A Decade of Dominance

A Pacific voice has triumphed at every Lexus Song Quest competition since 2009. With the addition of 2018’s winner, Niuafolau Joel Amosa, the last five winners of the biennial opera singing competition have all been of Samoan descent. LAUMATA LAUANO explores the phenomenon, as published in issue 72 of SPASIFIK



Ask most young Samoans what their favourite genre of music is, you could safely assume the answer you’re least likely to hear is opera.


That’s not due to a shortage of Samoan Opera singers. In fact the last five winners of the country’s most prestigious singing competition The Lexus Song Quest (LSQ) are all Samoan. Wellingtonian soprano Aivale Cole (born Mabel Faletolu) who now lives in London with her family, describes the dominance as “heartwarming and encouraging”.


“It’s wonderful to see young Pacific Islanders, both male and female, finding their voices within the classical genre,” she says.


“The fact that they think it’s cool to sing classical is a huge step in our culture.”


The first Samoan to win the Lexus Song Quest was Jonathan Lemalu in 1998 (then named The Mobil Song Quest). Aivale, from the villages of Moata’a and Fasito’outa, began the current streak that has seen Samoan after Samoan rise and emerge as winners.


2012 saw Amita’i Pati of Tanugamanono, Upolu and Satupa’itea, Savai’I take out the competition. The tenor, one-third of the hugely popular Sol3 Mio (who has featured in SPASIFIK Issue 59), is proud to be part of a path opening to young Samoan singers to pursue classical music.


“I’m honoured to be part of a Samoan Opera singing legacy,” says Amita’i, and I’d like to think we’ve helped break the mould and opened a path to allow young Samoan singers, who may have been too afraid to step up and do the same.”


The thought is echoed by 2014’s winner, soprano Isabella Moore, whose parents come from Vaivase, Apia and Faleapuna with ties to Malie.


“I love that young, aspiring Pacific opera singers can look at the previous winners and see people of a similar background, culture and heritage and think, maybe I can do it too!


“That’s how I felt when I saw Aivale Cole win in 2009! She inspired me, and I hope that I can maybe be someone’s inspiration too.”



Benson Wilson (featured in SPASIFIK Issue 68), of Saluafata, Fagali’i, Fugalei and Siumu, winner in 2016, says it’s a blessing to have his name next to such talented Samoan Opera singers.


While he looks forward to seeing the next generation of Pasifika opera singers he puts his and every Samoan’s success down to the support of everyone behind each winner.


“E lē sili le ta’i nai lo le tapuai,” says the South Auckland-born and raised Samoan, whose family moved to the Hawke’s Bay when he was still in school.


“Without the support of our villages (families, friends and supporters) I don’t think this would have been possible. Music plays such a big part in our cultures. Whether you can sing or not, you’re expected to take part.”


Niuafolau Joel Amosa, the most recent winner whose parents hail from the villages of Vaiala and Magiagi, was still reeling from the emotion of the win weeks after the competition.


“I’m still overwhelmed and still surprised … to be honest … but it’s definitely validated a lot of things,” says the 28-year-old former Dilworth old boy who works fulltime as the Regional Admin Manager for ASB Bank.


South Auckland born-and-raised, Joel says he tries to take his culture and song with him wherever he goes. But he also admits that although singing for a long time - having gained a Bachelor of Music majoring in Classical Music Performance at Otago in 2011 before completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Music (in Performance) in 2013 - Joel says his road to LSQ was initially plagued with self-doubt.



In the five years since, he evolved, matured and believed in himself more. The strong Pacific presence in the competition also made the environment easier for him.


“It was just awesome, such a good vibe,” says Joel, “and you know in any situation where you hang out with islanders … you just click.


“It’s kinda like a family, a real big family vibe. You’ve got each other’s backs and you’re not there to bring each other down.”


So comfortable was Joel in the environment and so confident in his voice, when he reached the finals, Joel chose pieces he felt he could do at the drop of a hat. It allowed him to showcase his own showmanship, stagecraft and presence.


“My favourite songs are probably not as difficult technically as some of the others, but in the end keeping it simple does well and knowing it helped with the execution.”


Lisa Gasteen, head judge and internationally acclaimed Australian operatic soprano, says that although the 2018 finalists were very even in terms of talent on the stage, Joel’s performance spoke to her.


“He just didn’t put a foot wrong,” says Lisa. “I couldn’t really fault him in any way. He was the singer who moved me.”


As the adjudicator, Lisa says the Pacific presence in the competition was something New Zealand could boast having over Australia.



“We don’t have that in Australia,” she says. “I’m sure there are tons of Pacific people who sing, but in my experience, there are very, very few of them coming through into opera.


“It’s obviously something very strong in New Zealand because there are so many Pacific Islanders there,” she says.


“I also believe the strong church culture sees people growing up singing from a very young age … it’s just very much part of who they are … being completely natural to them.”


According to NZ Fest Director Marnie Karmelita, each LSQ brings with it the highest calibre of finalists. This year was no different.


“The last five winners have all been of Samoan descent and I think we see a combination of talent, a background in singing from an early age, commitment, hard work and passion in all of them.”


Joel says he never really thought about the ethnicity of the last four winners, let alone five following his own win, until after a function when they took a photo together.



“As the photo was taken, someone pointed out that four of the five recent Lexus Song Quest Winners were all Samoans,” Joel recalls, laughing as they looked at each other with pride and slightly stunned at the realisation.


“Then one of the boys, Amita’i’s brother Pene said, ‘you beat the odds … there were two Tongans, and two Palagis, but you made it.’


“I didn’t even think about it … but, at the end of the day, I was just there to do my best and whatever happens, happens.


“To be part of that kind of legacy, and to etch myself into that list, is cool.”

This article was first published in issue 72 of SPASIFIK Magazine, read this and more articles like it in the latest issue of SPASIFIK, out now.