Monday, January 23, 2017

About the song 'Isa Lei'

Notes are from Rod Ewins.
(Fijian song of sad farewell)

Isa, isa, vulagi lasa dina

Nomu lako au na rarawa kina

Na cava beka ko a mai cakava

Nomu lako au na sega ni lasa.

Isa lei, na noqu rarawa

Ni ko sa na vodo e na mataka
Bau nanuma, na nodatou lasa

Mai Suva nanuma tiko ga.

Vanua rogo na nomuni vanua

Kena ca ni levu tu na ua

Lomaqu voli meu bau butuka

Tovolea ke balavu na bula


Domoni dina na nomu yanuyanu

Kena kau wale na salusalu

Moce lolo, bua, na kukuwalu

Lagakali, ma ba na rosi damu.

(Repeat last line slowly and with much feeling).
I have never seen published anything even approaching an accurate translation of these words — those in the famous Seekers recording are schmaltzy and inadequate.

Because I am frequently asked, while I make no great claims for it, what follows is my pretty literal translation (I make no attempt to turn it into rhyme):  

Alas, alas, most welcome guest, your going fills me with sorrow. Whatever the reason you came, I feel bereft at your leaving.


Oh, such sadness! I will feel so forlornwhen you sail away tomorrow.
 Please remember the joy we shared — In Suva [or wherever the song is being sung], you will always be remembered.
Your country is so well known, if the seas weren't so rough, I'd wish to brave them and live out a long life there.
Your island is indeed well known, garlanded with forests of mocelolo, bua, kukuwalu, the scented lagakali, and surrounding all, red roses.
A transcription and translation of this was published by C.J. Morey in 1933 under the title "A modern song of parting, Fiji", in the Journal of the Polynesian Society 42(166):106. He attempted to turn it into English poetry, which while an understandable ambition means that his translation is even looser than mine.
To anyone who speaks any Fijian it is painful to listen to the Seekers' mangling of the pronunciation and omission of "m"s and "n"s etc. from Fijian words, so I can't bring myself to include a link to this version on You-tube. You can find it there for yourself if you must.
It is hard to go past the beautiful male voices in this version, sung by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces Band at the Edinburgh Tattoo in 1998. You can watch the whole thing of course, but for Isa Lei go scroll through to 3.57. You will have to put up with the unctuous announcer and his erroneous comments about the song, but it is worth just thinking of other things until they come into their own. Beautiful.

For one of the most authentic versions of it, that takes me right back to the way one usually heard it sung in villages etc., , I recommend the following recorded by Joan Herrington when she heard it Sung in 1957 .

And finally, a very polished version, beautifully sung by women only (the students of Adi Cakobau School), is, unfortunately, a bit too up-tempo for this sad song of farewell, but still worth a listen for the lovely voices and harmonies:


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful song. Can you say what "Isa Lei" means?

Unknown said...

Hello Kevin, The words 'Isa Lei' mean something like 'Oh dear!'. It's used a lot when you want to express your disappointment or sorrow. (From Wendy).

Unknown said...

Thanks Wendy. So is "lei" a word for "dear"? I wonder if it is related to the Hawaiian lei.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

'Isa' is the word that shows regret or disappointment, and can be said by itself. When you add 'lei' I'm not sure what it means but when I looked it up, 'lei' usually means a garland in Hawaii, but also as a metaphor for 'sweetheart' so maybe that fits.