Samoa Mission Eldares sing again

[Story and video by Mike Foley — whose own LDS mission in Samoa partially overlapped the Eldares, originally published in Kaleo, February 2008]

The Eldares, Mormon missionaries in Samoa in 1963
The Eldares, then (left-right): Elders Richard Nielson, Carl Fonoimoana,Wayne Willis, Randy Broadhead with Samoa Mission President John Phillip Hanks. When Elder Broadhead got sick in mid-tour, Elder George Murdock took over for him.

A quartet of former Latter-day Saint missionaries in Samoa — two with ties to Laie — who created and recorded one of the island chain’s most popular songs for many years, will put on a series of concerts on Oahu.

Signature songs of the group include their own famous Masi Samoa, Usi le Fa’afofoga, Fa’alogo Ia, Samoa Silasila and Koko Samoa, among others.

Carl Fonoimoana, a member of the quartet who was born in Laie and is a former Polynesian Cultural Center executive, explained that in 1963 Samoa Mission President John Phillip Hanks decided to form a musical group “in an effort to open the door for missionary work. Four missionaries were selected: Randy Broadhead, Richard “Riki” Nielson, Wayne Willis and myself.”

“Nielson was from Magna, Utah. Broadhead was from Canada. Wayne Willis was from Redondo Beach [California], and I came to the mission from Northern California.”

Willis, who passed away several years ago, was related to the Hannemann family in Laie. “We miss him. He would have enjoyed this revival of the Eldares,” Fonoimoana said. The concert series is dedicated to his memory.

Fonoimoana’s father moved to Laie in 1926. The family moved to California in 1953. Carl and his wife, Nalani Kalama Fonoimoana, moved back to Laie in 1975 and still own a home here; plus they both have numerous relatives in Koolauloa. “Two daughters also recently graduated from BYU-Hawaii and will remain here,” he said.

“We all had musical backgrounds. I think Richard Nielson probably had the most extensive instrumental experience. I had a lot of vocal music background. Randy played the guitar and sang — including lead on Masi Samoa, and Wayne Willis was an excellent ukulele player and added a lot to the sound of our music.”

He added that former Laie resident George Murdock, who’s originally from Mesa, Arizona, and later Utah, joined the group when Broadhead got sick in mid-tour and had to withdraw. Murdock subsequently sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Several of Murdock’s children have graduated from BYU-Hawaii, and he owns a home in Ko Olina. His grandfather also served a mission in Samoa from 1901-04 and named Murdock’s mother Lalovi, after the name of a village where he served.

“President Hanks gave us a charge to learn a new song every day,” Fonoimoana continued. “None of us were into Samoan music. If anything, Wayne and I knew more Hawaiian songs. At BYU [Provo] I was part of a group called the Singing Pineapples. That’s where I really learned to harmonize for a quartet.”

He explained the group started building their repertoire. “A couple of the songs had religious messages, which pertained to the missionary work, so we took those, like Usi le Fa’afofoga — “Give Ear to My Song” — which was written by Alema Fitisemanu. It’s about the challenges of doing missionary work.”

The Eldares started their tour, which included talking chiefs to deal with protocol, in April 1964. “In a typical program, we wrote a song to introduce ourselves and tell them where we were from. They were very interested in that, because it was a different thing to see a palagi [haole] missionary singing…and then when we started singing some of the Samoan songs, it really perked their interest. When we hit Masi Samoa, that brought the house down.”

“It’s a song that talks about this real stink-smelling food, that was created after a hurricane when the bananas and breadfruit would fall to the ground. Rather than waste them, because they couldn’t eat them all at once, they would bury them, and then dig it up when they wanted or needed to eat — sometimes months later. It would have mold, worms, was discolored and it stinks. The Samoans would scrape off the mold and cook it. They developed a taste for it, kind of like limburger cheese.”

“When these white missionaries were singing about how they liked this food, they thought that was the funniest thing,” he said. The rest of the song talks about all of the Samoan food the missionaries would miss when they returned home.

“We put on a show every night, maybe six shows a week, for three or four months in Savaii, Upolu and Manono,” Fonoimoana continued. “Richard Nielson wrote most of the songs. Randy wrote the words for Masi Samoa, and I wrote a couple. The songs that we wrote were kind of reflective of our times and experiences.”

Masi Samoa was originally written with the title Palusami, and I modified the tune of a rock-and-roll song, Hully Gully. We also used that for our song, Peanut Butter,” Fonoimoana said. He added that revered talking chief Leausa suggested they add the masi Samoa focus. “We didn’t know what that was. We thought it meant a [modern sea biscuit or] cracker [which is modern masi]. We thought, we’ll sing about it, but we won’t eat it. We put it in, and that really made the song.”

Listen to the Eldares sing “Masi Samoa”
during their reunion concert at the Polynesian Cultural Center:

The Eldares soon recorded Masi Samoa at the national radio station. “It was a huge hit and remained popular for years,” Fonoimoana said. “It’s sung to this day. In our return trip to Samoa in August ’07 we found that old people are still singing it, you

Fonoimoana recalled the song was made into a 45 rpm record and included on an LP album. “A man named Rankin made 10,000 of the LPs, and it sold out in two weeks.”

eldares_now

The Eldares, now (left-right): Nielson, Murdock, Fonoimoana and Randy Broadhead

He also explained the group reunited for the first time last summer at the request of the current mission president to do a series of concerts in Samoa. Neilson was already there as a senior missionary.

“We were very surprised that people remembered the song. Many thought that we had died, because it was 43 years ago. When we showed up and were interviewed, they were all surprised. They came out in bus loads to see the original Eldares.”

Pulefano Galea’i organized the Oahu concert series. Any donations given at the performances will benefit the LDS Church schools in Sauniatu, Pesega and Vaiola, Samoa, to improve libraries, computers, desks and other classroom materials.