Clamoring for Charmaine

Jazzipino artist Charmaine Clamor on the kulintang (Photo by Scot Mitchell)

Jazzipino artist Charmaine Clamor on the kulintang (Photo by Scot Mitchell)

I met Charmaine Clamor’s ninang (godmother) first, and it was she who told me about her inaanak who had a CD and sang jazz. I immediately ordered it online. Listening to Charmaine Clamor's CD, I knew right away we had a winner. The CD's title, “Searching for the Soul,” would prove to be very descriptive of her artistic journey and search for identity as a Pinay.

 Here's Charmaine talking about what inspired her signature song, “My Funny Brown Pinay”:

I was born and raised in Subic, Zambales, and did not immigrate to the U.S. until after high school.  When the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish regime in the 1520s, the definition of physical beauty was the mestiza or mestizo type, with European pointed noses. It persisted throughout my childhood and was reinforced by the American colonization. Growing up as a kayumanggi, with flat nose, I felt unattractive. What’s dangerous was I also felt that I was a second-class citizen compared to the light-skinned Filipinos. I only felt whole when we immigrated to the United States, specifically in Los Angeles. I was immersed in a melting pot society of different colors, languages, music, culture -- and that’s when my search for my own unique cultural identity began. When I came back home to the motherland after many years, I had a solid awareness and acceptance of who I was as a human being. The moment we got out of the airport I saw many larger-than-life billboards promoting whitening creams, soaps and even pills. Most of the models were light-skinned. I was reminded of my childhood, of being made to feel inferior and thus, “My Funny Brown Pinay,” was inspired.

My Funny Brown Pinay

 Charmaine sings with a voice that struck my emotions almost instantly. It’s lyrical, with that morning-light quality. I can hear the dawn breaking no matter what time of day it is. Her phrasings remind me of masters like Sarah Vaughn and Betty Carter, but her voice, though familiar sounding, is quite her own.

Both sides of my family are musical. On my father's side, the famous Professor Eliseo Clamor, of the University of the Philippines music department/marching band. From my mother’s side, my grandfather played bass in a jazz band. The subsequent generation from either side continued to be musicians, including my mother, who sings with a beautiful operatic tone, in the style of Sylvia La Torre. Both mom and dad are influential in my musical taste. I grew up hearing standards, kundiman, and opera in my childhood home.”

Charmaine (center) with mom, Nieves, and dad, Eliseo (Source:

Charmaine (center) with mom, Nieves, and dad, Eliseo (Source:

 By the time Carlos and Myrna Zialcita launched the San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival (now in its sixth year), Charmaine Clamor was already well on her way to becoming the Queen of Jazzipino, a term she coined, incorporating the music of her homeland into the mix of ever accommodating jazz sounds.

As in many Filipino households, I learned classical piano as a young girl. “Jazzipino” is an organic extension of my identity – the melding of my two favorite genres of music: jazz and kundiman -- and it embodies who I am, a Filipino-American. Part of both traditions. I gravitated to jazz for many reasons, primarily the swing rhythms and the spirit of improvisation. Something is being created right there on the spot. Nothing is played the same twice. Moreover, jazz has always been the immigrant’s music. Everyone is welcome to put his or her spice in the pot. I was yearning to give it a Filipino flavor – and now that spice is in the musical pot, too!”

Charmaine resides and regularly has gigs in Los Angeles, especially at the Catalina Bar and Grill, where annually in December she treats the audience with a menu of various performers. She surrounds herself with top musicians like Ray Cristobal with his sweet fingers on the keyboards, the legendary Tateng Katindig, the mandolin/rondalla sounding guitarist Richard Eckert, drummer/ukeleleist Abe Lagrimas and the winner of the London international vocalist award in 2006, Mon David.

An excerpt of Charmaine's recent concert in Finland, “Dahil Sa'Yo”

“My Harana: A Filipino Serenade” is one of my favorite CDs by her. I have a soft spot for “that sticky stuff” as Flip Nuñez, iconic and legendary Filipino American pianist composer, used to tell me about Filipino ballads. “My Harana” is a collection of the songs people around the Philippines sang as a serenade for a loved one, or a prospective loved one from an admirer, or visiting guests from distant lands. Charmaine's pliant renderings with the combination of strength (her voice could be strong if she wants) and tenderness, not only capture that feeling of longing. They also remind me of a whole era, of several generations of characters and relatives long ago, whose now fast fading courtship ritual is being brought back through jazz renditions by Charmaine and other musicians, like the master guitarist Florante Aguilar who collaborated with filmmaker Benito Bautista to make the much acclaimed and awarded film, “Harana.” With folks like Charmaine and music’s place in our heritage and history, in the homeland and in the diaspora, I have no doubt we can save the tradition of harana. I enjoy listening to different languages, even if I don’t understand them, so I love the part that she sings in several languages of the Philippines, sounding as if she were a native of those languages. She can be playful and whimsical, too. Her vocal interpretations are fresh but with an ancient appeal.

Charmaine Clamor's "Lahat ng Araw" from her album "My Harana: A Filipino Serenade"

 Aside from performing, Charmaine devotes her time to teaching “jazzipino” to young people and is a big advocate for the environment.

Our youth is our future. I try to reach out to them through my music and educational programs. I provide “jazzipino” clinics to all ages, including children, high school students and adults. During this clinic, I introduce the history of jazz in the Philippines and provide examples of traditional Filipino music, i.e., kundiman, harana and indigenous instruments. It’s an interactive program that engages the audience. It makes me happy that parents bring their children to my shows as well. One of the reasons I advocate fiercely for green living is for the future of our youth. I’m also able to engage with the youth through various environmental programs that I volunteer for, such as Sierra Water Club and Food and Water Watch. I try to attend as many live performances as possible, which enables me to engage with all types of audiences. I travel frequently and widely, and when I do I make sure to interact with the locals, including the children. Growing up in a developing country made me aware of the inequalities of access to natural resources and the urgency of our global environmental problems. I try in my own way through music to be a living example, to make others aware of how powerful our individual actions can be on our environmental problems.

I will be celebrating Filipino American History Month in Hawaii with my touring trio plus three horns! We’ll share jazzipino, jazz, harana and a sneak preview of my upcoming album, debuting in early 2014.”

Oscar Peñaranda

Oscar Peñaranda

Oscar Peñaranda is an educator, writer, and culture-bearer for and from both shores of the Pacific, and is a recipient of the prestigious Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas for lifetime achievement for his writings and endeavors. He currently sits on the board for the San Francisco Filipino Cultural Center. Oscar supports Filipino and Fil-Am authors as much as he can. Some of the Fil-Am authors he's read are Carlos Bulosan, Ninotchka Roska, Jessica Hagedorn, Leny Strobel and his friend, Evelina Galang.