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).