David Pouesi: The Musical Brother I Wished I Had Growing Up
The act of playing and singing another songwriter's composition is an intimate one. It's a form of catharsis and connection, learning the song first in order to perform it—the chords, the lyrics, the melodies. Getting them under your fingers and vocal folds first and then in your head. Listening back to the original, singing a line here and there, and then listening back to hear if you got close to the spirit of the original. In learning the song, the performer gets to take a peak into the composer's spirit, his musical influences, years of musical evolution condensed into a 3 to 4 minute song.
That was the first thing I thought of doing to honor this talented young uso upon hearing of his untimely passing last week, covering an original song he had written in honor of his wife, Lori. You can hear my version here.
David Pouesi was the real deal. His death is a huge blow to the Samoan music community, and me—although I missed him by a few years coming up a generation before he arrived on the scene.
I was struck by David's melodicism and pop sensibilities. As a songwriter and producer myself, it occurred to me listening back to the original he wrote for Lori that he had the goods, all the makings of a top-notch songwriter: Super catchy melodies, easy sing-songy lines and lyrics, an economy of arranging, and a keen understanding of pop structure. He knew how to get in and out of sections in pro-level ways that belied his day-gig as a music teacher. In an alternate universe, David could easily have been a hit songwriter in Nashville or Los Angeles plying his trade, writing hits for others and himself. Instead, he devoted himself to his family, his village, his students through the lens of tautua—always serving, teaching, honoring others. Sharing his vision and gift and love of music with the world, building musical community, mentoring young musicians, leading his siblings in concert as the premier local talent in American Samoa.
I missed David by a decade, having been born myself in 1973. I knew his father well, Si'uleo "Chico" Pouesi, who was family to me and mine. Chico, as most knew him, was the head graphic designer for the Samoa News in the late 70s and early 80s, when my father owned the newspaper before selling it to Tolani Teleso in about 1983. Looking back, Chico was an indelible influence on my own creative tendencies, first in art and then in music. I remember him driving me to Milovale's to buy fish and chips for lunch and playing me his own songs from his band's latest cassette tape. His editorial cartoons and ability to draw likenesses of people and make them actually look like them amazed me. He was always playing and singing at company bbqs. Later in life, when he and Sonja opened up their convenience store in Aua, an older me would deliver the newspapers in the early morning hours and I'd see him in a new role, a business owner, managing his own staff and family members. In college when I was occasionally home during the summers, I always made time to stop off and say hi and pay my respects. My connections to David were many: His wife, Lori, is the younger sister of a classmate of mine, Billy, from the graduating class of Marist 1990, and their parents, Mr. and Ms. Bakers were longtime educators and mentors to us students at Marist and Fa'asao when they were separate entities.
On a family trip during Christmas of 2017, I had the honor of sharing the stage with David and his siblings from Banned from the Sun, where they were my backing band for a benefit concert for Pacific Horizons Elementary. We played a bunch of cover songs and some originals that I had written. I was struck by the diversity of styles that David and his band were capable of playing, how comfortable and stylistically appropriate they were. How funky they were. How in the pocket they were. They were more than proficient in R&B, Pop, Funk, Rock, Jazz, Folk, Samoan—you name it, they could do it.
Part of me was envious. I had travelled thousands of miles away to cities like Washington D.C. and Boston and Los Angeles in my 20s and 30s in order to expand my own musical palette that I pulled from. When I was coming up in the music scene back home, there just weren't a lot of musical peers my age to jam and gig and learn songs with. I had missed that generation of instrumentalists and bands from the 70s like Chico, his older brother Paul, the late, great Harry Miller and Ali'imau "JR" Scanlan, Bernard Scanlan, Luis Tuitavuki and family, the Langkilde and Hall boys, guys like Doug Smith, and so many more. I came up in the 80s during the golden era of Hip Hop. We listened to music on boom boxes, and breakdanced to express ourselves. I took piano lessons for a week and stopped. I played a little guitar. But mostly, sang, and made up melodies and little ditties in my head. I was missing my David, someone to push me, to grow musically with alongside me, to learn songs together, to play together. David was the musical brother I never had.
Sitting there on stage next to David and his siblings at the one show we played together, I imagined that if I'd been born just a little bit later, David was the kind of guy I would have been friends with. Maybe his passion for music would have given me a reason to stay home instead of looking for my own musical path in faraway places. In his playing and unique artistic voice, I saw myself in him, an eternally curious musician always looking to get better. I found myself admiring how he and his siblings had created a community of supportive musicians back home in ways I'd never imagined possible. I was floored. By his immense talent, his playing, but perhaps most of all, his mana. His humility.
I was happy and proud to know there were young Samoans out there vibrating the air, carrying on the tradition. Chico and Sonja were in the crowd that night, smiling, taking it all in, looking at what they had created and brought in to this world. It was a beautiful night. I'm so glad I was there to be a part of it. I wished I could have had more with David by my side, his tasty playing next to me, helping me get through the song.
Fa'afetai, David, for inspiring me. Manuia lou malaga, uso. Alofaaga.