Samoan Pop Idol
Date: 25th May 2005
Subject: Samoan pop idol
Place: Apia, Upolu, Independent Samoa
Follow the music
Cameron was desperate for the toilet. As we approached the small concrete building behind the tourist office, it was obvious there was no room for him to do his business. In the ladies toilet, a babble of half dressed Polynesian girls spilled out of two cramped cubicles as they fought for mirror space, pulling on rainbow coloured dresses and floral garlands and wrapping their hair in fresh flowers. They waved us around the back to the men’s facilities, where the muscled, tattooed chests of ten young men were also competing for the mirror. They checked their appearances, adjusted their grass skirts and made the final touches to their costumes.
“I’m really desperate Mummy,” said Cameron, clinging to my legs, fear in his eyes.
We manoeuvred our way around piles of straw lavalava and woven grass leggings and by the time Cameron had finished in the toilet, the place was deserted. We followed the sound of music, and hoped we would uncover the mystery.
Music Festival Samoan Style
Inside a large open falé, a sea breeze provided little relief from the blistering afternoon heat. People sat on plastic garden chairs, waving fans to cool themselves down. A balding man with a mixing desk and a variety of cables took centre stage and the girl and boy dancers we had met in the toilets were giving it everything on an open air podium. Cameron and I hovered at the back of the building while I dithered about whether it was impolite to take a chair. Then a woman clicked her fingers and two people appeared before me with a chair and plastic table. The woman sat down next to us and confidently introduced herself.
“I’m Dorothy. How are you today? I’m the joint owner of the recording studio that’s organised this festival to promote the music of all the up and coming singers in our country. Welcome to Samoa.”
Again she clicked her fingers and somebody ran off at her command. On the Pepsi sponsored podium the dancers finished their routine and raced back to the toilets to change for their next number, while a middle aged man began to rap in Samoan. Someone arrived with two ice cold cans of Pepsi.
Dorothy handed them to me and leaned over as if to confide a secret, “this concert is to promote Samoan music in Samoa. We have a wealth of talent here, but few people realise it…”
She was brought up short by Stuart and Matthew arriving, prompting more clicking fingers and more scurrying about. On stage a man and an overweight woman started to sing a sickly sweet duet in English. Behind us the dancers appeared again, this time in yellow and lime tight fitting dresses. The men wore little more than mini lavalavas and I found it hard to concentrate on anything else.
Music is everywhere here
It wasn’t the first time we had been treated to such a display of colour. Musical entertainment is everywhere in Samoa, a vital and thriving part of the national culture and identity. Over the course of our six months in New Zealand, the only music we ever heard came from the teen hoonies in their cars, ghetto blasters pumping a noisy beat. But from our first moment of touchdown at Faleolo international airport, the laid back sounds of Polynesian guitar strumming formed a backing beat to our stay. Yet we had actually seen few professional musicians.
In the Samoan hotel and hospitality trade everyone multi-skills. The gardeners and cleaners at the resorts transform themselves nightly into skilled musicians; most play the guitar while some provide the accompaniment; improvising a double bass with an old bucket tied to a piece of string. The waitresses break from serving soup to sing a song, their arms swaying like the sea, their feet gracefully gliding along the restaurant floor in traditional Polynesian dance. Their music and song draws on years of culture and tradition; stories of Samoa and hymns of island life. It is vibrant, beguiling and practised by ordinary Samoans absolutely everywhere.
I wondered how necessary a showcase like this is when tourists are treated to such a show with every nightly booking. And at the big hotels, the most musically talented of the kitchen and front of house staff take part in the weekly Fiafia, a spectacular showcase of song and dance. At the famous Aggie Greys Hotel, we spent a hugely enjoyable evening being entertained by the staff who performed a spectacular fire throwing extravaganza, and entertained the paying crowd with an hour and a half of jungle drumming and Polynesian dancing before resuming setting the tables for breakfast.
A showcase for local talent
Dorothy broke into my thoughts by presenting us with a massive plate of food, covered by a plastic lid.
“This is your lunch,” she said, “please have it compliments of us.”
I looked at the sausages, sandwiches, and pastries and didn’t have the heart to tell her we had just come from McDonalds.
“The main purpose of this concert is to reach out to Samoan people,” she told me.
I looked around. None of the Samoan punters had a coke or any food, and in fact none of them even had a table.
“Most people are unaware of the talent that exists in their own communities, so we are opening their eyes to what is already there.”
She was obviously sincere, but I doubted the sentiment. Even our church visit was full of song, the whole community breaking into sophisticated harmonies at the twitch of an organist’s eyebrow.
I think she thinks we’re A&R
Dorothy ploughed on. “And then we will be touring the best of our talent to America and Europe and it’s people like you that can make it happen for us.”
I suddenly realised I was part of a bigger agenda. Perhaps she had mistaken Stuart for an A&R man.
“Have you any feedback so far?” she asked.
What was I to say? I was hardly Simon Cowell, as the last time I touched an instrument was in guitar club at primary school.
“The dancers are gorgeous,” I said nervously, “they really help to sell the Polynesian image. Do you have any big stars on the bill today?”
Dorothy’s face lit up and she nodded happily. “This is our star guest on now,” she pointed to a Samoan man in sunglasses, an open shirt and beaded necklace who had begun crooning on the stage.
“Ah, yes. He’s quite similar to…” I racked my brains to come up with a contemporary singer to compare him to, but the only one I could think of was Robbie Williams and this guy was more like Robbie Coltrane.
At last something familiar
I had an overpowering urge to leave. Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted three unmistakable figures I hadn’t seen since our eco tour; Steve’s children. They crept in wearing their school uniform, carrying a music school book with their names written in bold on the front cover. Dorothy greeted them with a hug, then approached the microphone.
“Now something special, the children of our sponsors Green Turtle will play for us. It is youngsters like these that are the future of music.” Steve’s two pretty little daughters walked up to the mixing desk and sat behind a piano, the wires and cables dwarfing them.
“It’s Nuanua and Sausage,” said our boys excitedly.
The plink plonk of the piano signified the girls had begun their duet, as they concentrated fiercely, glancing at each other when a bum note was played. I took photographs, feeling as proud as if they were my own children. Stuart joined me to give the girls a congratulatory hug when they’d finished and our boys followed. Instantly our place was filled by two new palagi Westerners; fingers were clicked and Dorothy hurried over to chat. It felt like a good moment to escape.
As we left, someone ran after us with the giant plate of food.
“You forgot your lunch,” she said thrusting it into my hands.
“You keep it,” I told her, “we came for the music.”