Sāmoan guitar art revitalised

By Aaron Ryan

By Aaron Ryan, Te Rito journalism cadet. 

The Sāmoan guitar art of ‘Le igi o le vaveao’ is a rare sound known mainly to Sāmoans.

It was said to be created in the early 1900s when European settlers brought the modern guitar to Sāmoa.

‘Le igi o le vave ao’, which is also known as ‘Le igi’, is a guitar-playing style in which strings are tuned to versions of the C key, which are known as slack keys.

Hana Schmidt, a Le igi tutor is responsible for keeping this art form inside Pacific communities by teaching a group of students.

"On any standard key, from my experience everything I play I don't connect with it (mainstream music). I like it, I can play R&B, Jazz, and others. There are different genres that I can play but I don’t connect to it, I just listen to it because I like it.”


Keeping a Sāmoan tradition alive

Emotional attachment

"But, with the igi, when I play it and I hear the tuning, there’s an emotional attachment, there’s a cultural attachment and there’s an attachment to my family as well,” Schmidt says.

There are just over 182,000 Sāmoan people in Aotearoa, which is 10,000 fewer than Sāmoa itself, according to the last census report in 2018.

Hana learned by watching her father Martin play as a child, and she says teaching her school of students is an important part of connecting with Sāmoans back in Sāmoa.

“It's a good genre of music to listen to, to keep you calm and to meditate and to put you in a good mindset.”

“It takes you back to our home in Sāmoa and the ocean and having those calming thoughts in your mind is revived through this key,” she says.

Performing le igi with others is a way to build connections with fellow performers for cousin Anslem Schmidt, who also grew up watching his uncle Martin play.

'Staying  in harmony'

The keys it’s played in means, even if someone makes a mistake, the others will make up for it so audiences won’t recognise it.

“I can just pull out a solo out of nowhere but these guys are the ones who are keeping my back so like we're all a team, we’re all staying in harmony while we are performing, so no matter where I go around the guitar strings.”

“So like any part of the song I would just get lost but, if I get lost, I can look back to these guys and they're continuing the song from the first verse, chorus, second verse and whatever. I can always look at them as my support,” Anselm says.

Despite the school being small in numbers, Schmidt's students don’t feel like they’re being taught by a teacher.

Zephaniah Vagana has been a student of Hana’s for the past four years and is enjoying his time learning.

“She’s more of a friend and it’s very, very good,” he says.

'Staying connected'

The Schmidt family hopes the next generation both young and old, learn the history and playing of ‘le igi’ to help people stay connected with the Sāmoan culture.

Schmidt says learning Le igi is an important way to teach the next generation to stay connected with Sāmoans around the world.

The sound does a lot more than just creating a tune for people to sing to, she says, and can be therapeutic.

“It's a good genre of music to listen to, to keep you calm and to meditate and to put you in a good mindset.”

“It takes you back to our home in Sāmoa and the ocean and having those calming thoughts in your mind is revived through this key,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt grew up watching her father Martin play the unique sound that she and her cousins now play together.

Fa'afetai lava.