Micah Manaitai: On Island Music, Ray Charles, and Viewing Genre as an Instrument

GUM chatted with Micah Manaitai on island music, Ray Charles, and viewing genre as an instrument.

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Photo by Cesar Martinez

Born in Guam, raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and currently based in Los Angeles, Micah Manaitai is a 21 year old multi-instrumentalist and producer. Manaitai’s recent release Modern Sounds in Island and Popular Music also known as MSIPM is reminiscent of island vibes blending indie rock and traditional music from Guam, centering around a narrative of conflict, seen within Manaitai as an individual. The album carries huge musical contrasts, “at one moment a jazz ballad, the next, surf punk chaos”. However, these contrasts only make the listening experience that more interesting as the lyrical content,  “is a dense amalgam of multicultural thought, snark, and vulnerability.” I had the chance to sit down and chat with Micah recently, where we covered topics ranging from his favorite song to perform off of MSIPM, to his dream collaborators.

Who are some of your influences as a musician? What did you grow up listening to?

“I grew up listening to a lot of musicals, and I was also in a lot of musicals in high school. I’m pretty sure my first record that I got into was the Les Mis soundtrack. I find that my music is also theatrical at times so in that sense I believe it relates. I guess I’m like every softboy out there haha. I’m a big fan of The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Modern Lovers, and Velvet Underground. I love, love, love Island music as well. Johnny Sablan is a big influence, also Flora Baza Quan from Hawai’i, Dennis Pavao, and the Mahaka Sons of Ni’hau. I seriously love Bon Iver too. I also like opera; I was in an opera recently it was a great experience. Opera singers are probably some of the best singers you’re going to come across.”

How would you describe your music?

“To a lot of people in the States I would describe it as island music, a lot of Guam music is about home and your family, and I like to write about those things. An idea I came up with to describe my music is ‘pacific punk’.”

Where does the name Micah Manaitai come from?

“In Guam you have your family’s last name, however if you date further back everybody has ‘clan’ names. Those names are dependent on where you are from, my family was from this area known as the ‘Garrido area’, the clan was known as ‘Manaitai’. Not only does it sound cool, but the name has really deep personal significance. It means ‘praise’, or roughly translates to ‘pray’ and I consider doing music ‘praying’. ”

Photo by Cesar Martinez

Your latest album Modern Sounds in Island and Popular Music, shares “a conversation between two sides of a narrator conflicted about his home, family, love, and culture”. Could you elaborate on this concept?

“The name of the album references the Ray Charles album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western music. It was the first time somebody had mixed country music with R&B. Everyone talked about how ‘Oh, this is really harmonious’ like modern sounds, these two genres were meant to be together. It also talks about it in a really positive light for race relations… It’s just a very interesting record and on top of that a really great album.

When I was thinking of names for the record I really liked the idea of kind of riffing off that. The Ray Charles record is really harmonious and really beautiful and it’s all about unity. My album is about tearing that apart.

In the writing process, I was starting to write in two very different voices, which I kind of equate to code switching; this means talking with different people in different ways. For example, I’ll talk and act to my one side of the family in a certain way. It’s two different cultures that I am a part of, that carries out into my everyday life. I don’t think it’s uncommon. Within island music, within music in Guam, that concept of how to reconcile those differences is not heavily talked about.”

The album itself carries huge musical contrasts, from soft ballads to surf punk chaos. What inspired you to take from so many genres?

“I listen to a lot of different things. Sometimes I don’t think genre is about the sounds that you use as much as it is about what you are trying to accomplish with the music. I almost view genre as an instrument, there are certain styles that I really like, certain things I was trying to accomplish, so the contrast came from wanting to accomplish something different within every song and tell a different part of the story.”

What’s your favorite song to perform off of Modern Sounds in Island and Popular Music?

“My favorite song so far to perform has been ‘Låhi Amerikanu’. Depending on the audience, people have really mixed reactions. I’ve had people come up to me like “Wow, that really hit home” or some people laugh at it. I have mixed feelings about it myself, but the point is to get a reaction out of it.”

Could we expect to catch you playing a show soon?

“Yes! Hopefully soon. We’re working on rehearsal logistics right now. We’re all college students so none of us have enough money to rent out a rehearsal space haha.”

Photo by Micah Garrido

Favorite album(s)?

“This is a hard one. For example I wrote an essay about to Pimp a Butterfly, I consider it to be a novel of sorts. You can listen to it and probably here something new every time. Maybe for that reason I would choose it as my favorite album. A record I’ll always revisit is ‘Vamonos’ by Naive Thieves. They’re a local riverside band, they’re album is about 30 minutes long and just has brevity and it’s charming… a good listen every time.”

Dream collaboration?

“One of my life heroes is this Chamoran musician named Johnny Sablan… I would love to collaborate with a jazz pianist named Patrick Palomo. I played a couple shows with him, and I would love to sit down and write with him.

A dream collaboration though would be Francis and the Lights, I’ve really been digging them right now. I just think Francis is an interesting person, he’s also associated with the Social Experiment. I love those guys, they just seem like people who are both focused but really expressive. They seem like a good group of people to collaborate with.”

Any artists to keep an eye on?

“I’d say Noname, she’s really good. Actually, one of my friend’s from St. Louis his name is Mvstermind he’s so great. He heads a rap group called MME, I have to rep St. Louis they’re so good. He’s actually headlining a brand new venue in St. Louis and is the first local act to do so.”

Fun fact about yourself?

“Haha well I can play the recorder flute with my nose.”

You can find Micah Minaitai on Facebook, SoundcloudInstagram, and Bandcamp. Stay tuned for a show announcement soon.

Mariana Martinez is a music enthusiast and writer based in Los Angeles and Madrid.

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