Her subsequent work in music education, event management, and media have shown her heartfelt desire to push Pacific music forward at every opportunity.
Auva’a began singing in church at just three years old and soon showed an interest in piano. Her love of music continued into her teenage years and she took music as a subject while attending Rosehill College in Papakura. She then switched to St Cuthbert’s in Epsom, a private school which gave her access to their top-class music programme.
She credits having “two amazing vocal teachers” in her teens with helping her develop the voice that would wow audiences in years to come.
“Julie Mason specialised in jazz music and opened my world to that music. When at St Cuth’s, I attended the Monterey Jazz Festival [in California] which was a VIP invitation as the only girls’ high-school stage band. This international jazz festival is really inspired by love of jazz and soul music and many great singers have emerged from it ... Later I was taught by Cheryl [McLeay] who was a contemporary pop vocal coach who focused on body singing and the technique of ‘laryngeal biomechanics.’”
However, after finishing high school Auva’a decided to study law and the arts at University of Auckland rather than enter a music programme. She continued to do music in her own time and a new musical opportunity came in the new millennium when she was spotted by Sam Tu'uga (Jamoa Jam) while singing ‘Have a Little Faith’ with her family on a Christmas TV show. He was putting together an all-female R&B group, which he planned to produce. This led Auva’a to join the line-up of Pacific Soul with Julie Ta'ale, Sharleen Leaso, and Maopa Lomavita.
Pacific Soul gained fans immediately with its bouncy R&B-inflected single, ‘Alright’, which paired strummed ukuleles with a dance-able hip hop beat. It received high-rotate airplay on Mai FM and Niu FM, while the video clip aired on music television channel Juice and request show Most Wanted (broadcast on TV3 and TV4). This was backed up by appearances on TV2 News, Nightline, and Tagata Pasifika.
‘Alright’ broke into the NZ Top 40 in August 2002 and stayed there for five weeks. Pacific Soul’s self-titled debut came out soon after and the following year was awarded Best Pacific Island Album at the NZ Music Awards. Even more impressively, it took out a similar award at the Hawaii Music Awards and would eventually surpass gold, selling in excess of 10,000 copies.
Auva’a rounded out her 2002 by appearing at Christmas In The Park in front of an estimated 200,000 people and the show was also broadcast on nationwide television. She sang ‘Silent Night’ with her younger sister, Latafale Auva'a, who was only 10 years old at the time.
In the meantime, Auva’a found a vehicle for her abilities as a jazz singer. She joined The Artistry, which also featured talented keyboardist Stephanie Brown, later known for her work in Opensouls and as a solo act, LIPS. They were joined in the group by Damian Hauwai (guitar), Junior Turua (bass), and Paul Taylor (drums).
The Artistry covered Che Fu’s ‘Misty Frequencies’ for the APRA Silver Scroll Awards in 2002 and went on to perform at the Soultana Festival and at the Auckland Festival (both in 2003). Unfortunately they weren’t able to release many recordings, though their song ‘Preachin’ appeared on a charity album, Triumph – NZ Music Supports: The Breast Cancer Research Trust (2004). Auva’a’s strength as a jazz singer also saw her perform at the Sydney International Jazz Festival.
Auva’a also found time to record music in the Samoan language with a short-lived group called the “All Stars” alongside her Pacific Soul bandmate, Julie Ta’ale, plus renowned soul singer Lapi Mariner and Marina Davis (Ma-V-Elle). Their album, Pele ea, came out in 2003. She and Ta’ale parted ways with Pacific Soul at this point, though the group did continue with a new line-up and recorded another top-selling album, The Collaboration (2003).
By 2004, Auva’a was only 22 years old, but she had already recorded a hit album with Pacific Soul and toured extensively overseas, so it seemed like the perfect time to attempt a solo album. She decided that it would be split evenly between modern R&B tracks and ones that drew directly from her Samoan roots.
The resulting album, Sara-Jane (2005), showed her ability to fuse modern R&B with a uniquely Pacific flavour.
Keith Milbank of Milburn Studios produced the R&B style tracks in New Zealand, but Auva’a also received funding from Creative NZ and the Pacific Business Trust so she could record the other half of the album with Victor Keil of Keila Records at his studio in Apia (she’d worked previously with him in Aotearoa, so knew they’d work well together).
The resulting album, Sara-Jane (2005), showed her ability to fuse modern R&B with a uniquely Pacific flavour. On one hand, there were tracks that adopted a US-inspired sound, such as the soulful ballad ‘You Are’ and the up-tempo dance number ‘Bounz To This’. These sat alongside other tracks like ‘Leafaitulagi’ which begins with Pate Samoan slit drums playing over electronic handclaps, before Auva’a’s sweet vocals swoop in and the track gets going in earnest with the addition of ukuleles and a thumping hip hop beat. The album led to another win at the NZ Music Awards and, by that stage, the Pacific Music Awards had also started up, which led to Auva’a taking out Best Pacific Female Artist at the inaugural event.
