28 May, 2013

Pacific Islands: Sizzling in Samoa

By Chloe Johnson

Five men dressed in brightly coloured flower-patterned shirts and lava-lava skirts squish on to a tiny stage with their instruments. Their pearly-white teeth sparkle through large smiles as they sing to the tourists and returning locals filing off a plane.

The sound of ukuleles is a refreshing welcome to Samoa's main island, Upolu, and a fitting start to a week in the Pacific Island where singing, dancing and performance is embedded in the culture.

It's also the start of the Teuila Festival, an annual celebration of Samoan cultural activities ranging from traditional tattooing to longboat racing, dancing and singing.

This year is Teuila's 21st birthday, and hundreds of people are on the island to celebrate. Teuila is also the name of the national red ginger flower, and a popular name for Samoan women, our guide says.

He beeps at children walking on the side of the road, making them jump out of danger's way. The kids stare curiously at the van-load of palagi (white folk), before smiling and waving. They chase after us, giggling and screaming until their little legs and lungs run out of steam. The sound of their laughter is like music to my ears.

In the morning, a loud gong wakes me from a deep sleep. It's 7.30am on a Sunday, the country's most significant day of the week, which starts at church and ends at church.

There are three main religious denominations in Samoa - Congregational, Catholic and Methodist. At least 95 per cent of the population attend Sunday church services.

The large church is cream and blue with stained-glass windows, and towers above the community's small fale (houses). Inside, women are dressed in white gowns and large white-brimmed hats. They sit on one side of the room cooling themselves with weaved fans. Men wear crisp, tidy white suits or cream lava-lava and shirts. They sit on the other side of the room while the restless children play.

The sermon and songs are all in Samoan so, unfortunately, I don't understand a word. But the passion in the congregation's voices and the expression on their faces almost brings a tear to my eyes.

That night, we experience a different kind of singing at the Coconuts Resort's fiafia ceremony, a traditional celebration of dancing and singing followed by an ava ceremony and fire dance.

A fa'afafine with long black curly hair and a red flower pinned behind her ear welcomes guests in a shy, sweet voice. Women glide on to the sand stage in front of five musicians playing plastic buckets, guitars and ukuleles. The women move their hands delicately, swaying their hips, smiling elegantly at the captivated audience.

The music quickens as men in grass skirts and leaf necklaces bounce on to the stage with a haka-like performance. The girls make their way to the back while the men jump up and down, slapping themselves in sync with each other. Our guide says the Fa'ataupati dance, or slap dance, mimics the slapping of mosquitoes and was developed in the 19th century when the pests invaded the land.

The next morning, the local newspaper leads with a story about how Samoans are bored with the festival, moaning that it is only for tourists. I think the moaners have got it wrong.

Our entertainment continues with a drive across the island into Apia, the capital, where people have commenced inter-village championships for games including volleyball and kilikiti, the Samoan version of cricket. As is always the case in Samoa, it isn't a true event without singing and dancing on the sidelines.

One of the most popular festival events is the long boat race. These boats are called fautasi and are similar to Maori waka. Fautasi were the main transport between the Samoan islands Upolu and Savaii but, with modern ferries now in use, the boats are used only for racing. Made out of hollowed trees, it takes 40 strong rowers to carve along them the water as they chant.

The race is usually for men only but this year Samoa had its first female crew. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to complete the route.

Although the Samoans are highly competitive, there are no real losers and everyone is in high spirits for the night's entertainment on the Teuila stage, outside Government House. Hip-hop dance crews, funny fa'afafines and contestants from a local TV show similar to New Zealand's Got Talent are just a few of the acts. The festival is wrapped up the following day with a Raggamuffin concert in 38C heat.

The set-up is simple: stalls sell food and drinks as the grass area turns into a sea of red, green and yellow as people dressed in Rastafarian colours form an intimate crowd drinking Vailima - Samoa's best beer. When Monsta G takes the stage the crowd goes wild. The California-based rapper kicks off an eight-hour show that includes Savage, Swiss, Spawnbreezie and New Zealand-based singer Joe Coffee.

It is the perfect end to a music-filled week. Happy 21st, Teuila.

Source: The New Zealand Herald

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The writer: Chloe Johnson travelled courtesy of Samoa Tourism Authority on Virgin Samoa.

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