Interview: Opetaia Foa'i from Te Vaka and Moana
Updated: Mar 4
Throughout our time researching music from around the world, one region remained something of a mystery to us – the Pacific Islands. Though we had listened to several albums of both traditional and modern music, the area was still enigmatic. To help us understand more about the music culture of some of the world’s smallest nations, we were delighted to speak with the Pacific’s most renowned musician and composer, Opetaia Foa’i, founder of South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka and song-writer for the Disney smash hit Moana. As the man who has done more than anyone else to bring Pacific Islander culture into the global consciousness, we were keen to speak to him about his career, his approach to music, and the future of the Pacific region.
"Many times [Pacific Islanders] looked at me and said ‘why are you doing this, why are you doing that?’ Because they see it in the Pacific Islands every day, but I just felt that the other side of the planet needed to see it. They needed to see the village.”
Shrouded in mystery, it is not just the modern iteration of Pacific culture that remains unknown to many across the world, but also their rich and varied history, filled with great achievements and moments of pain like any other culture. Perhaps it is their geographical isolation or their small size that has meant that the Pacific Islands have been a relatively quiet voice on the world stage, but for centuries, the stories of the varied people groups that have inhabited the islands have been waiting to be told. However, in 1994, the winds of change started to blow, and one canoe in particular caught this epochal zephyr. “I wrote it in a song called Vakaaitu which describes the event,” Te Vaka founder and frontman Opetaia Foa’i recounted.
Throughout the interview, Foa’i was an amenable and affable fellow, but when we asked him about the origins of the band, Foa’i became more reserved, and at points seemed rather perturbed. “I have never told anybody this, but it is a spiritual connection, Te Vaka began because of a spiritual experience I had which set me on, what you could say, is this ‘mission’”. Having spent close to three decades sharing the stories of the Pacific Islands to people across the world through his music, Foa’i became the person who has arguably done more than anyone else to bring Pacific Islander culture into the global consciousness, which he implies was linked to this experience. “It was just a visit, lots of things that [the ancestors] wanted to communicate, to be aired, it was hard for them to rest in peace,” he told us, visibly moved.
The year of this experience that kickstarted Foa’i’s journey into the exploration of Pacific Islander culture, history, and tradition began when Foa’i and his fellow band members embarked on their first voyage with little experience or evidence to guarantee that they would be a success. Buoyed by the legends of their region’s past, they set off on a European tour having played only a small handful of gigs in New Zealand, under the guidance of Foa’i’s manager, Julie, who eventually became his wife. Little did they know that Julie’s passion for the band would be proved right after a barnstorming first gig in Switzerland. “We don’t do anything in the English language, everything was in the Pacific languages… but I think they appreciated the scope that we were presenting on the stage with them,” he continued. The decision to tour so far afield in Europe rather than in New Zealand was seemingly due to wider New Zealand society not being receptive to music like this at that time, whereas nowadays Te Vaka are the recipients of five Tui Awards, the New Zealand version of the Grammys, demonstrating their evolution from a mere musical curiosity into one of New Zealand’s foremost bands.
Foa’i’s appreciation and love of his culture did not begin in 1994, however. Born in Samoa to parents of Tuvaluan and Tokelauan heritage, he came to live in New Zealand at the age of nine, making him a proud Pacific Islander with influences all over the vast ocean. Though he grew up in a “very poor environment”, where he described being lucky to eat three meals in a week, he fondly recalled the community atmosphere present at the fateles, which were weekly gatherings in which adults would perform dances and songs based on the events on the week. “When it came to these fateles and gatherings, and to perform them to each other, it was such a joyous way to release, it was a fantastic time,” he said. Taking stock and recalling moments in time of island life is something that Foa’i views as integral to carrying forward the traditions and the stories of those that preceded them, as without this ability to bring forward conscious awareness of the basic aspects of life, it is easy to lose appreciation of them.