Auva’a kept up with her university studies through the entire time and in 2005 graduated with a BA/LLB to become a qualified lawyer. She believes her upbringing played a crucial part in her achievements. “It wasn’t easy, it took discipline, focus and prayer. It was also a testament to my parents who instilled in me strong values as a child, plus I was the oldest in my family and had to set an example.”
The first high-profile job that Auva’a had post-degree was as a television presenter for shows about the school cultural festival Polyfest, and music competition, Pasifika Beats. This made sense, given that during the intervening years she’d sung many times on television shows such as Breakfast, Good Morning, and Big Time. She ended the year by undertaking a tour of the US, visiting eight states.
She remembers her various overseas travels as being a wonderful experience. “When I toured Washington I had a special VIP tour of the US Capitol and was invited to the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony. I met Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson on tour when in Samoa and connected about finding our Samoa heritage. Beforehand I was told to sing the song ‘Tali Maia’ as that was his mum’s favourite and I might have the chance to meet him backstage for a chat, which worked!
“In Pacific Soul, when touring Tahiti, our song ‘Afai e te Alofa’ ranked high on the Top 10 charts and we were asked to attend the Heiva Festival as special guests. I have many memories of our local communities in the US putting on incredible green rooms filled with all the sweets, lollies and VIP drinks one could imagine as a young singer – we loved it as Pacific Soul.”
She used her experience in the music industry to start her own entertainment company.
Auva’a started 2006 as project manager for the Parachute Christian music festival. Then in April she took her television career even further by becoming a programme manager at TVNZ, working on top rating shows such as Sunday, 20/20, and Fair Go.
The following year, she used her experience in the music industry to start her own entertainment company, Sara-Jane Ltd, which focused on providing professional backing to artists who play Pacific, gospel, or jazz music. This led to consultancy work around music education and creative enterprise. She was a tutor for five years at MAINZ, teaching within the Music Management Programme and the Creative Enterprise programmes.
It might have seemed that Auva’a was now too busy to continue with her own career, but she released two further albums in this two-year period: gospel album Rejoice (2006) and festive jazz album Christmas (2007). She was nominated again for Best Pacific Female Artist at the Pacific Music Awards in 2007.
Her live performances slowed down over the years that followed, but still included some big shows. In 2010 Auva’a appeared at the World Expo Samoa day in Shanghai, China. She made occasional appearances at the annual Pasifika event in Auckland and became a regular feature at Christmas in the Park in her hometown of Papakura.
Auva’a then added another string to her bow by releasing her first academic piece of writing – ‘Home, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa’ (2011) – which explored the rise of the New Zealand Pacific Music Awards (the essay came out of her honours degree in ethnomusicology). She took her law career one step further, being admitted to the bar as a registered solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand in 2012.
It was during this period she took on the role of music and creative director at Greenlane Christian Centre, one of the largest city churches in Auckland with a congregation of 2000. She led a music and creative team of up to 200 volunteers on large-scale Easter and Christmas productions. One event was so popular it even gained the attention of TVNZ One News – the church’s “Christmas Drive thru” event saw 10,000 visitors attend over a 10-day period. She also released a contemporary album of hymns, Reflections (2010), recorded at York Street Recording Studios in Parnell.
This period was a time of change for Auva’a, but she retained her passion for working in the creative industry. “After I had children, I had a new focus and time to be with my kids. My husband is an incredible supporter of my music and life purpose. When the time was right, I went back into work via education and lecturing in creative enterprise. This transitioned into governance work and, as new opportunities, I took the most of them – including the opportunity to be interim CEO of a media network. This work has utilised all my skills in law, business and music.”
Sara-Jane Auva’a was named Sara-Jane Elika by this stage, having married her partner, Leaupepe Ta’ala Ralph Elika, in 2007. The pair started their own consulting firm, Elika Consulting Group, and 2019 she also took up an interim role as CEO of PMN – Pacific Media Network – which includes radio stations Niu FM, 531pi, and PMN News.
In 2019, she also came up with the idea for the Pacific Divas National Identity Tour.
This was a huge period in PMN’s history, since they announced Sky TV as a new broadcast partner, which allowed the stations to connect with a wider New Zealand and Pacific audience, plus a broadcast on Prime TV. PMN also attracted mainstream attention during this time through appearances on The Project (TV3) and The Cafe (TVNZ).
In 2019 Sara-Jane also came up with the idea for the Pacific Divas National Identity Tour. The tour showcased the very best of Pacific female artists across Aotearoa, connecting Aaradhna, Annie Crummer, Betty-Anne Monga, Bella Kalolo, RAZÉ, Pacific Soul, Lole, Annie Grace and Cindy of Samoa, all in one show.
“It’s a platform that celebrates our unique Pacific music and culture across New Zealand, showcasing and providing inspiration and pathways for our young aspiring artists. The tour supports our commitment to the education of our young Pasifika peoples and the realities of the creative arts.”
As always, her love of music shines through all of her work, whether as a performer, manager or advisor. What’s more, whenever she is given the opportunity to sing, her voice remains as powerful and pure as when she first started.
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