Charmaine Clamor isn’t afraid to speak her mind—or sing it. Lauded by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most important and original jazz singers of the decade,” the Subic-born songstress made waves with her satirical ballad, “My Funny Brown Pinay.” Using the melody of jazz standard “My Funny Valentine,” the song praises the looks of the average morena in an ode to true Filipina beauty. “Look at my skin—it’s brown / Look at my nose—it’s flat,” Charmaine purrs on the track, flaunting her Pinay assets with pride, even pleasure.
In a nation where fair skin, pointy noses, and straight hair are the prejudiced but prevalent ideal, Charmaine’s candor about her physical appearance is inspiring. It seems that growing up Stateside—and having two consecutive albums in the Jazzweek World Music Top 10—has left her with no airs and graces about who she is or where she came from. In fact, it is her unfailing loyalty to the Philippines and Filipinos that has brought this domestic diva so much success in her career—even spawning the hybrid Fil-Am jazz genre she coined “Jazzipino.”
In the following interview, Charmaine gives FN her views on fame, Filipino mentalities, and the future of jazz, ultimately leaving us with a simple message: be bold, be brown, be beautiful—and be grateful for your heritage. Read on!
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a singer?
My mother claims that I sang before I spoke. At three months, I started singing “Bu–ba.” This is “Mabuhay,” the Martial Law propaganda song that played every hour on the radio my parents put beside me in my crib. Before grade school, I would entertain passengers on the back of buses traveling from Subic to Manila—whether they liked it or not! I always had a strong attraction to singing.
Your life seems to have taken a slight detour before setting you on the path to music (judging from your masters degree in Physical Therapy). What were the reasons behind that?
It is typical for a Filipino family to view the arts not as a career but rather an extracurricular activity. As an immigrant in the United States, I was not encouraged to dream about singing professionally. I was encouraged to concentrate on my studies and find a secure job. Therefore, I followed the norm and pursued physical therapy, a field that I was interested in as well.
Now you’re a major name in the American and Asian jazz community. What are the best—and worst—things about your newfound fame?
I feel extravagantly blessed to earn a living by creating music, by singing. I’m essentially making a career out of something that I would do for free, out of sheer love. I feel satisfied that when I leave this world I’ll know that I honored my individual gifts and, at the same time, contributed to the global recognition of my native culture.
The downside is that I always feel the need to push myself to constantly grow as an artist and a performer, which sometimes can be very stressful and emotionally tiring. I have what I call “horizon sickness,” a need to always think of the next thing that I could be doing instead of fully being present in the moment.
Your music has been called original and innovative, even spawning a new musical genre called jazzipino. Describe jazzipino and what sets it apart from all the other kinds of jazz fusion.
Jazzipino is what happens when you blend the soul and swing of American jazz with Filipino music, languages, and indigenous instruments. To be more specific, I explored our kundiman and harana, as I believe they closely parallel the Great American Songbook. Both genres have timeless lyrics and classic melodies.
Filipinos have always played jazz, and we have a glorious history of fine jazz artists coming out of the Philippines. But my recordings represent the first time that an identifiable Filipino spice has been thrown into the melting pot of American jazz.
For sure, it’s the first time songs entirely in Tagalog have been heard on mainstream American radio stations! Its novelty, I believe, is what contributed to jazzipino’s success.
You have quite a sense of humor—and a streak of activism as well—based on your satirical song “My Funny Brown Pinay.” Tell us about this infamous track and how you’d like it to change the Filipino standard of beauty.
“My Funny Brown Pinay” is a remake of the classic “My Funny Valentine.” It’s based on my experience growing up as a flat-nosed kayumanggi in the Philippines, where I was considered ugly. I tried every soap and cream to lighten my skin. I pinched the bridge of my nose to make it pointy. As you can see, that didn’t work!
It was only when I migrated to the U.S. that I felt beautiful and appreciated for my native qualities. Today, most Filipinos still consider being light skinned and having a pointy nose—the mestiza look—the epitome of beauty.
With “My Funny Brown Pinay,” I’m encouraging my sisters to appreciate and embrace their indigenous qualities, and for my people in general to discard a self-hating colonial mentality. [Why take whitening] pills to screw up your liver? Enough already.
Charmaine sings "My Funny Brown Pinay," a statement song about loving the skin we're in
You spent most of your formative years here in the Philippines before moving to America as a teenager. How did living in each country affect your ideas about success, about “making it” even though you were a minority?
My definition of success has evolved throughout the years. Now I define it as being able to do what you love the most as your livelihood. I’m blessed to have the career that I have in the United States. Besides my unusual voice, which was a gift from my parents, I believe that my blossoming musical success is a direct result of accepting and exploring my minority status with curiosity and sincerity.
What would you say is the biggest hang-up in the Filipino mindset? What keeps so many talented, capable Filipinos from achieving what they deserve?
We have amazing talents in the Philippines. I think the reason for our lack of global success in the music field is because the Filipino performers and the Filipino audience settle for whatever is currently popular some place else. The talent here generally pursues the music styles of popular foreign celebrities, mostly from the US or Europe. Most of the time, we settle for imitating instead of finding our unique voice, and the rest of the world just doesn’t care. Why would Americans listen to a Filipino artist singing like Mariah Carey or Lady Gaga when they can enjoy the original in their own backyard? Filipinos need to be Filipinos!
Your efforts in bringing Filipino culture to a global spectrum have made you a kind of ambassador for the nation. What makes you so proud of your Filipino heritage, when, as you point out, many of our local and international fellowmen (and women) seem to feel it isn't on par with other traditions?
Living as immigrant in Los Angeles for many years, living with many different ethnicities, made me yearn for my own identity. How can an artist grow successfully without embracing her own culture? My Filipino heritage is rich, and panahon na to share it with the world. Placing two consecutive jazzipino albums in the top 10 of the world music radio charts is pretty good evidence, I believe, that the world is ready to listen.
What's the best thing about being a Filipina?
Our innate kindness and generosity to all.
What’s next for Charmaine Clamor?
My first foray into the pop world is on “Here Lies Love,” the David Byrne & Fatboy Slim collaboration, [a song] about Imelda Marcos and her relationship with her nanny-servant, Estrella Cumpas. On this project, each song is sung by a different guest vocalist, such as Natalie Merchant, Sia, Cindy Lauper, Tori Amos and more. I’m the only Filipina.
Later this year I’ll be sharing my music with new audiences in Canada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I am excited to be the closing night performer at the 2nd Annual Asian American Music Festival in Los Angeles, with amazing Asian artists from all over the world. And the thing I’m most excited about this year: the release of my fourth US album, which might just be the best expression yet of where I’m at as an artist. It’s jazz, it’s jazzipino, it’s soul, and blues, and pop. It’s me!
For more information about Charmaine Clamor and her music, visit her website at www.charmaineclamor.com.
(All images used with permission from Charmaine Clamor. Credits: Charmaine in red by Alan Mercer; photos in pink and in yellow by Ned Vizmanos)