Connecting to Samoan culture through song and language
02 June 2020
When Natasha Urale-Baker enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Work in 2010, she had a dream of completing her bachelors, masters and doctoral studies in ten years. Ten years later, Natasha has nearly completed her PhD, with Samoan language and culture at the heart of her journey.
The eldest of six children, Natasha grew up in Samoa and moved to New Zealand in 1974. Surrounded by artistic parents and siblings, Natasha was naturally a musician, writing songs in Samoan, te reo Māori and English.
In 2010, Natasha’s passion for social justice led her to enrol in undergraduate study at the University of Auckland. She chose the Bachelor of Social Work (Honours) and after excelling in her course, she enrolled in the Master of Social Work, where she explored Samoan young men’s experiences in the Pasifika Youth Court environment.
Natasha’s husband counselled her to take a short break from study in 2014, as he thought her father might pass away in that time. Natasha was the minister at her father's funeral, where she sung an original Samoan song.
“It’s unheard of for a daughter to run a funeral service in Samoan culture, but my dad had asked me to be the minister at his funeral when I was 25. He passed away when I was 51 – I thought he’d change his mind, but he never did. My retention of my Samoan language is very connected to my Vā, which is my relationship with my dad,” Natasha says.
Samoan Language Week is important because language is part of culture, identity and a way of transmitting history.
That experience planted the seed which led to Natasha’s PhD topic: what songs used in Samoan funerals tell us about Fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan way.
“I am very interested in Fa’a Samoa, and I think writing music is all about human expression – connecting to community, a belief system, the person who has passed away, or all of the above. No one has ever done research on this topic, so it’s a lot of pressure.”
Throughout all aspects of life, Natasha has kept her Samoan language and love of music close. While completing her undergraduate study Natasha volunteered at Three Kings Primary School, where she was asked to teach the school choir a song for a fundraiser. She wrote an original song, Fa'afofoga Samoana, which translates to “Samoa, lend me your ear”.
Natasha re-visited and performed Fa'afofoga Samoana a few years later with her daughter, Maila Baker while she was completing her masters study.
“Song is a great way of learning a language,” says Natasha. “My approach to pedagogy is, ‘I’m not going to teach you – I’m going to share something with you and you’re going to pick it up’. I sang the song to those kids over and over, until they picked it up and started singing. By the end of the second practice, they were singing at the top of their lungs. Working with those kids was one of the highlights of my life experiences with music.”
Although she’s on the home stretch of her PhD thesis, Natasha’s not done with learning; she challenges herself to develop her knowledge and skills every day.
“While I was talking to a friend in Samoan the other day, I had to stop her and ask what a word meant. At 57, I am still learning – you never stop learning,” Natasha says.
“Samoan Language Week is important because language is part of culture, identity and a way of transmitting history. For anyone who wants to develop their language, I’d encourage you to be adventurous and brave, ask people questions and listen.”
The theme for 2020 Samoan Language Week is 'Tapena sou ōso mo lau malaga' which in English means 'Prepare yourself a gift for your travels'.