Flowering of song and dance

By Maureen Marriner

Samoans don't make a fuss - they make being laidback an artform - but they do make a song and dance about their culture. And the song and dance reaches its peak at a highlight of the Samoan calendar, the Teuila Festival, named after the national flower, the red ginger.

Organised by the Samoa Tourism Authority, the cultural festival runs over the first week of September, when Samoans from all over the country, plus a growing number from overseas, and lots of foreign tourists swell the capital, Apia.

Samoans are born to singing and dancing and love to compete, a passion which is given free rein during Teuila. As the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism Misa Telefoni said, as he paid tribute to all the participants this year: "It defines who we are."

It would be almost impossible to arrive at this time and not be aware that the national focus is on only one thing.

The usual daily routine disappears as church choristers and their supporters pack ferries to the main island of Upolu. On Sunday night, they gather in a large church - and in Apia, as anywhere in Samoa, there is a huge number to chose from - to sing their hearts out.

The odd thing first-timers to Teuila will soon realise is that, with individual tweaks on some of the chords, all 31 choirs sing the same song praising the festival.

I heard of an American visitor, unaware of this, who had gone to church that morning when the choir had been practising, took a taxi to the evening performances when the radio had featured the chosen work, then sat through a couple of Groundhog Day hours of competing choirs, and by the end could almost sing along.

The winner this year was the Mission choir from Wellington.

The majority of Teuila events are held near the seven-storey Government Buildings on reclaimed land in the middle of Apia.

Throughout the week stalls are open from early morning to late at night. Among the craft there's a little tat, and knick-knacks that fill the "bring me something back from Samoa" criteria, but also exquisite works. My favourites were wooden bowls, carved on a small base, with delicate lines and a satin finish for an asking price of less than ST125 ($70).

In a traditional fale, women from a Savaii village sit weaving baskets, placemats, fans and, painstakingly, the fine mats valued so highly in Samoan culture. The pandanus for these is split into strips no wider than a match, from which groups are selected and the soft fabric of the mat is worked in batches about 10cm wide.

Old sports are also displayed, such as as taulafoga. It's sort of like lawn bowls but using coconut shells. Their shape is not too much of a problem as they are not bowled, but thrown. As with many pursuits in Samoa, it involves much hilarity.

Indeed, Samoans readily laugh at anything, but especially someone else's minor misfortune. I discovered this when I stopped at a roadside shop for a soft drink during a cycle ride. I propped the bike up against a slatted bench under a breadfruit tree, avoided the middle of the bench with its fallen breadfruit which smelled as if something had gone off and sat down on one end.

As I did so a loose slat flew up from the other and I ended up on the ground. I saw the funny side and the girls standing nearby were in peals before politely shushing themselves.

At the festival grounds onlookers shriek with laughter as boys try to reach the "Treasure on the Pole". A metal tube about the height of a power pole is topped with an upturned road cone and the idea is to climb the pole and retrieve whatever the treasure is. For boys used to shinning up coconut trees this would be too easy so the tube is covered in thick yellow grease.

The audience swells as the attempts become more and more outlandish. A human pyramid collapses on itself under the weight of slippery hands and feet and onlookers' taunts. By now bystanders are almost helpless with laughter.

The food stalls are mostly the barbecue-and-burger variety but a demonstration of the umu, Samoa's above-ground version of the hangi, ended with a free lunch - for foreign tourists only - of suckling pig, breadfruit and Samoan ambrosia: palusami.

Song and dance competitions and band shows are held most days and evenings on a stage in front of the Government Buildings. No need to worry about arranging seats for the audience - everyone just sits on the grass, cross-legged on mats, cloth, or flip-flops - and are served by boys selling bags of snack from boxes or laundry baskets.

Sections of the crowd erupt as their local favourites take their turn on stage. Although the men give it their all with their dancing, and the graceful, delicate movements of the women's siva are beautiful, there is something hypnotic about watching a young woman of no mean proportions gently twirling in her hands the former war club, or nifo oti, with its hook that was used to snare various body parts of the enemy.

However, for me, the stars of the song and dance competitions - there were 30 teams of each - were the fuataimi, the measurers of time, the men and women who conduct the singing, not with a baton but with their whole bodies. Picked out in colours to make them the centre of attraction - many of the men with impressive pe'a, the full body tatau, and women with the lighter malu - they stamp and sway, sometimes toying with the audience, they flick their heads and they punch the air for emphasis.

Modern song and dance, and a bit of anything-goes entertainment, has its chance in the McDonald Variety Show when there are comedy skits, hip-hop rhymes, homages to Michael Jackson and lots of Indian-influenced dances - Bollywood movies, with their spectacular dances and high morals, go down a bomb in Samoa.

This year there were one or two Japanese presentations, odd playlets usually involving a courting couple, and one where an elderly man and woman came to the edge of the stage, photographed the audience, bowed, and left.

Those who miss the shows during the day can catch up on the local SBC television channel at night - repeated again and again.

Early risers head to the waterfront to cheer on the boat races. The fautasi, or long-boats, have 40 rowers each and were once the main transport between the islands. Nowadays, they are towed to Apia in preparation for the races.

Alan Grey, son of the founder and now owner of Aggie Grey's Hotel right on the waterfront, has been a passionate fan of fautasi races all his life, running two teams. Now, at 80, he jokes the rowers have gone soft; today they race only within the reef instead of the old days when the rowing started miles out to sea.

Among the special guests at all these events are the finalists in the Miss Teuila Contest, the winner of which represents the country for a year.

Of the 11 women competing this year, three were from overseas: from Utah, from Australia, and Miss Samoa New Zealand, Josiefina Fuimaono-Sapolu, an Auckland lawyer who was admitted to the Samoan bar during the festival week and took home the Miss Personality title.

The finalists ride many of the floats that parade through town to the prizegiving and the closing ceremony. Huge trophies and shields are presented and you just know they will have pride of place in villages for the next year.

Meanwhile, those who didn't win will spend the next 12 months honing their skills for next September, when the Teuila Festival will bloom again, determined to dazzle the crowds and the judges and take out the trophy.

Checklist

Getting there
Polynesian Blue flies from Auckland to Upolu's Faleolo Airport four times a week. Return fares from $568.69.

Where to stay
Close to the airport is the Aggie Grey's Lagoon Resort and Spa which has 140 rooms set in 20ha of landscaped grounds. Luxury family accommodation.

In Apia the Insel Fehmarn Hotel has friendly staff and big, clean rooms with fully equipped kitchenettes. It is family run and has links to the early German occupation of Western Samoa.

Coconuts Beach Club on the south coast offers a resort option with what is said to be the island's best restaurant.

Getting around
Many of the hotels have free airport transfers. Taxis are cheap but agree the fare first. The buses are an experience and guaranteed to give you a laugh and a muli tiga (numb bum).

Green Turtle Tours run day trips and half-day tours of the best sights in Upolu.

* Maureen Marriner travelled to Samoa with Polynesian Blue Airlines and was hosted by the Samoa Tourism Authority.

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