Non-traditional tonalities informed by cultural connection
LEAO is the ancestral project of Tāmaki-based David Feauai-Afaese. Grounded with a fa’asamoa core, LEAO constructs feelings and messages embodied both in language and spirit of a hauntological Samoa. Pulling from alternative music expressions from lo-fi post-punk to hypnagogic pop, LEAO infuses these non-traditional tonalities with a fa’asamoa spirit to create a sonic-va’a that connects tradition with a modern truth.
Tell me your name, where it is from, where you’re from, and where you Whakapapa to.
My name is David Roger Neru Feauai-Afaese Vaeafe. My first two names are named after a dear friend of my father. Neru is my father’s name. Feauai is my maternal grandfather’s name [from] which my mother takes [her] maiden name and Afaese is my paternal grandfather’s name. Vaeafe is the name of my maternal clan in Lalomauga, Samoa. I whakapapa to Lalomauga, Mulifanua, Sāgone, and Falealupo in Samoa, Tonga, and Solomon Islands.
How did your journey with music start? What music did you listen to as a kid?
I guess my journey starts with listening. Music was always present growing up and music was diverse, and exposed in very particular generational contexts. My parents, like most Samoan parents, always had Radio Samoa playing which playlisted a lot of classic Samoan staples such as The Five Stars, The Golden Ali’is, Punialava’a, The Young Lovers, and Felise Mikaele to name a few. Juxtaposed to this music was the music which my older, more rebellious siblings were listening to. Being 90’s kids this obviously involved Gangsta Rap and RnB, but it was the exposure to rock bands such as Meatloaf, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and 90’s techno/house outfits such as Passendorf, Daft Punk, Alice Deejay, and Modjo that really opened up my musical ears and heart. At 13, due to my older sister’s approbation to my gaming habits, I started playing guitar and I guess from there even more diverse musicalities came into my listening palette such as Bossa Nova, Gypsy Jazz, and Flamenco. I never really had any aspirations for music as a craft ‘til I had graduated high school in 2015, where I had school friends who had started and were a part of Grow Room, a once active Karangahape Rd music/art collective. So, I guess music as a practice started circa late-2016/2017.
How did you form the idea for LEAO?
To be honest, it wasn’t even really my idea to begin with haha. After Grow Room moved out of the Maota Samoa studio complex on Karangahape Rd in 2018, everyone dispersed into their own spaces. One of those people being Larsen (Co-Director for Noa Records, Whyfi, and drummer for LEAO), who had started Noa Records in early 2019, at which point had released two projects, the 151 IMPROV and Schofield Strangelove’s 1800EACHWAY. I loved 1800EACHWAY, so I bought a cassette and met up with Larsen to catch up and pick up the cassette. Larsen and I had previously done work on a solo indie pop project for Grow Room, which never came to being completed, but in linking up, we got to talanoa about his musical intentions and Noa Records.
In discussing themes of matauranga, ancestralism and futurist visions for Moana creatives, it garnered real life-giving feelings which eventuated in Larsen proposing to me the idea of making a Samoan indie project. I followed up with that proposal and the rest of 2019 became dedicated to reflecting on not just Samoan musicality and its potential application with alternative soundscapes but my own language and fa’asamoa. I learnt alot about my gafa (whakapapa) that year, thus I chose LEAO as the name of the project in homage to the Leao matai ali’i title in Lalomauga.
How important is the Samoan language in your art?
It’s the most important symbol I can communicate in my art and in terms of trying to communicate a Samoan worldview, both lyrically and aurally, the language embodies that essence intrinsically. It’s also significant in the fact that when I started this project my gagana Samoa was close to zilt. Growing up passive bilingual always garnered feelings of cultural anxiety, thus navigating that through the medium of music was super grounding for my cultural identity and personal growth. It’s a strong theme that I try to communicate with the art that for Samoans, or any Pasifika, living in diasporic realities, that learning your cultural languages is a journey and it’s okay to not feel confident in it. There are lyrics I intentionally left grammatically incorrect because I felt like it was important to be transparent, that at that stage of my life, my gagana wasn’t perfect—and it still isn’t, but we still continue to learn.
Part of your artistry has an element of cultural reconnection. Have you always been connected to your culture? Or has that been a journey for you reconnecting with your culture?
I guess in the past I felt like I wasn’t as due to particular life events, I was not frequent to experiences which I believed to be ‘Samoan’, such as speaking Samoan at home, going to church or even extended family events. I’ve now come to a space of realisation, or perhaps just better ability to reflect more earnestly, that my past feelings of disconnection stemmed from internalisations of colonial constructs of being which are rigid and monolithic. Expressions of Samoaness are so diverse and it’s a privilege to be able to contribute to that talanoa in my own unique way. It took a lot of interpersonal talanoa with others and active seeking of resources to support my journey of cultural reconnection, but I am really grateful to continue navigating it with a lot of alofa and openness.
