Dr Andrew Faleatua, the 2024 Jazz Composer in Residence at the New Zealand School of Music. The residency will give him a chance “to go full throttle into a fusion of traditional Sāmoan instruments with a jazz ensemble.” (Photo supplied)

Typically, for the son of a Sāmoan church minister, Andrew Faleatua had to learn the piano when he was a kid. Classical piano, of course, which he didn’t much like.

Luckily (and not so typically), he found his way to jazz piano, which, after a master’s degree from Auckland University and a PhD from Sydney University, now sees him working as a composer and educator. He’s also just been named this year’s Jazz Composer in Residence with the New Zealand School of Music, at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University, in Wellington. Here he is talking to Dale.


Kia ora, Andrew. It’s lovely to have a kōrero with you about music and how important that is to us as people. I wonder if you could start by sharing some kōrero about your whānau and your villages, and your name.

My surname is Faleatua, which means “house of God”. It’s fitting because my father and grandfather and a lot of my uncles are faife‘au, or pastors. Dad, Keleva, is from the village of Lufilufi in Upolu. His father is from the village of Gataivai in Savai‘i, and his mother’s from the village of Salua on Manono Island.

I’m very proud of my surname, and I’m proud of my Sāmoan heritage. A lot of that heritage is woven through my music. My decision to express my Sāmoan identity musically comes out of a long journey of discovering my Sāmoan heritage. I didn’t grow up in Sāmoa so I didn’t have lots of gagana Sāmoa around me, or a strong foundation in fa’a-Sāmoa.

I grew up in New Zealand, so it’s been more in my adult years that I’ve been exploring the Sāmoan part of my bloodline.

Where did you grow up?

I spent my childhood in Pleasant Point, which is a beautiful little country town near Timaru. It’s my mother’s hometown. Mum’s family is originally from Cornwall, England. When Mum was a teenager, her parents went to Sāmoa as missionaries, and that’s how she met Dad. They were married in Sāmoa, and then they moved to Pleasant Point.

We lived there until I was about 10 or 11, and then we moved to Dunedin where Dad trained to be a minister at Knox College. After that, Dad took on a church in Tāmaki Makaurau, the Rosehill Presbyterian church in Papakura.

About five or six years later, we moved to Pukekohe when Dad became the pastor of St James Presbyterian church. He’s still ministering there. Mum got a job teaching at Tuakau primary school, just out of Pukekohe. She’s still teaching there and is heavily involved in church ministry too. Mum’s a superwoman. She’s always been able to juggle everything along with being an awesome mother to 10 kids.

I have nine siblings, so I learned how to share and get good with those hand-me-downs. We’ve always been musical from the get-go because Mum and Dad had us singing together as a family, at home and at church.

My siblings are Daniel, Simon, Timothy, Rasela-Joy, Joshua, Hana, Nathan, Faleatua and Sara. My oldest brother is 40 and my youngest sister is around 22 or 23. I lose track of all the ages and birthdays. But, yeah, big family. Very proud of them all. Everyone’s very musical and they’re now living all over Aotearoa, and some are overseas.

You’re a keyboard guy. What other instruments do your brothers and sisters play?

They’re all-rounders. They can all play guitar, and they can all play drums, and they can all sing. And the funny thing is, I’m a composer, but I can’t play guitar as well as any of them, or drum or sing as well as any of them.

They’re all very talented musically, but I’m the only one who decided to pursue music seriously.

Two of my brothers are chefs, one of them in Seattle. One owns a construction company, and another owns a dance film company in London. Then we have a financial analyst and a builder. With my sisters, one’s a physiotherapist, another is a law student, and one just graduated with a bachelor’s in social work.

The Faleatua ‘āiga. Mum Sandra, dad Keleva, and all 10 siblings. (Supplied)

Let’s talk about your love of jazz. What is it about jazz that appeals to you?

The thing that appeals to me most about jazz is its freedom of expression. I also love playing off the page. I grew up playing classical piano. Mum and Dad put me into lessons, which I’m grateful for now, because it gave me a solid foundation for music theory and reading music. But I did go through a phase of really not liking piano lessons, and I think it was because it was just so restrictive, which is just the nature of classical piano training.

I went through the Trinity School of Music programme, and I found it useful but stressful. You practise and practise and practise a piece of music, and you memorise every note, but just the fear of making one wrong move was quite stressful.

So I associated music in my early days with a fair bit of pressure, because if you make a mistake, there’s nothing you can do about it. Whereas with jazz, if you make a mistake, you don’t treat it as a mistake, you just form a new musical line. And some of the best phrases come from those so-called mistakes. I love that about jazz — the spontaneity, the freedom of expression, the fluidity.

