SAMOA MUSIC

The Polynesians are natural musicians and the Samoans are no exception. They love to hear and sing good music. Robert Louis Stevenson once said that the Samoans composed a song for every trivial occasion. . . Song is almost endless. The boatman sings at the oar, the family and evening worship and the workman at his toil. No occasion is too small for the poets and the musicians; a death, a visit, the day's news and pleasantries will be set to rhyme and harmony.

Older style dancing motions are slow, swaying and interpretive. Chants and old poems are sung and recited on special occasions. They are often referred to in speeches and debates. They are also used to figure the time of past historical events. The faataupati (clapping in syncopation dance) is accompanied by ancient war songs and drums. 

 
 
Dancers and musicians performing
the traditional Samoan sword dance.

Ancient and modern Samoan dances do not use songs in three-four tempo. Most of the songs composed for single or group dancers are in four-four and two-four tempos. Drums have often been used to accompany the ancient dancers.

The arrival of the first missionaries marked the awakening of Samoa to the use of church hymns as basic melodies in composing. The only musical instrument known to the natives before the arrival of the white man was the bamboo flute. Instead of fingering six small holes as in a piccolo or flute, they used three and sometimes four holes beside the larger one for the mouthpiece. These bamboo flutes were never used for accompaniment, they were only used by experts to sound a pitch or give interludes for chants. They are mostly played at bed time.

Large wooden drums (lali) of hollowed log are popular in the villages. They can be heard from a distance of several miles. They are used in many ways as village signal stations and for calling chiefs to assemble for emergency cases, or to announce a death or the arrival of village guests. 

According to history some high chiefs used the lali to notify their servants living in distant villages to come with food to the guest house for his guests who have just arrived. In addition, these island-made drums are often used to beat the tempo desired for village group and sword dances. In boat races these drums mark the speed desired for the strokes of the oarsmen.

 
 
The beautiful and traditional Samoa siva dance.
 
 

In the traditional siva dance the musicians seat themselves on one side, and proceed to beat a wooden drum at the sound of which the guests start to assemble. When the audience is assembled the musicians beat a sharp tattoo on the drums, and to the sound of applause and clapping of hands, dancers appear from behind a screen and take their places in the open space. The handsome brown bodies of the dancers glisten with coconut oil and their hair is decorated with shells, white and scarlet flowers and each is clad in a very short lava lava of about the size of a large pocket handkerchief. Over this is a fringe and tasselled girdle made of pandanus fibre and dyed in brilliant colours and each wears round the neck and falling over the breasts a wreath of strongly scented flowers.  

Lamps are now placed upon the edge of the mats and the girls set themselves in a line facing them. One will begin singing in a shrill high pitched voice, and the others in turn take up the strain, the four voices blending in  harmony to which the beating of the drums and the deep bass voices of the musicians make an effective accompaniment. As the girls sing, their bodies sway from side to side, the arms wave gracefully in perfect time, while the music, which commences slowly, gradually quickens, until arms, bodies, and voices are going at lightning speed; then they gradually slow down again and the song dies away in a soft tender whisper.

 

All the compositions of the Samoan musicians are original with their inspirations and philosophies based on their everyday lives. They aim at fitting the music to the words appropriate for the occasion and the blending of the singers' voices. They may not know the different positions of notes that form the chords, but they can quickly detect any discord that may be present.

Practically all of the love songs that are popular in the islands are expressed dreams of the lovers, who never intend to make the song popular for commercial purposes. The figurative speech and flowery language of the chief is often used by the composers. Indeed, many of the historical love songs of long ago were composed by known princes and princesses. They are still popular and sung with reverence in remembrance of the island nobility.

 
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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 7th March 2014)