The music is straight ahead jazz — the classic, swingy stuff with lots of space between instruments and a smoky, sultry voice caressing the lyrics. It’s jazz, the classic American artform. But the words… aren’t… English. The words to the lovely “Dahil Sa Yo (Because of You)” are sung in Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines. It’s a jazz standard nonetheless, written for a Filipino movie in 1938 and better known for an English-Tagalog version recorded in 1964 that made the charts in the US.
The singer is Charmaine Clamor, the self-described “Queen of Jazzipino,” who sings with a lovely voice in both English and Tagalog, a range of songs from traditional jazz to a fine jazzy version of the U2 rock hit “With or Without You,” to traditional folksongs of the Philippines in her jazzipino style.
Clamor’s built a loyal following of Filipinos worldwide by bringing her jazz chops to songs in Tagalog, updating her cultural heritage with a modern sheen. She was born in the Philippines and started singing when she was just 3, entertaining bus riders. She later learned to play the piano and accompanied her mother, who sang Filipino torch songs called “kundiman.” Her family moved stateside when she was 16 and she retained her cultural ties to the Philippines.
She’s released four albums, including the wonderful, low-key “My Harana: A Filipino Serenade” that’s almost entirely in Tagalog, and mostly sparingly accompanied with just a guitar or percussion. For fans of Brazilian jazz and samba sung in Portuguese, sitting back with Clamor’s Tagalog songs has the same lilting, lulling effect.
Clamor kicks off her 2007 album “Flippin’ Out” with a wonderful take on “My Funny Valentine,” “My Funny Brown Pinay,” a powerful affirmation of her ethnic identity that starts out with a spoken poem backed by piano, bass and drums before she breaks into the melody:
Take a look at my skin. It’s brown.
Take a look at my nose. It’s flat.
I’m singing for all my sisters grown’ up, thinking they don’t look right.
Because they ain’t white.
Scrubbing with papaya soap, to make it light.
Girl, I think you’re out of sight.
You are beautiful.
It’s delivered in such a smooth and playful way that, like Billie Holiday’s famous darker tone poem about racism and lynchings, “Strange Fruit,” you might connect just to the musical interaction and melodic mastery, and miss the empowering, activist message of the song.
Clamor kicks off a national tour on January 8 in New York City to celebrate her latest CD, “Something Good,” which includes “Doodlin’ in Taglish,” a sinewy workout for her voice, which soars from the lowest soulful moans to high-skipping scat. The album also includes a catchy R&B tribute to Stevie Wonder, “Feelin’ Stevie” that I’m sure the Motown giant would appreciate. She mashes traditional jazz standards and Filipino culture throughout the album, holding it all together with her luscious, rich vocals.
Denver-area fans — Pinoy, Pinay and otherwise — will be happy to hear that Clamor’s coming to Colorado on Saturday, January 29 at 7 pm at the Broomfield Auditorium, an intimate hall that seats under 300 people that should really set off her vocals ($25 tickets available through BrownPaperTickets.com).
There’s plenty of Clamor available on YouTube; here are just some of her videos: