CELEBRITY WORLD PH
By Crispina M. Belen
Marlene dela Pena: Acclaimed Pinay jazz artist in Japan!
Although she started her singing career in the country of her birth, the Philippines, Marlene dela Pena would find fame and popularity in an unlikely foreign land – Japan!
While in the Philippines, Marlene tried to make a name, or as they say, carve a niche, singing in music lounges like at the Calesa Bar of Hyatt Regency Hotel. But fame didn’t come to her in her country, because as fate would have it, Marlene would make it in Japan, the country she chose to be her second home. She moved to the land of the Cherry blossoms in the late 70’s.
As backgrounder, Marlene recalled that when she was young, she joined a singing contest during a fiesta, without her parents’ knowledge, surprising them with the goodies she brought home from that contest. At 10, Marlene joined Tinno Lapus’ “Eskuwelang Munti.” And at 15, she joined “Tawag ng Tanghalan.”
It was that time that a Japanese promoter offered her to go to Japan but she declined, citing for a reason the fact that she wanted to finish high school first. The talent promoter came back after three years, and as they say, the rest is history!
It wasn’t really her fondest dream to be a singer-performer, Marlene revealed to us. “I thought about singing, but most of all about finishing college and helping send my siblings to school too,” she said.
Her formal introduction to the musical stage came when she, 15, and Dulce,14, performed in a beerhouse at the foot of Jones Bridge in Escolta. Dulce would become Asia’s Diva, while Marlene would be the toast of Japan in the field of jazz!
Specializing in the pop and jazz genres, Marlene endeared herself to Japanese music lovers with her uniquely simple but engaging style of performing. Not long after introducing herself to the Japanese audience, Marlene clinched a recording deal with EMI Japan for her first single which was released in 1979.
“It was December 1978 when I landed at the Land of the Rising Sun!” Marlene recalled. After I was I introduced to the people in the music industy in Japan, I got my recording contract with Toshiba-EMI. I was marketed as an idol singer with my debut single ‘Love Me,’ composed by Tsutsumi Kyohei. Few more singles followed. I was also fortunate to do a commercial song for Seiko watch Credor, became a poster model for Blue Jean’s UFO. I also was asked to sing the theme song of Tatum O’Neal’s ‘Ganbare Bears’ for NTV4. I was also featured in magazines along with some of the most popular idols of the time!”
She added that two years later, the big break came when Sony’s top producer Ito Yasohachi, approached her personally. After talking to her manager, Ito offered her to be one of his artists. Six months later, she was working on her very first album, “Just Like First Love” which had 32,000 copies reserved even before press time. From then on, she was recording albums twice a year!
Marlene remains a contract artist of CBS Sony, now Sony Music Entertainment, till today. In 1983, two of her albums appeared on the Oricon Charts, with “Deja Vu” reaching No. 8, and “Magic” reaching No. 5. Each of the albums sold over 150,000 copies, not bad for a relatively new artist in Japan.
So far, Marlene has recorded 31 albums, five of them Gold Records. In the United States, she was known for her ” Stay With Me” album that climbed to No. 28 in the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart in the 90’s.
Marlene worked with Seawind with whom she recorded her second album “Summer Night” in Los Angeles, California in 1982. Her sixth album, “Looking for Love,” was also recorded in LA, in 1984. Another album, “This Time,” was recorded in New York in 1987.
Significantly, Marlene has earned the reputation of being the highest-paid Pinay jazz artist in Japan. Aside from singing, she has also dabbled into acting, appearing in two Japanese movies: “Nantonaku” in 2007; and “Karanukan” in 2017. Marlene was also the subject of “Mundo ni Juan sa Japan,” a TV film documentary made in 2015.
Her hit song in 1986, “Left Alone,” was used as the theme song for the Kadokawa movie “Cabaret.” The song was composed by Mal Waldron with lyrics by Billie Holiday.
Among Marlene’s most memorable and successful performances and/or concerts include her debut stint at the Carnegie Hall in New York City In February 2, 2019. Another unforgettable show is her 2019 sold-out dinner show with THREESOME at the Fairmont Hotel in Makati. It was attended by the Who’s Who in Philipine society including Bongbong Marcos and few Ambassadors.
THEEESOME was the trio created by Marlene that included prominent musicians – accomplished guitarist Jiro Yoshida and acclaimed pianist Makoto Kuriya.
Yoshida Jiro is Japan’s 51st UN WAFUNIF Goodwill Ambassador for various humanitarian efforts. He is also a music producer for National Geographic Channel. He has also performed with a number of famous singers like Barbra Streisand, Cyndi Lauper and Sting, etc.
Makoto Kuriya is also a music producer never had a formal music education. He is very well known and very much respected in Europe ! He’s a well sought music director for both TV programs in Japan .
Another memorable concert that Marlene was part of was the “George Benson and Friends,” at Axis Theater, Planet Hollywood Las Vegas. Held on January 8, 2019, it featured George Benson, Patti Austin, Robert Duvall and Marlene.
Marlene was also a special guest at the State Dinner for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte held at the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence in May 2019.
As it did to all of us, the COVID-19 pandemic also affected Marlene. “It was both bad and good for me,” she said. “Good because I got to become a full time mother to my children, aged 13 and 16. Bad because I was out of income…until September last year when things got better.”
With the pandemic, things went “crazy and unpredictable. But I have to live with it; I knew worrying won’t take me anywhere. I just have to let things be and move on!”
Knowing too that she’s luckier than most, Marlene also embarked on her own charity work when she turned 60 last January 4, 2020. She pledged to help about 150 relocated families in Davao del Sur affected by the consecutive earthquakes through a water support for life. She called it “Sweet 60 Project.” As part of it, she celebrated her birthday with children afflicted with cancer at the House of Hope in Davao,
Marlene also gave away shoes and bags to displaced pupils of Tagaytay Elementary School. In her charitable endeavors, she was assisted by a sister, a brother and a cousin. As to why, she personally involved herself, she said “I wanted to give the gifts from my hands to theirs!”
As to her personal info, Marlene was born on January 4, 1960 in Sta. Ana, Manila and studied at Sta. Ana Elementary School, then finished secondary school at Villamor High School. For college, she studied at Centro Escolar University.
A single mother of two, Marlene’s American husband died in June 2019.
Marlene is now working on a new CD, to be released sometime this year. On a positive note, Marlene said with great enthusiasm: “I’m looking to a NEW me in the years to come!”