Samoan musician explores concept of cultural identity

Thursday June 01, 2017 Written by Published in Regional

NEW ZEALAND – A Samoan born musician’s doctoral research into traditional and contemporary music is a personal expression into identity.


Opelonge Ah Sam is finishing off his Phd at Victoria University in Wellington and he has produced a piece called Musika, which is the Samoan word for music.

A recent concert showcased the culmination of his five years of research into Samoan music and the musician’s own life and the many challenges he has faced moving between Samoa and New Zealand.

He told spoke to Radio New Zealand’s Sara Vui-Talitu more about what inspires him.

“Music is an expression of our identity as people and who we are. And basically each scene is divided into themes I suppose, and each theme will be something about love, there is a theme about death or loss. There is a theme about your faith and your religion, which is all the stuff that influences me.

“And there’s other themes that look at jazz and church music and Samoan music and all the things that sort of influence the whole thing.

“When I started to do this whole thing about identity, my outlook on identity – it was a fixed thing. But after doing a bit of research and to live and figure it out for myself, I have come to realise where I am at now is that identity is not a fixed thing.

“ It is a thing that sort of floats in between contexts and where you are and it is something that changes from year to year in a way. 

“My own children are part Chinese, Samoan, Indonesian, Dutch and New Zealand and so I sort of wonder about what they are going to have as an identity.

“So it is a combination of all those things. You know you go to Samoa and everyone thinks you are from New Zealand because you were born in New Zealand. And then in New Zealand there is no mistaking that I have brown skin and I am Samoan – so it is about being in that space in between.

“My grandfather was my first music teacher and he is really the first person who got me started. And in those two first years he taught me the orchestral xylophone that he got from England and that joy and sense of fun,  it really stayed with me.

“And that was really important because prior to that I didn’t really enjoy music lessons. Yeah, it is really hard and I didn’t really find my passion for music again until probably at High School because of the music teacher I had, and then it followed on from there and joining orchestras and bands and that was really where I started enjoying music. Other than that, I did it  because my parents really wanted me to do it.

“ I actually started a Phd at Melbourne University but after two years, my mum got really unwell and then so did my dad. So as you do as a Samoan person, the first thing that I had to do was to come home.

“The topic to it is the agony of asking ‘who am I?’ But it is this whole idea of reconciliation of issues surrounding identity and like how we move within different contexts and how we move in and out of church and in and out of Samoa.

“ I remember the first reading my supervisor gave me and it really annoyed me because the reading was so challenging and the ideas challenged everything I understood about traditional.

“And as an uninformed young man, traditional is everything. And so when someone says “traditional this and traditional that”, you say ,“yes, yes that’s us. That’s me’.

“But in actual fact, the whole thing is an evolving thing, you know identity, and the whole thing we are creating today is a custom and tradition that belongs to this year, and not 20 years ago.       - RNZI

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