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Running With Cheese

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Singing in Samoa

Tony Backhouse - Monday, July 28, 2008
We’re just back from three excellent weeks in Samoa, a mix of stimulation and relaxation. Great snorkelling, good food, beautiful singing, gracious people and an unhurried pace. I count my blessings, believe me.
    On arriving at our venue/accomodation, Faofao Beach Fales, ( I was charmed to be greeted by the village kids singing songs they’d picked up from last year’s visit: ‘Thank you Lord’ or ‘The fire keeps on burning’. Wonderful. (Over the next couple of weeks, as the tour group learned new songs, the kids overheard our sessions and sang the songs straight away, serenading us as we emerged for lunch, or starting up a song by way of hello when they met us on the road.)
    Marianne, tour leader Jen and I (and other good chums) had a few days at Faofao before the group of Australians and NZ participants arrived for the week-long course. 33 singers, including members of COTGOS, Honeybees, Sweet Monas, Wellington Community Choir, Wanakapella and other community choirs. It was great weather until they arrived.
    For the duration of the course, it rained heavily and blew mightily, and the sound of the reef was loud enough to prevent sleep. (We were, after all, sleeping in fales on the beach.) It rained every day of the course, and everything was damp – even when it was not raining, it was so humid that the scores wilted. It didn’t stop us having a good time, even at the height of the storm, when the power went out, darkness fell, the elements raged and the possibility of us all having to bed down together in the concrete dining room loomed. It didn’t come to that, but it was gloomy enough that Auva’a, Teua, Paie and other local lads entertained us that night with about the only form of entertainment possible at the time: fire dances.

    The tour group sang together in the mornings, did some drumming, weaving, and dancing in the afternoons and seemed to party every night. We performed a few times: at the local church on Sunday morning,  for local TV in Apia one evening, and at Faofao’s fiafias. Our local tutors were the music minister Legalo Tapu, who taught us hymns and traditional songs and the gorgeous trio on the staff, Sa, Nai and Sia, who taught dance.
    I taught some gospel songs and spirituals, as I do, and while the Samoans really liked these, the real payoff for us was seeing the pride and pleasure they got from hearing us sing Samoan songs. (Though for me, the best part was seeing the Samoans’ fits of hysteria as we tried to learn the words in Samoan. I’ve never seen anyone laugh so helplessly.) Samoa is a small country, losing its population abroad, and perceiving all the creative action elsewhere, so to have a bunch of palangi turning up to celebrate Samoan culture was rare and very much appreciated. Of course, the locals sang at every opportunity, always beautifully, and often surprisingly: a piss-take version of I Want To Be Ready (along with All Night all Day among the popular Negro spirituals in Samoa) had all us cracking up. Though I'm still not sure why.
    Whenever I could, I asked Sa, Nai and Tapu’s son, the prodigious Paie, to teach me the hymns and the modern Samoan gospel songs they liked. In return I gave Sa guitar lessons, and made my my guitar available to anyone who wanted it. (There was only one decrepit guitar at Faofao, but before we left, the tour group gave two guitars to the village.) If I needed my guitar I’d ask, and someone would go and get it for me. I felt completely at ease with never knowing where my guitar was, just as I felt at ease leaving all my possessions (laptop, wallet, bright shirts) in an unlockable fale constructed of palm leaves. The group was under the protection of the village chiefs (we’d had a kava ceremony with them on the first day to establish that) so we all felt secure.   

The view from the fale

    The high point for me was working with the church choir, after the course was finished. Tapu asked me to teach the choir a song at a special rehearsal after church on our last Sunday there. A few days before, he had helped me with some Samoan words for a tune I’d written that I imagined sounded sort of Pacific ‘Fa’afetai i le Atua’, and had heard us, the palangi, sing this song on our last night as a group at Faofao. So I felt honoured and bemused when he asked me to teach it to the choir—I mean, a palangi teaching a song he’d written in Samoan, this seemed if not presumptuous, laughable.
    About 30-strong, the choir was rich in basses and tenors, but had fewer altos and less sopranos. Marianne and other Australians who had stayed on to holiday at Faofao helped me out by singing in the sections with the choir — thank you Stephanie (COTGOS), Sue (Honeybees) and Dennis (Spiritsong).
    I started by teaching the first four bars of the tenor part; a shy and tentative noise returned to me from the pews. We did it again, and again the response was barely audible, but they seemed to have it, so I moved on to the bass part. Again, a tentative response, but it sounded ok, so I asked the tenors and basses to sing together. Talk about loud, the resulting volume just about made my ears bleed. Astonishing. After that everything was up to 11, rich and strong. I loved it, and felt honoured and privileged that they liked the song.
    Thanks to tour leader Jennifer Richardson for unimaginable efforts, grace under pressure, and for always finding ways to make it work. Thanks to all the participants for their voices, good humour and willingness. Thanks to the glorious Faofao extended family for their generosity and great food, especially matriarch Legalo Koroseta, music minister Tapu for his teaching, Auva’a for maintaining the bar, and the staff, especially Sa and Nai . Thanks to the reverend Isalaelu Uaealesi and the choir of the Christian Congregational Church of Saleapaga for their voices and generosity. Looking forward to next year. (But look out, there's Fiji in the meantime...)