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Samoa Travel Guide

Printing Cloth
a group of young Samoans
printing cloth by hand

Arts and Crafts

The Samoan love of elaborate ceremony is illustrated in the fine mat (ie toga). Exquisitely and tightly plaited from finely split pandanus leaves, a good example might take a woman a year of her spare time to complete. Fine mats are prized family heirlooms used as dowries, etc., and they increase in value as they're passed from person to person at ceremonial exchanges (lafo). Mats of this kind cannot be purchased.

Samoan tapa cloth (siapo) is decorated by rubbing the tapa over an inked board bearing the desired pattern in relief. In Samoa the designs are usually geometric, but with a symbolism based on natural objects.

Traditional woodcarving includes kava bowls, drums, orator's staffs, and war clubs. In Tonga and Fiji, kava bowls have only four circular legs, while Samoan bowls are usually circular with a dozen or more round legs. A large kava bowl is an impressive object to carry home if you have six or seven kilograms to spare in your baggage allowance.

Paradoxically, although carved from endangered trees such as the ifilele, the local production of kava bowls actually helps protect the rainforests, because it greatly increases the value of the trees in the eyes of local villagers who become far less willing to sign away their timber rights for a pittance. A tree used to make handicrafts could be worth S$2,000 while a logging company would only pay about S$30 to cut it down. Beware of turtle-shell jewelry, which is prohibited entry into many countries.

If what you see in the craft shops of Samoa seems less impressive than what you might encounter in some other Pacific countries, remember that oratory and tattooing were the maximum expressions of Samoan culture, followed by the kava ceremony itself.

Dance

The sasa is a synchronized group dance in which the rhythm is maintained by clapping or by beating on a rolled mat or drum. The siva is a graceful, flowing dance in which the individual is allowed to express him/herself as he/she sees fit. The fa'ataupati, or slap dance, employs body percussion. Knife-fire dances are done solo or in small groups, and they can be dangerous to the performers. Tradition holds that only men who are afraid will be burned during the fire dance. The waving of flaming weapons was originally done in times of war, to warn a tribe of approaching enemies.