipline and a bit of nose-thumbing at authority, combined with goofy nicknames for his charges like Dirt Bag, Squishy and Gangsta. His other passion is Jah Music and the unheralded singers and players of instruments outside of Jamaica who are equally devoted, but given little chance to be heard. Thus his livication to the principles of RAW.

His closest associate these days is a warm, whispily bearded thirty-something Philipino named Art Chan. He is a former (‘very straight’) businessman who was being groomed to manage a major chain of restaurants. He sighted Jah and reggae just a few years ago, thanks largely to Tom’s radio show. So he left that Babylonian reality, trading it for a Rasta livity, and today they are partners on the air.

On Friday, February 2, I did a Life of Bob Marley multi-media presentation for the upper school students at St John’s. Their meeting hall had been turned into a combination of a Kingston clubroom and a 1950’s beatnik coffee house under the direction of Terry, one of the school’s art teachers, at whose apartment I stayed.

There were hundreds of red-gold-and-green balloons that students had spent hours inflating; screens and cocktail tables painted in the same colours; and lots of Marley posters throughout. The kids came from a multitude of Micronesian and Asian countries, and seemed eager to learn about the Reggae Prophet. I watched as they became absorbed in the unseen live performances, and a lengthy interview.

The following evening was the big show for the public, at the Core Beach Resort, a small 12-unit place with a trailer/bar and a field that held more than 300 people. A wide screen was set up, and as darkness descended, we watched a couple of hours of Marley’s finest moments.

Many folks wore their favourite Marley clothing, and sang along with the live bits. People who hadn’t come out for a long time were there that night to pay homage to Bob. Catering included a taste of the Isle of Springs from the Jamaica Grill, a successful local restaurant.

On Monday, Art unfolded some of the mysteries of the island to me. I was struck by the many similarities to Jamaica: the climate, the Bay waters shallow and turquoise like Negril’s. There’s a bit of soon come in the air, but as a vacation destination, tourism rules the part of the economy that the military doesn’t.

I first saw the island in 1967, where we cannon fodder stopped for refuelling en route to Army posts in Nam. The northern third of the island seemed to be entirely cemented over, with a couple hundred gargantuan B52s arrayed in martial rows, stacks of 500-pound bombs at their sides.

Today the island is still dominated by the military, mainly Navy and Air Force, and 8,000 marines and their families are about to be added to the population. The strain on the already over-taxed infrastructure will be severe, especially in terms of water and power. Builders, however,will make a killing, and one suspects the hungry hand of Halliburton will be much in evidence.

Along the main drag is a thing called The Sling Shot, a massive pole with a bucket built for two attached, that blasts couples straight up then drops them down in shrieking freefall. From its ticket booth, Marley is hot on the box. His omnipresent music blares out of surf shops and hotel bars. Tourists from Korea and Japan fill massive buildings, which are often owned by corporations, and available only to their employees.

On the high precipitous cliffs above Tumon Bay perch spectacular wedding chapels, their architecture influenced by East Indian temples and the Pyramids. I suggest to Art that it is very interesting that their most popular beach bears a patois name.
“What do you mean?” asked my puzzled driver.
“Tumon Bay.” Nothing. “You know, Art, one mon, two mon.” As it dawned on him he sighed, “Gosh, I never thought of that.” I used the line several more times, but always ended up having to explain it.

Art stops briefly at one of the vast hotels that line the broad boulevard above the beach. He introduces me to Steve Salas, the concierge, who admires my new Rockers movie T-shirt. “Reggae, mon,” he says in mock patois. “That’s all I listen to. Just the positive and constructive music. Roots. It’s what I want my children to listen to and learn from. Bob Marley, you know, he says it all. Positive vibrations. Island livity.”

Our next stop is at a gas station. As Art approaches the attractive young cashier to pay, she points at his chest. He’s wearing a SOJA shirt.

“I partied with them when they were here,” she shrieked. “They were great guys!” At her side, her co-worker, a young fellow bopping back and forth to something on his headset while he mixed the latte, said loudly, “I’m listening to them right now!”
And so it went, all across the island, one encounter in Jah universe after another. Next we enter a main crossroad, where a high wall has been painted red-gold-and-green by youths from the Mangilao community. It adjoins a wall honouring Vietnam veterans, and the locals chose the colours because they are reggae fans. A few miles away on a side road is a brilliant barbeque shack that also sports the red-gold-and-green colour scheme, and a local version of jerk.

As we drive south-east toward the Ipan Talafofo and Jeff’s Pirates Cove, Art speaks of the various bands that have played the island — usually en route to Japan or Australia. They include UB40, Jimmy Cliff, Maxi Priest, Third World, Steel Pulse, Hawaii’s Natural Vibrations.

“One of the best was Ky-mani Marley about 10 years ago. As he sang on the beach outside the restaurant, a misty rain began, and this huge double rainbow appeared and Ky-mani pointed and said, ‘See that? That’s Bob. Remember he said, don’t forget I’m a rainbow too.'”

Unfortunately, live shows are a thing of the past in the Cove, suspended now because electricity is too expensive. Jeff’s shop is piled high with reggae gear, and more Bob stickers than I’ve seen anywhere outside of Nicholas, New York City’s big reggae merchandise wholesaler. “We do big business with them,” said a clerk as she lined up other Marley fans to pose with her in front of one of the displays.

On a side wall a picture of Carlos Santana hung. Taken about 15 years ago, it showed him wearing a gorgeous hand-made Marley T-shirt, designed by Michael Roman. It was exactly the same shirt I wore (a gift from Carlos himself) on Saturday night at my show by the beach. There are no coincidences.

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3 Responses to “Jamaica in the Pacific: Reggae’s got a hold on Guam”

  1. TDowl said

    Who is the person that went to Vietnam?

    I pass through Guam in 1969, the plane broke down the Saturday morning, so we lay over to Sunday, The women were off limits to us, I never had a chance to return. There was this beautiful beach that I saw on the way from the airforce barracks to continue to Nam.

    Blessings.

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