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The relationship between language and music in Samoa

June 23, 2015

An early impression, in fact one of the very earliest, which one gets of Samoa is that it is a land of music.  Before the steamer which brings him has cast anchor, the  air  is  ringing  with  the  songs  of  the  boatmen  as  they  row  or  paddle  to  meet  the newcomers…the canoe melodies are as old as the life of the people” (L. Churchill, 1902).

When I think of Samoa I think of the music. I’ve come to think of it as another language in Samoa.  A language that transcends age, class structure and ethnicity – in other words a language that connects everyone who encounters it.  When you walk the streets (either the paved kind or the sandy ones), when you catch a bus, when you go for a swim, when you eat a meal – music follows you and embraces you, welcoming you to this gorgeous country.

Some of this music is naturally occurring.  While eating dinner any silences in your conversation will be filled by the chirping of crickets and croaking of geckos.  Later as you lie in your fale the soft lapping of the waves on the sand lulls you to sleep, and you are awoken shortly after sunrise by the crowing of the roosters.  As you eat your breakfast the wind whistles through the palm trees overhead and perhaps you might hear the squeals and barks of a pig being chased by the local dogs.

pigs in savaii samoa

Just some pigs along the road in Savaii

In addition to this cacophony of gorgeous natural sounds, there are also a range of man made noises to delight the senses. Each weekday morning at 9am the entire police force of Apia marches to the beat of a brass band.  Every Sunday, the church services are begun and often finished with a song.  Each day in school the children practice their English by singing songs such as you are my sunshine’.

music in samoa

↑ The police band that marches every weekday morning through downtown Apia ↑

Once upon a time (pre-missionaries) traditional Samoan music accompanied every activity from cooking to fighting to dancing. Nowadays music still accompanies the most important moments in the day; church, school, getting to and from work, doing the household chores, paddling and caring for the children.  Where once it was original lyrical songs perhaps accompanied with a simple wooden flute or drum, today you commonly hear ‘Samoanised’ popular Western songs.  This practice of re-recording a song with Samoan words, or by adding a reggae style beat is often referred to as ‘karaoke’ and is extremely popular.  The time I heard the Samoan version of Gangnam style being sung by a car of rugby players isn’t something I’ll forget anytime soon.

Samoan culture uses music as a form of self expression, a way to preserve history, a means of teaching language, and to transfer the essence of Samoan society to the new generations.  During my time in Samoa I came to understand music as the link connecting the different spheres of society; religion, education, work, recreation and family.  Music is also the medium which connects the individual with each of these spheres, as well as with other members of the community.

Music came to be one of my favourite things about Samoa.  I loved catching the bus and having Beyonce’s ‘single ladies’ blasting out in Samoan, listening to the chlldren chorusing their favourite songs as they walked home from school, hearing grandmothers sing lullabies to their grandchildren as they rocked them to sleep, catching snippets of songs from teenagers cellphones as they stood outside shops, and listening to reggae versions of Tina Turner’s greatest hits at youth group events.  In a taxi one time I heard the Lords Prayer (sung in auto tune) mixed right into some Jimi Hendrix like it was nothing. Music became synonymous with Samoa to me and it holds some of my fondest memories from my time spent there :).

I’d love to hear of any of your experiences with music when travelling abroad, or if any of you have visited Samoa and enjoyed the music of the islands as much as I did.

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