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Reflections on Samoana Jazz Fest 2016 — “It’s a balancing act ..."

Seen here, American Samoa songstress Jonitta Fruean shares the mic with an up and coming young Filipino band, Cuerdo. Speaking of the experience, Jonitta said, "We were truly honored to have participated in the Samoana Jazz Fest. It's not often we musicians get these opportunities to relieve our hunger for melodical tones and beautiful rhythms here on our Islands. This was definitely a treat."   [courtesy photo]

When you hear the words “Jazz Festival”, it’s a good bet that remote islands, tropical breezes and palm trees don’t immediately come to mind. But the Samoana Jazz Festival held this year in the South Pacific for its third annual run— during two weekends and within two island-countries — is starting to change that perception.

Rarely do the people of the Samoan islands come together without soul-stirring music, and this most recent Jazz Festival was no exception. Along with the deeply sensual drumbeats of the Pacific, with the slack string tuning of guitars and ukuleles came the urban, sophisticated sounds of modern and eclectic jazz — a jazz with surprisingly deep roots in the Pacific. The Samoana Jazz Fest was born of the artistry of Samoa’s very own First Lady of Jazz, Mavis Rivers, a legendary woman whose talent long ago inspired this event.

The traditional met the modern once again, as Samoana entered its third year as a Festival, complete with local and international participants. The artists, musicians and festival audiences all agreed that it was a feast for the eyes, the ears — and the heart.


The great distances of Oceania have always meant long journeys in order to be with loved ones. The Pacific Ocean covers 2/3 of the world’s surface — the great open ocean between islands also meant poignant and heart wrenching goodbyes.  The vast distances, once travelled in long canoes and led by traditional way finders are now broached with jet planes, and happily, musicians and guests from abroad as well as locals from the 2Samoas found their way to this year’s festival. It was with deep feeling that Festival Director, Siteine Peta Si’ulepa noted that the spirit of this Samoana Festival has been captured in the Samoan proverb:

“O le mavaega nai le tai e fataia’i i i’u o gafa” — Which is to say —“The last farewell at the seashore, with the promise to meet again in the children.” 

And oh what a meeting it was. Old friends, aiga from afar, distant cousins and new faces mingled with young — as well as seasoned — musicians who came to participate.

Festival Director Siteine was especially appreciative that the “Young, Gifted & Jazz”— a platform launched in 2015 to showcase emerging artists — resonated with young musicians.  She noted that young Samoan artists were involved in the festival from the beginning, when the Andrew Faleatua Jazz Quintet of New Zealand (who wrote the sound score for Three Wise Cousins) were headliners in the first Festival in 2014.

“Then last year we featured more youth with the talented “Opeloge Ah Sam Quintet” (NZ) and the amazing local group in the Territory, “Banned From the Sun”. And this year in American Samoa we heard for the first time “The Vibe” - a young band who came together specifically to back vocalist Angie Afo as she made great songs come alive – and they were all just sensational!”

The young Filipino Band “Cuerdo” also debuted at the festival this year, backing local singer songwriter, Jonitta Fruean in a one set showcase.

In Samoa, young people also participated in the educational part of the festival, Sounds of Samoa, an Ethnomusicology Forum, at the Falealili School Brass Band and  National Orchestra.

Reflecting upon the Festival, which was held the first two weekends in November this year, Siteine noted, “Local talent was definitely on display for this festival — highlighting both the local as well as the international experience of resident musicians –  thus giving us the global side of “Local” and changing some perceptions – to value the real gems in our communities.”

She added, “In Samoa this year, most international billings came from American Samoa. This was not only refreshing – it lifted the the spirit of unity between the 2Samoas and strengthened the music, educational and economic ties – through sponsors, organizations, hoteliers and venues.”

Samoa News caught up with a son of American Samoa, gifted bass player and member of the band Blue Ocean Crew, Jim Kneubuhl, who has participated each year, and asked for his thoughts on the 2016 Festival.

He said, “For the local musicians, it's a bit of well-deserved recognition. It reminds the local audience who enjoy live music that there are still people doing it with instruments rather than machines. (Not to slight anyone who uses machines).  But there are still people making music organically, as opposed to mechanically.”

He also noted that he got a chance to play with new people and expand his musical repertoire.

“My band Blue Ocean Crew backed a Samoan/ Chinese country singer named Basil Po Ching, visiting from Auckland. He has a country and western band there, the Coconut Cowboys. Blue Ocean Crew does mostly Hawaiian music, but it wasn't that difficult to pick up on Basil's country songs. It was cool... you're looking at this big Samoan/ Chinese guy, and when he opens his mouth, out comes... Nashville, Tennessee! He had a great command of that genre.”

Kneubuhl, along with many musicians of the Territory, participated in the second part of the Festival, held the second weekend in Apia. He said it was really great to be there...  the crowds really seemed to appreciate everyone's performances.

“About two thirds of the performers were from American Samoa, so for the Apia audience, maybe it was just nice to see some new faces.”

The last day of the festival took place on the beach at Sinalei Resort, where the audience members were mostly overseas tourists and visitors. He smiled when he said, “ They should be taking some rather unique memories home with them.”


Kneubuhl observed, “Just as jazz incorporates all kinds of other musical styles, there's a sometimes muted/ sometimes obvious jazz influence in the music being made in American Samoa. Few of the American Samoa artists that participated in this year's event would be described as “pure jazz”, but it's not hard to spot the influence.”

He explained, “Angie Afo and her band The Vibe conjure up the same grooves as Randy Crawford performing with The Crusaders. Jonitta Fruean’s renditions of her songs blended the soul sounds reminiscent of Anita Baker. “Banned From The Sun” focus mainly on rock and pop, but actually cover a wide range of other styles, as evidenced by their performance of Chick Corea's "Spain" as well as Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne.”

