How Marlene dela Peña launched her music career in Japan

Rick Olivares

Posted at Mar 23 2023 07:54 PM

If at the age of 15 and someone approaches you with the offer to relocate and start a singing career in a foreign land, chances are, you wouldn’t think they are serious and it is a load of bunk.

That is what Marlene dela Peña thought when she was approached by some Japanese music scouts who caught her after a performance at the old Kalye and Kalesa bars.

After several entreaties, she brushed them off with, “When I get to college, maybe I will think about it.”

Who knew, right?

A few years later during dela Peña’s freshman year at Centro Escolar University, the Japanese music scouts returned.

“You cannot be serious,” was her first thought.

Unable to ditch the doggedness of her suitors, she made them an offer they can refuse.

“I told them that I want to be paid US$4,000 a month, to have an apartment of my own with my mother joining me, and that I will only play two sets a day,” recalled she recalled via Zoom interview with this author.

“What fool would give that to an 18-year old girl who was just starting out, right?”


The Japanese scouts for CBS/Sony Records did not blink. Nor were they fools. They might have acquiesced to her request. Yet, it wasn’t a demand, from their point of view. It was just compensation for a star who was in the making.

And that was how Dela Peña got to Japan and became one of the biggest gaijins to become a star there – and get this – while singing entirely in English!

That was unheard of during the early 1980s when one had to sing in Japanese to get ahead of a competitive crowd. 

In 1981, after a brief vacation in the Philippines following her cutting her first album for CBS/Sony Japan (she put out a few singles under EMI/Toshiba), Dela Peña was shocked to see the image of her likeness plastered all over Tokyo. 

Her debut album, "Just Like First Love," did very well. And since then, she has put out over two dozen albums, performed in Carnegie Hall in the United States, shared stages and recordings with jazz band Seawind, Sarah Vaughn, Salena Jones, Patti Austin, George Benson, and even one time being backed by Count Basie’s Orchestra.

“When I was this young singer in Manila, I was singing the songs – pop and jazz standards – by Shirley Bassey, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and the like. Little did I know I would perform with their contemporaries let alone record a song written by Ella herself." (“Left Alone” that was a big hit for Dela Peña in 1986).

“One reason why I was embraced in Japan was how the people saw my sincerity in assimilating into their culture,” told Dela Peña. “I learned the language, the customs, abided by their laws, lived among them, and they saw all of that despite me singing exclusively in English.”

Of late, she performs with a jazz trio called Threesome that includes guitarist Jiro Yoshida and pianist Makoto Kuriya. They first played to a Philippine audience in 2018 at the Fairmont Hotel in Makati. 

She sparingly performs today making sure that every show is special. “You cannot give too much or they will lose interest. Give them a lot, enough for the audience to want more.”

Dela Peña’s most recent release is a CD and DVD box set titled “Marlene’s Song Book – Memories for Tomorrow.” The album comes in a handsome and not too bulky slipcase with a photo book and postcards. 

“Essentially, I sing pop and jazz songs done in the pop jazz manner of which I perform,” she said. “It also comes with a DVD of my concert at the Billboard Live Yokohama show from February 2022.”

Dela Peña’s albums are available here in Manila as imports from Japan but when they do appear on the racks of catalogues, they sell fast.

“Sometimes, I wish I had a better career in the Philippines, but I concentrated on Japan and other countries. I am like that overseas foreign worker except that I am in the music industry. Hopefully, I can be more in touch with a Philippine audience in these next few years. That would complete me.”