I credit my change of direction from classical to jazz to a childhood friend, Toma Amosa. The Amosa family were in the ministry as well, and our family became close friends with them back in Pleasant Point. They were a bit older than us, the Amosa boys. Toma was my piano hero, and he would improvise a lot. Here’s me learning my classical piano pieces note for note, but this guy Toma, wow, he could improvise, he could just play anything in the moment. And that struck me as awesome. So I started to try and improvise around simple chords, just little frilly bits here and there, not really knowing what I was doing.

Fast-forward to my time at the University of Auckland. I was doing a Bachelor of Arts, and I took a general education paper in music. And it was in those lectures that I had this epiphany that I’d love to do music properly, like formally study music.

I went to the lecturer and said: “Hey, I really, really enjoy this paper.” I was just talking to him casually. And he said: “Andrew, why don’t you play me a song?” I played him a piece of music, just improvising around a song that I knew, though I can’t remember exactly what it was. And he said to me: “Wow, you’ve got a beautiful touch. You should enrol in the jazz programme.”

So I went to the jazz department, had an audition, and they said to me: “Can you solo for us?” And I honestly didn’t know what a solo was. I was completely ignorant of how jazz worked, the mechanics of it all. I didn’t learn formally how to construct a solo and understand jazz harmony until later.

Anyway, in the audition, I just mucked around playing whatever came to mind, but it was enough to show the panel my potential. They enrolled me into a few prerequisite music courses so I could get into the Bachelor of Music programme, which I was able to do alongside my BA courses. It was a bit of a complicated transition but well worth it in the end.

I love jazz harmony. I love that jazz is a vehicle of expression. And I think that’s what’s opened the door for me to express this part of my cultural identity, and to thinking, well, I can weave together Pacific rhythms and the jazz idiom. I can use dance rhythms, like for the sāsā or the ‘ailao or the fa‘ataupati, and I can fuse those with jazz and express who I am in this unique way. Because the vehicle of jazz is so open. It’s a blank canvas every time, and there are possibilities in the air.  

There’s also the social side of jamming with others. Hanging out with friends, just vibing off each other. I’d say that those two things, improvisation and group interaction, are at the core of it for me.

Andrew’s parents Keleva and Sandra in Sāmoa. (Supplied)

Can you give some examples of projects where you’ve used the traditional sounds of Sāmoa or of Aotearoa to give a unique experience for the audience?

There are many different contexts that I work in with music. I’ve worked as a film composer for years, and a lot of my projects have been involved with the Pacific in some way. They’re not always overtly Sāmoan, but a lot of my interactions are with people from various Pacific nations. I’ve weaved together contemporary pop music with traditional Pacific musical elements for film scores. I featured taonga puoro in my songs for the Once a Panther podcast, to pay tribute to tangata whenua and the whenua on which the Polynesian Panthers movement took place.

But when it comes to jazz, that’s sort of new territory for exploring this fusion. I’ve done a little bit of it here and there. And even in my doctoral research, I started to experiment with some compositional fusions of Cook Islands log-drumming rhythms with jazz piano improv.

I think this residency will be the first time that I get a chance to go full throttle into a fusion of traditional Sāmoan instruments with a jazz ensemble. And I might also bring in other musical and dance traditions as well. I have a lot of friends from different Pacific backgrounds who I’ve jammed with, and their Island jams are also part of my history and lived experience as a Pasifika person in New Zealand.

Congratulations on becoming a Creative New Zealand jazz composer in residence. I’m interested in your doctoral research as well. And very pleased to be able to call you “doc”. That’s a feather in your cap. Are you the first of the whānau to be called Doctor, Andrew?

Thank you. I appreciate the encouragement. Yeah, I’m the first doctor in the family, though a lot of my family, especially some of my uncles, are so knowledgeable and well-versed in Sāmoan history and culture, I feel like a lot of them deserve PhDs. But I’m the first to formally hold that title. So I’m really proud of that.

The way I framed my doctoral research was through ethnomusicology, the study of musical cultures. I wanted to explore how I could bring together contemporary forms of music with traditional Sāmoan music to create new music. It was a convergence of the past and the present for me.

I’ve always loved paying homage to the past. I think it’s just part of my nature, respecting my elders. And that’s happened with my music as well. I suppose it’s the whole concept of bringing the village with me, bringing my whakapapa into my present-day music.

The question was: “How can I fuse traditional Sāmoan musical elements with contemporary popular musical forms in a culturally respectful manner?” It was all about trying to capture the thoughts and ideas of cultural arts groups. So, essentially, we were creating music together, and I was interviewing them. I was recording our conversations in the studio and asking them: “Is it okay to fuse together traditional Cook Island log drums with these R&B beats and chords? What do you think of that?”

