Isa Lei, Farewell

If you have had the pleasure of visiting a Fijian island, you may have heard the song, Isa Lei, that is often played as you board the boat to leave and wave farewell. I feel the mourning in this song and, in the same breath, feel the gratitude and love.  This song played at Karen’s memorial service while family and friends placed flowers around the urn that held her ashes.

“We will now listen to Isa Lei, a favourite traditional Fijian farewell song that Karen loved – a song that acknowledges the pain of having to say farewell when it is time to go home – expressing love, friendship, family, the beauty of nature and naming that we may not meet again. This farewell song means the world to Koume, Jen and Karen.

Opening verse

Isa, you are my only treasure
Must you leave me, so lonely and forsaken?
As the roses will miss the sun at dawn,
Every moment my heart for you is yearning.

Chorus

Isa Lei, the purple shadow falling,
Sad the morrow will dawn upon my sorrow,
Oh forget not, when you’re far away
Precious moments at Suva.

Last verse

Over the ocean your island home is calling
Happy country where roses bloom and splendour,
Oh, if I could but journey there beside you
Then forever my heart would sing in rapture”

Here is one version of Isa Lei is sung by Nosi and Mila.

The Island Culture Archival Support writes about Isa Lei,

“In January 18, 1962, The Fiji Times interviewed the Tongan Crown Prince and Premier, Prince Tungi who supported the Tongan noble, Hon Tuivakano who said the song originates from Tonga. Prince Tungi said Tuivakano — then named Siaosi Kiu — was one of a group of singers who formed part of the retinue of his father, the late Prince Tungi, consort of Queen Salote. “The singers were in some ways like the ancient troubadours,” Prince Tungi was quoted as saying. “They sang about the happenings of the day, carried messages in song, and composed words and music suitable for events as they occurred.”

When Prince Tungi’s father became engaged to Queen Salote, Tuivakano wrote a song of love in honor of the occasion. Soon after, it was said, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba, the Tui Nayau at the time, heard the song sung by the Tongan visitors to Fiji.

“The story as I have heard it,” said Prince Tungi, “is that Ratu Tevita asked Inoke Sateki, then a forestry assistant, to write Fijian words to the same tune in honour of a young woman of rank who was living in Fiji. “In Tonga the song is invariably sung with the Tongan, and then the Fijian words,” Prince Tungi added. “Only in Fiji is it sung with the Fijian words alone.”

The Tongan love song was known then as “Ise isa viola lose hina” in memory of the then Princess Salote (later Queen Salote) of Tonga.

Matters were put to rest when the late Tui Nayau himself confirmed to The Fiji Times the actual story. Over a radio telephone link from Lakeba, Lau, Ratu Tevita said the music originated from Tonga but he wrote the iTaukei words.”

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