Rose Topasna Howard never dreamed of having a number one record. She just wanted to get rid of 400 self-produced CDs stashed in a box under her kitchen table.
Yet while the Port Orchard woman was trying to sell CDs of her original music, one of the songs became a hit and Howard found herself accepting invitations to sing at community concerts, night clubs and a political fundraiser, all on the U.S. territory of Guam.
Howard, who works as a certified nursing assistant at Tacoma General Hospital, is still stunned at the popularity she enjoyed during a visit to her island homeland last year.
She recalls the first time she heard one of her songs on Guam radio in April 2010.
“I was driving to our village. ...” said Howard, 54. “Island Girl is one of the disc jockeys, and she said, ‘This is the number one hit, ‘Mungi Na Sinente,’ (It’s a Good Feeling) by Rose Topasna Howard.’ I was like, ‘You’re kidding!’
“Later, everyone was calling me and saying ‘Did you hear your CD on the radio?’ Oh my God, I was so excited. That’s why it sold out in two or three weeks’ time.”
Howard wrote all the CD’s music and lyrics, plays rhythm guitar and sings all the numbers, which cover a variety of styles, from jazz and jitterbug to reggae and cha-cha. She sings in Chamorro, the language and the name of the indigenous people of Guam and the Marianas Islands. The disc is called “Metgot Na Sinente.” In English, that means, “Strong emotions.”
“The CD is about emotions ... about being happy,” she said. “When you look at each other and are dancing, it’s a good feeling to be there.”
Howard recorded the CD in 2007 in Tacoma at the insistence of her family. After hearing her sing and strum for years at family gatherings, they wanted others to enjoy Howard’s melodic voice and guitar playing. Meanwhile, Howard wanted her three daughters and seven grandchildren to have a lasting reminder of their Chamorro heritage. Howard was born in Guam, where she lived until moving to Kitsap County in 1986.
“Our language is dying out. During my generation, we couldn’t speak our language at school. They were teaching us how to speak English, so our (Chamorro) language was never taught.”
Chamorro began making a resurgence about 15 or 20 years ago, Howard said, but since the generations in between weren’t fluent speakers, children growing up on the U.S. mainland know just a few phrases.
“One of the reasons I made the CD is to let my grandkids and kids know this is the language we use.”
She paid about $5,000 to make the CD and 500 copies; it was produced by veteran jazz and R&B musician and studio engineer Dave Croston of Tacoma.
When the CD first came out, she sold about 100 copies, mainly to family and friends in Western Washington. But Howard, who had never performed in public, was shy about widespread promotion, so the remaining CDs languished in her home.
“Really, I just wanted to get rid of it,” she recalls. “It’s been sitting there for three years in a box underneath the table.”
In March 2010, she resolved to sell the remainder through family and friends during a three-month visit to her tiny birthland, the place where her brothers taught her to play guitar when she was a girl. The 210-square-mile island has about 177,000 residents, less than a quarter of the population of Pierce County.
“Guam is so small. Everybody knows everybody,” she said.
She hawked the CD at the village “night markets” while family members touted it to friends and gave it to Chamorro language radio stations. Within a couple of weeks, the CD was getting air time.
Soon, Howard was scoring invitations to perform at community centers, an elementary school graduation, and even nightclubs. At a night club, she recalled, “One girl says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m one of your favorite fans.’ I was the one blushing. She asked me for my autograph. I’m like ‘Are you serious?’”
She was among the performers at the big IslanderRegistry.com outdoor concert and at a fundraiser for former Guam Gov. Carl Gutierrez, who was making another ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor. It forced the fledgeling performer to conquer stage fright, especially at the fundraiser.
“There were 300 or 400 people waiting in front of me. Everyone was silent and waiting. I got so nervous,” she recalls. “I had to close my eyes and not think about all these people.”
Howard wonders if some of the CD’s success may lie in the Chamorro language. Much of contemporary Chamorro music is translated from popular English-language songs; it’s more unusual to have original songs written in Chamorro, she said.
Howard has plenty of music left to give her fans, who keep clamoring for another CD. She’s written enough material for a second disc, but has had to grapple with a more pressing matter: Her eldest daughter, Jessica San Agustin, has advanced breast cancer.
Howard has been caring for her 37-year-old daughter, and shuttling her between her home in Gig Harbor and radiation treatments in Tacoma the past few weeks.
Howard has a few CDs left to sell; proceeds will go toward her daughter’s medical care. It’s an apt cause.
Whenever Howard writes a song, she runs it past San Agustin.
“If it doesn’t sound too right, she’ll tell me straight out. She kept pushing me to do the CD,” the mother said. “She’s one of my greatest fans, too. It makes her happy just to listen to the music.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694