And then there was the Samoana Festival Band, composed of Ulale Pusi Ulale (Keyboards/Vocals) Francis Leleua on Drums, Fetisone Haggedorn (Bass/Vocals) Failauga Peke Ano'a'i (Guitar/Vocals) and  Malakai Lavata'i (Percussion/Vocals) all from American Samoa.  Edwina Thorne on Horns from New Zealand and Michael Tamanikaiyaroi of Samoa (Bass/Flute) rounded out the band.

Malakai Lavata’i recalls how he “thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work with the diverse range of musicians in American Samoa and Samoa.”

“Our band supported a range of genre — soul, country, reggae, rock and jazz and I appreciated that we bridged the genre divide as well as the festival in the 2Samoas. It was hard work – but as a ‘muso’ — it was a real buzz — and I’d do it again if invited,” he said.

Going forward, he said, “it’s important to impress on artists that the festival is about Jazz music, and to ensure that they demonstrate this in their repertoire.”

 Of the Festival Band, Kneubuhl said, “They came together specifically to back the visiting instrumentalists and vocalists, but their longstanding experience as entertainers meant that the individual members had more than a few jazz standards they could contribute to the mix, and the ensemble were able to seamlessly incorporate the talents of visiting trumpet maestro Edwina Thorne from New Zealand.”

He added, “A number of musicians from American Samoa have gone on to make a name for themselves off-island, and the Samoana Festival is an opportunity for them to showcase their talents in their homeland.

This year the American Samoa phase of the festival gained a considerable boost from two daughters of American Samoa who learned their craft on the mainland before returning home— Angie Afo and Jonitta Fruean.”

“Both Angie and Jonitta have forged connections with young local musicians who backed them up, thus sharing their experience and contributing to the musical development of American Samoa's youth. Angie and Jonitta also joined the Samoa phase of the festival, and blended effortlessly with the expert backing of The Festival Band.

 Kneubuhl spoke at length of the many diverse musical influences at the Fest this year.

“For example, the musicians who make up The Blue Ocean Crew, although they focus on Hawaiian music, bring a wealth of diverse musical influences with them. Their Pago Pago sets featured their take on the Sarah Vaughn tune "Sweet and Slow," as well as the Bill Withers composition "Lovely Day,” he said.

The Crew's wide range of musical experience became especially obvious when they participated in the Samoa leg of the festival, where surprised audience members who thought they had them pegged heard them pepper their set with an extended delta blues improvisation featuring the searing blues harmonica of American Samoa’s Joey Cummings.


Kneubuhl pointed out, “While the American Samoa phase of the festival, like the second phase in Samoa, was notable for its diversity of musical content, special credit should go to two bona fide jazz artists, vocalist Peta Siulepa and trumpet player Edwina Thorne, for regularly steering the music back and anchoring the jazz direction.”

“Peta graced the stage with regular vocal spots showcasing her Mavis Rivers-influenced stylings punctuated with her rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ featuring herself on bongos, while Edwina added the crucial musical element to her collaborations with The Festival Band that made the difference between the veteran experience of jazz and the mix of interpretations — depending on one’s entry to jazz,” Kneubuhl said.

Asked what he would like to see — as a musician — going forward, he responded, “The festival could grow if it were to receive more sponsorship from the private sector and more connection to music education in the public sector. It obviously costs a lot to bring quality performers to the 2Samoas.”

But more importantly, he added, “The festival could also be a gathering event for musicians of Samoan ancestry from all over the region — and the world — who want to perform in their spiritual homeland.”

The Samoana Festival mission is in fact a call to action for Samoans world-wide to “come home” — to give back, share and learn from others — encouraging all to be part of building a Samoan international festival. In previous festivals Samoan musicians have come mainly from New Zealand and Australia aided by New Zealand government funding.  

Last year the Festival featured members of the Easy Brothers (from the US West Coast) and the great old Ready Go Pa band, who came from California. These are bands that have their roots in American Samoa, with some of the old band members still living in the territory. Hearing and seeing them get together last year — was a sure call to memories when ‘live’ performances of music were a given on the local night club scene.

“This year we had musicians from the Wellington based Southon family, an Upolu clan who were accompanied by a large contingency of aiga.”

(Speaking on behalf of the Southon family, Sonny Southon posted on Facebook, “Just back from the Samoana Jazz & Arts Festival ... it was a great event, set in stunning locations. A big thank you to everyone who helped organize the event, especially Peta & Joe Annandale, Festival Board Chair in Samoa. We had fun!”)

Kneubuhl observed, “The festival is meant to honor the legacy of Mavis Rivers and will commemorate her in 2018 as the first world renowned jazz singer from Samoa, who ironically many Samoans have never heard of. So, what recommendations would I make? Anyone reading this overseas, especially those of Samoan ancestry with financial resources — it would be great to have them contribute and get involved.”


Siteine observed that “it really is a balancing act of keeping the agenda as true and as close to Jazz as possible, thereby attracting overseas Jazz musicians and their loyal audiences, and reintroducing jazz locally — so that we can make our own brand of jazz that reflects who we are as Samoan musicians.

By building a high calibre participation of local musicians and attracting global Samoan musicians, we have all the makings of a world renowned festival of international standing — while staying true to a vision that is Samoana and Jazz. If we can do that, the world will come.”

Sponsors for the Festival were gratefully acknowledged, and they included Bluesky Communications, National Pacific Insurance, Sadie’s by The Sea, Paradise Pizza, Ta’alolo Golf Lodge, McConnell Dowell, Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, and Sadie’s by the Sea — to name just a few.

The Board of the Samoana Jazz & Arts Festival thanks all of its sponsors and supporters and looks forward to next year’s event, which is already in the works.