Early commercial recordings of traditional music from the Samoan Islands were not common. There were field recordings made onsite as early as 1910 (by Roland Burrage Dixon), and of Samoans in the United States as early as 1893, but commercial discs were a different story. Of course, there were mainstream popular musicians who utilized “Samoa” or “Samoan” in their song titles, such as Andy Iona’s “Samoan Love Song.” There were also Hawaiian music recordings made by Samoan recording artists, probably the most notable being the outstanding discs by Tau Moe (1908-2004), who was originally from what is now known as the territory of American Samoa, and whose group was sometimes credited on disc as the “Samoan Troupe” or “Samoan Dancers.” Probably to Western consumers of hot Hawaiian steel guitar music, “Samoan” added an additional exotic and unfamiliar flourish – yet at the same time, there were recordings that could be construed as “Samoan” in circulation.
The artist featured here, whose full name was Kipeni Su’apa’ia, has more than a little in common with Tau Moe. Su’apa’ia was born in 1889 either in a small coastal village on Savai’i island known as Sale’aula, or in a village on the island of Upolu (sources differ), both of which are in the nation of Samoa, or Western Samoa. And, like Tau Moe, he traveled well over 2,500 miles to Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century. It’s unclear precisely what brought them to Hawaii. It could have been work, or the German or New Zealand occupations of Samoa, but it could have been something else. The Su’apa’ia family story goes that in 1892, Kipeni’s father Saimasina and mother Tui were presiding over their dying son Salu (one of Kipeni’s many siblings), with little to nothing that could be done to cure him. Two Mormon missionaries attempted to treat the boy, stating that only the power of God could cure his illness. The boy recovered, and Saimasina and his family became firmly dedicated Mormons. In the case of Kipeni, it’s entirely possible that he moved to Hawaii to help work for the Mormon community at Laie, on Oahu, which had been active since 1865 and was in the process of building a new mission. While in Laie, young Kipeni was the first to help translate the Mormon hymnal into Samoan, which was published in 1918. One year later, Tau Moe, also a Mormon, was living in Laie as well.
For the next forty years or so, Kipeni Su’apa’ia, or “Kipeni Su’a” as he was sometimes known, would have a number of occupations. It appears he was a school principal, as well as the leader of the local band in Laie. He was considered a “Chief” and a member of the local Chief Council. He also formed a group, sometimes known as the “Royal Samoans, or the “Samoan Warriors,” or the “Samoan Serenaders,” that performed around Hawaii, playing traditional, secular songs, sometimes in the form of a “pageant” or play that focused on daily life in Polynesia. On April 5th, 1935, he and his group, for this session named the “Royal Samoans,” recorded ten sides for Victor records in Honolulu. Only two songs – one 78 – ended up being issued. It’s unknown why the remaining songs were rejected. Judging by its paucity, the existing 78 was not a big seller, but it is a lovely record.
The track is credited as a “Warrior’s Welcome Song,” and the first line – “ua ou fiafia tele” – roughly translates to “I am very happy.” It does not appear that a translation of this particular song exists, but I hope one is eventually made available. There is no further information on the other members of Su’a’s group, alas. Kipeni Su’apa’ia eventually moved to Southern California, settling outside of Los Angeles. He did publish a book – Samoa: The Polynesian Paradise – that was published in 1962 (“the first book about Samoa written by a Samoan”). He passed away in 1977 in Van Nuys.
Kipene Su’a and his Royal Samoans – Ua Ou Fiafia Tele
Issue Number: 25289
Matrix Number: BVE-89092
Special thanks to Les Cook (Grass Skirt Records).
16 thoughts on “Kipene Su’a and his Royal Samoans – Ua Ou Fiafia Tele”
Damn. The world needs more recordings by such Samoan Mormons.
And now begins the search for the unissued Victor sides. You or Les Cook might just be the perfect folks for the job.
Thank you for this post. Entertaining and informative, as ever.
Bless you for this track, and for last month’s Malawi side as well, which I seem to have missed when you posted it. Do you expect to produce another cd sometime? Or has the market shrunk beyond feasibility? I’m still here anyway, and I can’t be the only one. Your stuff is so great.
Thanks so much, Sam – and a resounding “yes” to your question. I hope to have great news soon.
As if letting my brain chew on the idea of Mormon Samoans while bathing in the beautiful sounds wasn’t enough fun, my smile widened as I finished reading; I was just starting my time on earth in Van Nuys as Kipeni Su’apa’ia was finishing his. Thanks for sharing all of these shiny things.
Thank you! I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t spent some time in Van Nuys 😉
The soundtrack to the 1932 cartoon “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle” is by a group billed as the Royal Samoans and there is a live action performance by them at the beginning, available on You Tube. Is this the same group?
It’s possible, but I’m leaning towards it not being the same group. I can’t rule it out, but as far as I can tell Kipene Su’a didn’t actually use “Royal Samoans” in his band name too often, apart from this session. I’ve seen the clip (the group is playing “Vana Vana” with guitar, ukuleles, etc). I don’t see anyone in the group that looks like Kipene Su’a, but it’s hard to really tell (he seemed tall and rather gangly in the photos I have). Fleischer’s studio was located in NYC, but the filmed musical bit could have been made in Los Angeles. I did find evidence that a group called the “Royal Samoans” played “yearly” in Los Angeles in the 1920s as part of a vaudeville circuit, and even starred in a Frank Capra-produced show. However, “Royal Samoans” is a pretty generic name, and I find what might be several groups under that name in Los Angeles at the time. One advertisement that state the leader of the group that played in Los Angeles was “Chief Tufele,” another states “Chief Taumuautasi” and another states the leader was “Prince Lei Lani,” which was a pseudonym of famed Hawaiian performer and recording artist E.K. Rose (and I believe that’s the same group that appeared in the Capra show). I do see a group of that name, noting that they were often found on the vaudeville circuit, appearing on 57th St in NYC in May of 1931, again leading me to think it’s E.K. Rose’s group. “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle” was released in 1932, so maybe…
My Great Grandfather is Kipeni. I’m interested in seeing what photos you may have.
What a lovely record – and a fantastic transfer too, it’s hard to believe this came off a 78 from the 1930s
I would say that this is another example of a perfect song. In my opinion, the artist has been able to project every aspect of the arrangement to its fullest. And the rhythmic bridge in-between verses is just sublime!
Thank you for sharing this. I have never heard this before. My great grandfather Tuinei Su’apa’ia is Kipeni’s older brother. If you have any more information please reach out to me. I do a lot of my families genealogy and history. I would love to learn or share anything.
Thank you so much for stopping by!
Sorry auto correct — my Great Grandfather is Tinei Su’apa’ia NOT Tuinei.
Also to confirm – they were born in Savaii from the village of Salelevalu.
Do you have other vinyls of his? Or are you willing to sell this one?
Sorry it must have autocorrected – my great grandfathers name is Tinei Su’apa’ia who is Kipeni’s older brother.
Kipeni Su’apa’ia is my great grandfather. His daughter Salote is my grandmother. Her daughter, Starr Fetuao (Salote) Lutu Schuster is my mother. My mother later changed her name to Salote because His Majestey, King Taufaahau Tupou IV, when he came to visit our home in American Samoa, he said the name Salote needs to continue through the family. That it should go to the oldest daughter and so forth. My mother being the oldest daughter lalter changed her name to Salote Lutu Schuster. I’m the oldest daughter of hers and she said I should change my name soon. I have not done that yet. If you’d like, you can reach me at email@example.com.