The Samoan Ethnomusicologist – Part 1

Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down and I became an Ethnomusicologist 🙂

When I started the Bachelor of Music degree (ACU – Fitzroy) in 2008, I had no plans to continue my university learning once it was finished. I enrolled because I wanted to upskill on my choral conducting skills, become a more accomplished choral composer and find a way to enhance my participation in the Samoan choirs I worked with.  The struggle to get through this degree was so real for me (see The Lost Coconut’s Graduation).

I started off the first year as a part-time student, studying 1 or 2 subjects a semester.  After only completing 3 subjects in that first year, I took a year off to have my third baby.  It is during this time that I started to wonder if going back to uni was worth it – was this degree worth the stress of raising 3 young children, managing my part-time job as well as all the other things I had to do in between it all? I asked the question so many times, but somehow couldn’t answer it with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it was more like a ‘mmmgggkkk it’s complicated okay?’ So, I went back to uni in 2010. I sat down to work out how many subjects I had completed, and how many more left to go – 20 subjects left to complete.  With the rate that I was going at – part time – I would finish the damn thing in 5 years (in 2015!).  But I had to finish this degree. So I made the decision to go full-time.

My decision was made during a trip to Melbourne University’s Baillieu Library, researching for an essay on the Baroque era of classical music.  I became frustrated with the music degree. I realised that I had spent many hours late at night reading and studying ‘dead white guy composers’ who wrote music that I just couldn’t relate to.  Yes, I played the music of Beethoven, Bach, Schumann etc when I was a young classical pianist, and Buxtehude and Bach as a pipe-organist – their music is absolutely beautiful to play, but so what? Where was the connection to my everyday life? On Sundays, I played classical-styled piano accompaniment for my Samoan church choir, but it still didn’t feel right to me – I couldn’t figure it out.  It was a confusing position to be in because my musicality comes from my Samoan upbringing (learning to perform and create music by rote, by ear) as well as my formal music training (learning music theory and everything western classical). I thought about my own musical experiences as a Samoan – teaching/conducting/accompanying the church choir, performing in polyfest in the late 1990s, performing popese, pese faaleaganuu etc – why couldn’t I write about that kind of music? My peoples’ music?

The next day, I walked into my lecturer’s office and said “I want to promote Samoan music, I want to perform it, create it, help it stay alive – what do I do?”  He told me about a field of study called ‘Ethnomusicology’, I would have to get top marks in the BMus at ACU and get into The Conservatorium of Music at University of Melbourne and complete a year of research in their BMusHons program. Well…I sat there and couldn’t get past the ‘top marks’ bit, thinking “well I guess I’m screwed then”  because hello, I was completing assignments last-minute at the crack of dawn and barely managing a ‘pass’ mark.  I couldn’t type as fast in the evenings because I was rocking my baby to sleep at my desk. But in my heart, I knew I had made my decision – I was gonna go for it! I was going to summon my inner-nerd from somewhere deep, deep, deeeeeep inside my brain, and get that top mark (I stopped watching TV and socialised less…pffft easy..I never really liked those people anyway – tv and real life lol).

I planned to finish the BMus in 3 years, instead of the dreaded 5 and I had 20 subjects left.  So, my planning went like this: I would complete 4 subjects (overload) in one semester, then 5 subjects (crazyass overload) in the next. And I did it again the next year. Then in my final year, I took it easy with 2 subjects so I could kickstart some serious Samoan music-making (see The Melbourne Samoan Choir). I got the top marks I needed, then started the BMusHons research degree in 2013.  The transition from a practical music degree to a research one was pretty tough for me.  I went from studying in a class with fellow musicians, to studying alone every day and answering to my thesis supervisor every few weeks.  I was excited to finally be able to research Samoan music, but in order to learn the ‘research’ ropes, I had a shitload of reading/writing to do everyday, and I still had to read/know western theories due to the academic exercise I was completing.  I must say, learning how to position my work as an ethnomusicologist, and also as a Samoan was a rewarding exercise and one that I continue to work on today.  I chose to research a genre of Samoan song called ‘pese o le faaulufalega’ (songs for a church opening event) because it is one that I performed a lot during my NZ-upbringing, watched my dad and uncle compose and teach and one that seems to be ‘a thing of the past’ due to church environments outside of Samoa post-2000.

So, in 2013, I completed the BMusHons degree with first-class honours, then I studied a Masters in Music (by Research) in 2014.  12 months into the Masters, I was invited to confirm (upgrade) into the PhD in Ethnomusicology degree – which I am hoping to complete end of 2017 (like, this year eeeeeeek!).

When I look back to that first degree, I realise that I was meant to be there. The act of researching european composers made me appreciate the lack of scholarship of my own cultural music. Even though I am a classically-trained musician, I have always been drawn to the more spiritual and intuitive music-making that comes from my Samoan ancestry. From this, my devotion to the scholarship of Samoan music was born.  From the beginning, we have been singing – through chants, through worship, through rituals and to be able to track and trace the progression of how we ‘music’ is an act of learning and understanding more about my own Samoan identity.

We sing, because we are Samoan.  We sing, because we have something to say.  We sing, because we praise You/you.  We sing, because we need to teach you something.   If you are like me, inspired by music of Samoans all around the world, then I know you feel me (can we hug? lol).