As a Samoan artist, how does your culture inform your art?
It informs it, as you’d imagine, in a very powerful, spiritual, and emotional way. I spent a lot of time researching and reflecting on what particular symbols do we as Samoans share, and in being cognisant that I am applying culture to a very unconventional context of sound, I want to make sure that it sounds distinctly Samoan before anything else. This is immediately present in language, especially in acknowledging language as a vessel for culture and cultural perspectives, but also in heavy emphasis on ensemble guitars, lali/pātē (log drums), ocean samples, and choral harmony sections. Emotionality is also a massive theme of my praxis. I believe it weaves culture with the art as hearing, let alone reproducing, these sonic symbols conjure a lot of feelings and memories that are specific to collective notions of Samoanness. The first time I listened to the playback of ‘VALE PAIA’, I cried because it brought up memories of the ocean, watching Samoan choir VHS tapes with my Dad, doing chores outside and hearing the broken radio play out. Furthermore, lyrically being able to employ metaphorical forms of narrative that could only be communicated in the Samoan language adds to the significance that culture has on the artform. I don’t believe I would be making music in the capacity I do if it wasn’t to explore and employ cultural perspectives and forms of discourse.
Your music and chosen sound is not the music that many would associate with a Samoan artist. Tell me about your use of alternative soundscapes to communicate cultural-personal tensions. Is there a desire to contend what Samoanness feels and sounds like?
Honestly, it was initially an aesthetic choice and I wanted to experiment with something fun for me. I love alternative, lofi sounds, so I really just wanted to see whether it would work within a Samoan context. I think it wasn’t until halfway through making GHOST ROADS that I realised the deeper dimensions of what I was doing. I was well aware that in regards to conversation of Samoan music, there was a set, albeit very localised, idea of what Samoan music sounds like, thus wanting to provide another musical perspective would help open up more accessifying conversation for not just more diverse music but diverse Samoan perspectives. I wouldn’t say it’s a desire to contend what Samoanness is, but by bringing to bear perceptual tensions of how we imagine Samoanness, hopefully create opportunities for more holistic and deeper connections to be made.
I often talk about our people (Polynesians) about having to walk between worlds. Can you talk about the difficulty of having to navigate different spaces? How do your many identities inform your music?
Hmmm tricky question. I guess growing up as Brown bodies in a colonial system, code-switching is sort of second nature, but it definitely doesn’t dismiss the fact that there are real tensions experienced in all realities we navigate. I moved around a lot, which meant that I took for granted my experiences of not just meeting a lot of different people but reflecting on the differences between me and others, then learning to negotiate those differences. I think in pursuing this kaupapa with LEAO and Noa Records, initiatives grounded in Moana cultural values and knowledge, I think I’ve become more sensitive to the spaces I navigate as I am super aware that people, particularly pālagi, do not recognise tikanga or the cultural nuance in which we contribute and that can be really emotionally and spiritually draining if not careful. In regards to identities and music, multiplicity is definitely centred in the approach that the project is a vessel for active ancestral talanoa. Whatever and whichever voices or identities come to express itself through particular songs remain fluid and being open to that is important. A friend once described the music as “the most Auckland shit [they] have ever heard” and within that even is a conversation of what an ‘Auckland’ identity is and its musical implication.
I spoke to Efeso Collins and we discussed the new generation of young Pacific Islanders coming through. There was a point made that these younger generations of Pacific people want to be more than what has come before them, and define what it means to be Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island for themselves. Is that something that you’ve thought about? What does it mean to be Samoan to you?
Pacific youth redefining their interpersonal and expressive realities is already happening and I believe it has been happening for as long as Pacific youth have been in Aotearoa, at least on a local underground level anyways. I think it’s a case of creating more accessible and culturally safe platforms and spaces for diverse Pacific youth to be themselves. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about and working towards contributing and facilitating, especially with other Moana creators. I look towards groups such as Unfold, Period7, Kuini Qontrol, and FAFSWAG, who do amazing mahi in facilitating diverse works and platforms for Pacific people to engage with. Tautua —service—is integral to creating programming and resources that meets youth needs and uplifts their voices.
Being Samoan to me, in a super succinct way, is to centre reciprocity and alofa in all relational aspects of life. For me the fa’asamoa is rooted in nurturing and sharing love, hence why this LEAO is super important to me in practising those values, practising my fa’asamoa.
Is there a piece of wisdom that you’d like to leave us with?
“E lele le toloa, ae ma’au ile vai”—The duck flies but will always return to water. An alagaupu, a Samoan proverb, that has always stuck with me as it’s a reminder to flow presently and gracefully in our diverse contexts and relationships. We may go through phases where we don’t feel connected to our cultural identity, but our culture will always be our inheritance and will welcome us wholly and forever when we are ready to.