December 2008

Charmaine Clamor: Filipino Fusion

When cultures clash, there is typically friction, but occasionally unexpected harmony. Musically speaking, vocalist Charmaine Clamor orchestrated the latter when she combined her two greatest loves—the traditional kundiman of her native Philippines and American jazz standards—to create a hybrid she calls “jazzipino.”

Born in the tiny village of Subic-Zambales and raised by music-loving parents, Clamor recalls “waking up almost every morning to opera, classical, jazz and kundiman, which are the Filipino equivalent of torch songs. Being exposed so young to so many types of music made me very open to the idea of using my voice to produce different sounds. Some people tell me I have a classical sound when I sing Filipino songs, others say I have a distinct jazz sound.”

At age 16, Clamor moved with her parents to Los Angeles, a transition she says was “very difficult. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the Philippines, and I didn’t know what to make of all the huge buildings and the mix of cultures—American, Mexican, Persian, Armenian—that I’d never been exposed to before.” Sadly, discrimination reared its ugly head, “both because I was Asian and because I was a woman. Some of it was subtle, some of it was more overt.” The experience made Clamor realize the importance of taking pride in one’s ethnicity and appearance. “[Y]ou must become proud of your indigenous physical attributes,” she says. “When I was growing up in the Philippines, the image of beauty was light skin and a pointy nose, so I never thought I was beautiful. Being dark in the Philippines is considered unattractive. It is shameful that any woman, there or here, should be made to feel inferior.” Such strongly held sentiments would help define Clamor’s musical journey.

First, though, she felt it necessary to train for a more practical career. “When you’re an immigrant in this country, you strive for economic stability,” she explains. “At the time, I was very interested in physical therapy, but all the way through university and then grad school, I was always singing on the side. After I finished my degree, I finally had the courage to pursue a professional music career.”

Four years ago, Clamor began gigging around L.A., subsequently recording Searching for the Soul, an album of American standards. After the disc’s release, she began what she calls “an organic transition [by] taking the soulfulness of kundiman and blending it with the swing of jazz. I asked my musicians, we tried it, and the audience—both Filipinos and non-Filipinos—loved it.” So for her sophomore album, the anagrammatically titled Flippin’ Out, she split the difference, augmenting covers of “I Hadn’t Anyone ’Til You,” “Candy,” “Be My Love,” Nina Simone’s “Sugar in My Bowl” and U2’s “With or Without You” with a five-part “Filipino Suite.” To lead off the disc, she shaped a cheeky reinterpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” re-dubbing it “My Little Brown Pinay.” The lyric reinforces her advocacy of self-love and the celebration of differences among races, and the song has made her realize that “I’m not alone in this journey. Since it came out, a lot of dark-skinned women have shared their similar experiences with me.”

While planning her third album, the recently released My Harana, Clamor had “a deep hunger to explore Filipino music further. I wanted to present the harana songs to my audience, because they are just so beautiful, and also because this is the first time ever that a woman has recorded these songs. Harana is courtship through music. It existed during the Spanish regime in the Philippines, right up until the 1950s. When a man fancied a woman, he went to her house at night and serenaded her with a guitar and sang these heartfelt, passionate songs. But a woman would never, never do that to a man. Here in America it would be more typical for a woman to initiate such a connection, but in our culture it was, and still is, considered a social taboo.”

Clamor spent six months researching the album, which spans multiple languages and eight different Filipino dialects. Her goal, she says, was “to cover as many different regions of the Philippines as possible. I had a coach for each of the dialects because I wanted to make sure I was pronouncing them properly and also wanted to interpret them with absolute integrity. And we incorporated some indigenous instruments, so I wanted to make sure they were the right instruments for each region.”

Clamor’s admirable efforts to bring her native music to a wider audience, while presenting it in ways never before considered, earned her a place on the Filipina Women’s Network’s list of the 100 Most Influential Filipino Women in America. She met with the other 99 honorees in Washington, D.C., and was “high for about a week. To be with so many inspiring women was incredible, and they were very supportive of what I’m doing.”

Currently working on a jazzipino follow-up to Flippin’ Out, Clamor says there is also “talk of a musical play based on the music of My Harana.” Ultimately, her goal is to “give the world a little taste of what we have in the Philippines and, in doing so, to allow my countrymen to have pride in our music and our languages.”

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