O Tusitala: Celebrating Samoan Culture 

Ishani Khemka
Friday 27 October 2023

Professor Emma Sutton of the School of English has researched the relationships between literature and music for more than twenty-five years. Her work explores the role music plays in literary representations of gender, class, pacifism, nationality and racial identity. Sutton is also an Associate of St Andrews’ Centre for Pacific Studies , the UK’s only such Centre, and has worked closely with Indigenous scholars in the Pacific Islands for nearly two decades. Her current research traces the significance of music in the colonial history of the Pacific Islands, concentrating on the networks of Indigenous musicians with whom Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson made music in the 1880s and 1890s. Stevenson was a prolific amateur composer and spent the last six years of his life in Oceania, where he studied Pacific cultures, languages and music and made music with Islanders. Many of the instruments heard by Stevenson and his contemporaries are now little known, including those of Samoa where he settled and is buried. Sutton’s research has led to a long-term collaboration with the National University of Samoa supported by the Scottish Funding Council and to new public resources and creative work – including the play O Tusitala, Tellers of Tales by eminent Samoan writer Sia Figiel.  

Sia Figiel is renowned across the Pacific region as a novelist and poet, and former Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner. O Tusitala, Tellers of Tales depicts the members of Stevenson’s household in Samoa, exploring this crucial period of Samoan history from Indigenous perspectives. Figiel conducted extensive research into this local and national history: portraying more than twenty historical Samoan individuals from gardeners to cooks, the play uses their voices to reflect on the Samoan civil war and rising colonial intervention in Samoa by Britain, America and Germany. The play is the first account to put the Indigenous characters centre stage: its title alludes to the fact that Stevenson was named ‘Tusitala’ (meaning teller or, more accurately, writer of tales) by Samoans but here it is the Indigenous characters, not Stevenson, who are O Tusitala (the storytellers). The play draws on customary Samoan forms of story-telling such as solo (poetry) and fale aitu (theatre, literally ‘house of spirits’), celebrating ancient forms of Samoan narrative that long pre-date the introduction of western written drama. O Tusitala also celebrates Pacific music: the play unfolds through a series of monologues, each voiced by a different character, which are divided by short pieces of western, Samoan and Hawaiian music. The music acknowledges the vital role of music in ancient and contemporary Samoan culture, as well as the fact that it played a major role at Stevenson’s home in Samoa: the household gathered daily for hymns and prayers in Samoan, Stevenson exchanged songs and poems with guests, and there were numerous formal dances. Music fostered personal relationships between Stevenson and Islanders (through gift-giving of instruments and by mutual tutoring) and it also commented on political events (one historic Samoan song in the play, for example, mentions the German Kaiser). 

In the current context, especially since BLM, there is a pressing need to reflect on colonial history and to reconsider whose stories have been marginalised and who has claimed the write to narrate others’ lives and histories. This is particularly pertinent to Stevenson’s role in modern Samoan culture: he is lauded in tourist-focused narratives and his former home, Villa Vailima, is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. Song-settings of one of his most famous poems, ‘Requiem’, are still taught in some Samoan schools and among Samoan diasporas in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the USA. One reason for this is that Stevenson was an outspoken critic of colonial intervention and a high-profile advocate of Indigenous self-rule in Samoa and the wider Pacific; indeed, he was nearly expelled from Samoa by the British government because of his anti-colonial writings and his activism. Moreover, when the high chief Mata’afa was exiled from Samoa by colonial administrators and his followers imprisoned, Stevenson provided the prisoners with food and supplies and wrote letters of support in Samoan to Mata’afa. When the prisoners were released, they cleared a road by hand linking Stevenson’s house to the main road and when Stevenson died in 1894 these individuals were among the 200 who accompanied his coffin to the mountain-top for burial. The play explores the nuances of this history and of Stevenson’s relationships with Pacific Islanders. It acknowledges that Stevenson was an early critic of colonialism and that these relationships were exceptionally affectionate and mutually respectful for the period, but it also recognises that at times Stevenson adopted a paternalistic attitude towards Samoans and caused offence through cultural misunderstanding.  

O Tusitala was premiered in Samoa in May in a purpose-built community theatre. The acclaimed Samoan actor Tuiasau Uelese Petaia was accompanied by song and dance performed by the NUS Dance and Theare Company. The Galumoana (Blue Wave) Theatre is intended to be a long-term support for Samoan creative arts, diversity and international collaboration: the first performances were attended by dignitaries including the Samoan PM and Deputy PM and the theatre has since hosted events by leading Pacific writers, including Selina Tusitala Marsh, former Poet Laureate of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Sia Figiel was Writer in Residence at the School of English in July and August; her performances of O Tusitala at the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe  in August sold out.  

Cast of ‘O Tusitala, Tellers of Tales’ with Sia Figiel (centre back). Photo credit: Vanya Taule’alo

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