Manuia x

FIELDWORK: In July 2015, I visited the London Missionary Society Archives, University of London (London, England) in order to find historical information about Samoans singing – I spent a week at the archives and the missionary diaries I read provided lots of hilarious accounts of Samoans just being Samoan lol.


It’s my last day here in Samoa – I’ve been here for 21 days. That’s right! 21 days of not taking kids to school, lessons, training; not making lunches and breaking up fights between child #1 and #2, and child #2 and #3 (Child #2 is a feisty one lol).

So, this trip is actually a small part of my data collection period – this is where I go out into the ‘field’ and watch, record and study Samoan people (our people) create and perform music. My whole life has been spent creating and performing Samoan music, however as a researcher, this has been the first time where I’ve had to ask the questions:

Why do we sing/perform the way we do? Why is it important for us to create lyrics and melodies the way we do? What does it all mean to us? Will we still be doing it this way in 50 years time?

I bet you never asked those questions before every time you sang ‘Ia lavalava teuteu fa’asamoa’ right? Me neither! So this trip was timed to coincide with the annual EFKS Fonotele – an event that brings together all EFKS leaders from around the world as well as delegates from every single EFKS parish. It is also an event where music is performed many times a day, every day for 2 weeks – so I had to get in there!

One thing that stood out for me during the fonotele was the amount of food available for my consumption,  especially in my own pulega – I ate breakfast x2, lunch x2 and dinner x2. It was more of a psychological thing – suafa’i was on the menu, I just had to eat it. Taulolo was on the menu and I just couldn’t stop ‘tasting’ it. Kokolaisa appeared nearly every night – well, I don’t even have to tell you….add to that fresh bread and NZ butter (Angels singing ‘aaaahhhhhhh!’) and THEN add to that the heavy Samoan food. I thought that when you go to Samoa, you can easily lose weight due to the heat, the lack of easily accessible junk food and all the feaus you end up doing. I was so wrong – my baggage allowance on my return to Melbourne will definitely exceed the limit. 23kg in my suitcase, and an extra 10kg around my waist.

Back to my research (coz that was the whole point of my post a ea?). I audio/video recorded every musical performance I could witness. Hymns during formal church services, hymns in the fale, hymns at a hotel resort chapel, pese Samoa sung and danced at the entertaining sections of the fonotele – music was everywhere! There were many highlights to my fieldwork moments. One of them was the realisation that my being there, at the fonotele as an ethnomusicologist is probably the first ever attempt to document and record the rich musical traditions of the EFKS church, particularly at Malua. It made me feel so blessed to be in a position to do so, but on the downside, it was sad to know that after all these years of being known as the church that has plays a huge part in maintaining Samoan traditions, language and music, nothing had been done previously. So – there is a lot of work to be done.

One of the biggest and most important components of my research is being the voice of the Samoan fatupese (composer) – especially those elders who have contributed to our pese fa’asamoa (traditional songs). My discussions with elders in various Samoan communities have been a real learning experience for me and I’m grateful to those who have willingly shared their stories.  Speaking of elders, my dad was texting me during the fonotele period to make sure that I had the proper dress attire, walked around Malua like a ‘teine lelei’ (good girl) and that I didn’t laugh my big laugh around the place, especially at night aaaaand that I didn’t drop my frequent F-bombs in conversation with faifeau (it has happened once lol). Actually, I think this time I dropped the F-bomb in conversation with a faletua…sooo, I’m not sure how that one is perceived in the scheme of Samoan teine-leleiness (Soz dad).

Soooo…to wrap up my reflection on this trip – it was well worth the extra kilos on my hips. I have collected numerous recordings of Samoan songs, discussions with elders, 2000 photos (including 20 selfies just because) and I even managed to do a bit of writing in between my fieldwork and moments of food-coma.  In the first week, I found myself being invited to a TV interview on my work as an ethnomusicologist on the popular show Samoa Star Search where I also sang a song (queue: Blue Bayou lol). I also sang as the entertainment at the Eleventh Commandment Restaurant in Vaitele. Seriously – there was a ridiculously HUGE banner hanging on the restaurant fence with my name on it, I almost crashed my car when I saw it coz I couldn’t stop laughing. I was too embarrassed to take a photo of it. On my first 3 days driving around Samoa, I got stopped twice by police – for no reason other than to ask for my number and if I wanted to go out on a date to ‘eva’ with them at the RSA – I politely declined, maybe next time boys lol.

And to end with, I have successfully converted my masters degree into the PhD programme so I look forward to finishing this damn thesis next year and moving on with my life with the hopes of becoming a Samoan hiphop star.

Ia manuia xx

Me as photographer, waiting for my subjects to straighten themselves up.
Me as photographer, waiting for my subjects to straighten themselves up.
Lotu Mafutaga Tina - white pulous, they're everywhere.
Lotu Mafutaga Tina – white pulous, they’re everywhere.
Two of my biggest supporters in my research of Samoan music: Epenesa and Rev. Popo Su'a (Penisiona)
Two of my biggest supporters in my research of Samoan music: Epenesa and Rev. Popo Su’a (Penisiona)