At the close of the 12th Festival of Pacific Arts, Chamorro music legend Johnny Sablan stood on the Paseo Stadium main stage with his son Matua by his side. In true showman fashion, he engaged the audience before singing, thanking the young and old who traveled to Guam. "You have been a part of us, and we have been a part of you," Sablan announced. "Perhaps when you see the stars crossing in the heavens, you'll think about us, and we'll think about you."
Although he's long been a staple when it comes to Chamorro music, it's only on rare, special occasions now that you'll catch Sablan performing on stage. "I don't sing professionally anymore, now that I'm an old man," he said, laughing. "But when I was younger, I loved to sing."
At 70, you'd think the star would be enjoying his life in retirement. Instead, he's the president of Chamorro Affairs, overseeing eight government divisions, including the Guam Museum. It's a position offered to him by the governor just a month after that fateful FestPac performance. "I am enjoying life because I am not out to work," he said." I am out to contribute and learn how to make it better. But I am not working."
Within the year of his appointment, Sablan has continued to play catch up with the multiple divisions. An immediate priority is the Guam Museum, which is in the last stretch of completing its permanent exhibit after several lengthy delays. "The revised completion date of fabrication and installation is November 2017," he revealed. "They've been working on this previously for the last five years."
The opening was already months past deadline when Sablan came into the department in July last year. He pulled the plug on the December 2016 launch after discovering that just one person had vetted the exhibit. Since then, a team of 10 experts has reviewed and adjusted the exhibit. "It put us behind, obviously," he admitted. "It's very important because it's a permanent exhibit, and it has to be consistent with the history of Guam with at least these 10 people—people who have these degrees and studied history."
Sablan is working closely with the museum to oversee a short introductory film for the exhibit meant to entice visitors to complete the tour.
Near the finish line, it's too soon to call it a victory. "I'm used to not celebrating until you're there or cutting the ribbon," he said. "But we let the stakeholders know, including the governor, that this is the timeline we have in mind, and if all is well, if that’s the date, we will open the permanent exhibit and celebrate."
Sablan's musical career began when he was a 10-year-old boy from Agat singing at the hospital. Although he had mild success beyond Guam's shores as a teenager, music pushed him to embrace his culture when he was away at college. His iconic Chamorro songs are part of the fabric of the island, songs he wouldn't have produced if he weren’t determined to write in Chamorro.
Aside the elders who taught him, he also credited University of Guam President Robert Underwood for continuing to inspire him. "We need people like him to keep culture and language alive," he said. "I have great respect for him and all those who stuck with the language because I know there are challenges. With me, making music, whether you like it or not, I just do it because I wanted to express myself with traditional expressions. I'm not a Chamorro academic. Everything is street talk. But I understand my peers and my elders, and I'm still learning."
As for his music, he may not be performing professionally anymore, but he's still adding to the more than 150 songs under his belt. He's currently working on a song for his son Matua Sablan, who found success singing his dad's classic hits.
Although there will be no gigs, you can catch the great Johnny Sablan at special events. On occasions, he’s even been asked on the spot to sing at funerals when he’s paying his respects. "I am always honored when families ask me because they're grieving and I feel for them," he said. "It's part of my culture. If I can make somebody smile or happy to listen to old songs, I'm blessed. Even if you're in a hurry to go somewhere, I look at that as if you're blessed because they've asked you. They're in great pain, but I can tell in their face their mom really loved that song. They don't care even if I have a broken voice. It's about that feeling when they listen to the words."
With me, making music, whether you like it or not, I just do it because I wanted to express myself with traditional expressions.