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Afio Ane Loa: Tree’s Anthem of Cultural Reclamation

In the thriving world of New Zealand’s diverse and dynamic music scene, few artists have embarked on a more profound journey of self-discovery than Katerina Rosera Lilian Vaifale Manu, known by her stage name “TREE.”

Over the years, the 31 year old award winning musician from the villages of Leauvaa, Moataa, Saleimoa, and Salelologa has struggled with connecting to her cultural identity as a Samoan raised in New Zealand. In a powerful testament to her determination, she finally overcame her fears and embarked on a transformative journey to reclaim her roots.

Now, as she prepares to perform at Samoa’s monumental Motherland concert on Saturday 3 June at Apia Park Stadium, Tree reflects on her excitement and the significance of returning to her homeland as a solo artist. After an eleven-year absence, she can’t contain her emotions.

 “I honestly don’t have any words,” she confesses. “Since my journey of reconnecting to my motherland, I’ve yearned to go back home. Being able to perform my song ‘Afio Ane Loa’ there is so surreal, and it’s a special way for me to give back and be among our people.”

Accompanied by her parents, daughter, and older sister, Tree reminisces about her childhood in Moata’a, where she grew up just across the road from Apia Park Stadium. She never imagined that one day she would grace its stage. “Growing up and feeling like a minority, I didn’t even dare to dream that big,” she admits. “Performing here was too far-fetched. It’s unbelievable and I’m immensely grateful for this opportunity.”

Tree’s journey of self-discovery has been greatly influenced by her music. Having started singing at the age of seven in the church choir alongside her parents, uncles, and aunties, she found solace and a sense of belonging in music.

It was through an all-female band called “Vivah” that Tree discovered her true passion for music. Although the band initially only jammed together for fun, their unexpected victory in a high school competition propelled Tree towards taking her musical talents seriously.

“We loved the fellowship and connection of sisterhood, we loved to jam music but we weren’t inspired to take it any further than just jamming together,” she said. “It was through that experience that I thought to myself I need to take this seriously, I think I really want to do music.”

Ten years ago, Tree made the decision to pursue a career in music. Coming from a musical family, they recognized her growing passion and actively involved her in their shows, allowing her to contribute as a background vocalist.

Initially, she started by serving tea during practice sessions, gradually immersing herself more and more in the music. It was through this process that Tree discovered her genuine enjoyment and love for music.

“Little by little I had my feet in, and then my whole bottom half of my body in testing the music and I found out I really enjoyed it” reminisced Tree. “My first song recorded and released was actually a feature song I did with Sammy J called ‘Don’t say goodbye’ and the rest is pretty much history.”

Tree’s musical journey reached new heights with the release of her debut album, “Mrs Tree,” on New Year’s Eve 2020. Featuring hit singles like “Can We,” “Me And You,” “Everything To Me,” “No Fear,” and the deeply personal “Afio Ane Loa,” the album charted in the Official NZ Music Charts for 6-7 weeks.

However, it was the latter song that played a significant role in her cultural reclamation. “Afio Ane Loa,” written by Suasua Fuataina from California, was a song she held onto for 14 years, fearful of the response it would receive. But something inside her shifted, and she found the courage to release it.

“I was always scared to touch a Samoan song because our people can be the best encouragers but we can also be the harshest critics” Tree admits. “ However one day, something inside me switched. I began a journey of reclaiming my culture and gathered the strength to finally release the song.”

With the help of cultural advisor Quincy Filiga, the song came to life through music and a video that embraced Samoan culture, symbolizing Tree’s journey and inspiring others.

“He was part of a world-renowned siva group from Saleimoa along with a lot of my family members, as my father’s family are also from there” reveals Tree.

“It was written over 20 years ago. He had written it for his sister’s saofai [title bestowment] along the years a couple of members from the same dance group had taken the song and used it in their performances.

 “As my cultural advisor, Quincy assisted me in bringing the song to life through the making of the music video. “It all holds deep meaning to me, reflecting my personal journey of reconnecting with my culture and becoming a guiding light for others who have faced their own fears, just as I once did.”

Reflecting on the soaring popularity of her song, Tree humbly attributes its success to a higher power. She confesses, “I never anticipated it would explode the way it did, but we poured our hearts and souls into the project. I’m certain that everyone who worked on it felt the same way we did at that time.”

Delving deeper into the song’s resonance, Tree believes its impact lies in the authentic representation it offers to her community. With conviction, she shares, “It’s about being a true reflection of our people. I genuinely believe that the song’s power lies in the ability to see someone who looks just like me, someone who embodies the experiences I longed for during my own upbringing.”

Winning an award for her debut album remains one of Tree’s most cherished achievements to this day. The recognition she received as the winner of the 2021 Pacific Music Awards for Best Pacific Album and Best Pacific Video holds a special place in her heart. Her deepest hope is that her music resonates with people from all walks of life, spreading inspiration and positivity, just as it has done for her.

But Tree’s dreams don’t stop there. She yearns for more, sharing, “I have big goals in mind. Winning a Grammy is something I’ve always envisioned. I also have this burning desire to pour my thoughts into a book. And right now, I’m pouring my soul into my next album. All of this is part of a greater plan, guided by a higher purpose.”

As Tree reflects on her achievements, she acknowledges her mother, Luisa Vaifale, as her biggest inspiration. Her music draws from personal experiences, acting as an outlet for her emotions and a platform to share real-life stories.

“Sometimes music is my outlet for my emotions or it’s my platform to tell stories from real life experiences” Tree explains.  “My mother’s words and actions are the very essence that fuels my journey, inspires my path, and shapes my music to be a true reflection of authenticity, strength, and realness.”

Her songwriting flows from her love for poetry, an art that speaks to her on a profound level. Growing up as the second eldest among five siblings, Tree’s poetry has become a source of joy for her sisters.

She explains, “Writing has always been my passion, and music allows me to express myself in ways I never thought possible. I want to be a guiding light, especially for mothers and Pacific women. There are so many untold stories and untapped wisdom within me that I believe can touch someone’s heart.”

 Tree encourages every Pacific woman to embrace their roots and take pride in their heritage. She shares,

 “Nobody has the same struggles but it’s what we do with those stories, the journey of coming together or working for yourself that makes it beautiful. Whatever your dreams are, whether it is music, you are capable, there’s no time limit on it, whatever age. Anything is possible if you really believe in yourself.”

In a heartfelt message to those who may feel disconnected from their Pacific roots, Tree offers her own experience as guidance.

“If you have the will to learn, you will find a way. It’s not about formal education alone; there are online resources and communities ready to support you. I know it can be daunting at first, but don’t let fear hold you back. It took me five years to regain my confidence in speaking Samoan, but the journey was worth every step. Trust me, if you try, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.”

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