Andrew and Rachel, his wife. (Supplied)

I’m no ethnomusicologist, but we are led to believe, through Elsdon Best and the like, that our people were without melody. We had our waiata tawhito, but they didn’t have the do-re-mi sort of musical scale. And to be honest, not a great drumming culture either, despite how closely related we are to the people of Kuki Airani. Have you given much thought to that? Have Pasifika people been musically colonised?

It’s really interesting reading some of the earliest historical accounts of Sāmoan music and noticing the presence of colonial undertones in the observations of outsiders who’ve gone on to be treated as authorities in the field for years. When I read them, I make sure that I’m hyper aware of the lens they viewed our world through, and the position they wrote from.

With my music, and with my research in recent years, I’ve started to think, hang on a second. The perspectives of the Sāmoan cultural arts group leaders that I’ve interviewed, their stories and their histories that have been passed down orally, and what they think of their music — these are accounts from the rightful knowledge bearers of our musical traditions.

To give you an example, the fagufagu (Sāmoan nose flute), also known as the fa‘a‘i, is often referred to in early academic accounts as an instrument played by children. While this may be true, I’ve also learned from a community of Sāmoan researchers that the fagufagu was played by high chief Malietoa’s bodyguards, who were known as Taumasina, for the purpose of awakening him at the dawn of the day. They also noted that the word fafagu, which is very close to fagufagu, means to wake from sleep, which made total sense to me.

This story highlights the sacred nature of the instrument. After finding this out, I was like, “Wow, okay. I can either treat the fagufagu as something kids played for fun, or a vessel used to awaken royalty that points to a system of nobility and immense respect.”

So, I think that while we can acknowledge and take into account the written history, we should also highlight the views, stories, and mana of the cultural arts groups who are practising Pacific arts daily, especially if they challenge long-held views in academia.

Can you talk about your process for composing music for film? Do you see the image and then write what that image evokes within, or are there other techniques you use so that your musical score can complement what the director is doing?

The first step for me is always having a kōrero with a director or producer and finding out the storyline. If I don’t know the meaning behind the music, then I can get a little bit lost. And, also, there’s less motivation for me if I don’t know the rationale behind the project. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always loved respecting my elders, and I feel the same sort of spirit is in place when it comes to film composition. I’m all about supporting the narrative. How can I get behind it? How can I support what’s happening on screen? After that, the music comes.

A lot of it is instinctual, but there are definitely theoretical ideas that I use. So, for instance, Philip Tagg, a famous musicologist, lays out different approaches on the synchronization of sound to screen. How to support movement, how to juxtapose peaceful music with chaotic visuals so that you might see a war scene with beautiful piano scores.

But I think, ultimately, what drives my music-making process is the spirit of the film. The vision, the purpose, the kaupapa. That’s it in a nutshell for me.

What else do you do? People often have offbeat endeavours to keep them fresh in the mahi that they do. I wondered if you might share with us anything that we might not expect from you.

I love weightlifting. I love powerlifting. I’m a bit of a gym rat. I suppose it’s the endorphins, the serotonin, and the overall euphoria that you get in the gym. I love that. But I also love feeling strong and hitting new goals. I hit the gym probably five times a week, chuck my music on and have a jam on the weights. My wife, Rachel, also loves working out. So it’s a bonding activity where we set goals and track progress together.

Rachel and Andrew Faleatua. (Supplied)

What’s on the horizon for you?

I’m applying for funding to tour the work that comes out of this residency. It would be awesome to go back to Sāmoa, to the Sāmoana jazz festival if that’s an option down the line.

I’m also working on a really cool film project with Jacob Luamanuvae-Su‘a. He has strong ties with Weta Digital where he worked for years, and he’s a prominent figure in the Sāmoan arts community. He’s a top-level animator, and he’s worked on a lot of blockbuster films, like The Marvels and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. I’m working for Jacob now on music for his animation series called Song of Sina, along with a few other well-established composers.

It’s a fantasy adventure animation series set in the ancient world of Pacific legends during a time of war. It’s a thrilling project, and I think it’ll change the face of animation as we know it here in Aotearoa, so I can’t wait for Jacob to release it into the wild.

And, hopefully, there’ll be more of that sort of work for me in the future.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr Andrew Faleatua is a music educator, film composer, and jazz pianist. He has a master’s degree in jazz piano from the University of Auckland and a PhD from the University of Sydney. He has been a visiting fellow at the University of Auckland and the University of Huddersfield in the UK. He’s the 2024 Jazz Composer in Residence for the New Zealand Music School, funded by Creative New Zealand.

Alongside teaching and research, and composing, he also regularly performs as a piano accompanist, and has supported various established local artists in Aotearoa, such as Maisey Rika.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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