It was also at these fateles where a young Foa’i’s love for music was first kindled. Not only were the entire community encouraged to sing at these fateles, his uncle was one of the composers of the fateles, who also played guitar and ukulele. “You could say he was the rock star of the time in the village,” Foa’i chuckled, and he remembers looking up to his uncle thinking he would like to emulate his musical abilities. After the move to New Zealand, the fateles did not stop, they simply became more infrequent, taking place on a monthly rather than a weekly basis. This was all part of the culture shock that Foa’i experienced upon moving to Auckland, which he admits, at the time, felt all-encompassing. Not only could he not speak English, the sheer quantity of urban conurbations, bricks, mortar, and concrete shocked the young Foa’i, but the biggest shock was something far more fundamental. “The biggest shock was being put in a room, a room with walls. Back in where I was born, it was just a thatched roof, no walls”, he divulged.
Despite settling well into New Zealand, Foa’i never lost his sense of connection, nor his curiosity towards the islands in which he and his antecedents grew up. There was a period of his life before Te Vaka started in which he travelled around New Zealand, armed with tea and cakes, seeking out geriatric Pacific Islanders in the hope that they would regale him with stories passed down from their grandparents. “It wasn’t done for any university reason, or anything like that, it was done just out of pure interest, the more I did it the more I fell in love with it, and I felt I got connected to the ancestors that way. Every meeting that I had resulted in ideas for songs.” It was through these encounters in which, unbeknownst to Foa’i, he had already set down the path of exploration of his heritage.
These stories have stayed close to Foa’i’s heart for decades, and have continued to inform his lyrical process to this very day. “Once I get the concept, once I get the emotion of how things were, for example, like the slave ships that went to the Pacific. Sometimes I have tears roll down my eyes when I get into these emotions, it’s like I really am there and a part of the whole thing, and from there a song comes out,” he explained to us. Music is a deeply emotional thing for Foa’i, and while he has attempted to learn staff notation, he has never succeeded. “A few times I tried to learn these dots” he laughed, “but I just go on emotion… I feel like I am connected to the tradition and to the ancestors very much and really I just try and tell their stories.”
Foa’i aims to use his musical mouthpiece to spread the word of the social issues about which he feels strongly. In fact, he almost considers that the main focus of his work, joking with us that “I think if it wasn’t for that, I’d be playing covers, Jimi Hendrix covers!” Lyrically Te Vaka’s music is wide-ranging, addressing both the grievances of his ancestors, such as the devastation left behind by slave ships, their successes in voyaging, as well as current hot potatoes surrounding the environment. Foa’i initially wanted the Polynesians to be recognised for the great navigators that they were, but greater study led him to sadder topics. “I wanted to highlight those things, and I did at the risk of being in the bad books of a lot of people, because, you know, in the Pacific Islands, you don’t highlight these things, you basically sweep it under the carpet and you talk all about the good stuff.” This attitude also was felt towards his environmentally conscious lyrics around rising sea levels and overfishing. “When I first brought that up, my Islander families were saying ‘you shouldn’t say things like that, because if you say things like that, it’s gonna happen!’”
The reaction of Pacific Islanders and the general lack of formal music industry there has meant that despite performing in Samoa, Tahiti and Fiji, he has often felt a warmer reception further afield where people do not come from a place of scepticism about the optics of the issues he presents through Te Vaka’s music. According to Foa’i, “a lot of them saw us as too close to how things are, too close to their own realities of how music should be”, but he also has acknowledged that feelings towards Te Vaka’s music has changed over the years, and there is a more positive reception nowadays than when he started out. Foa’i has noticed that his music has influenced some new and upcoming artists from the Pacific, which he says makes him happy. “You’ve gotta have the language, or some of the elements that make it Pacific, rather than just the name only, so I’m very happy to hear that they are doing it.”
This must fill Foa’i with pride considering that in the beginning, his music often caused bemused reactions from his community, not only for his lyrics, but for his South Pacific fusion sound that combines elements of the musical traditions from several different nations in the Pacific. Foa’i’s concept of the band’s sound comes directly from the Pan-Pacific culture he identified with as a child. Inspired by the Samoan fatele, the Cook Islander log drums, and the Hawaiian ukulele, Foa’i decided to “tour the village”, with huge numbers of people onstage recreate that atmosphere as best they could. “I am not a Tokelauan artist, I am not a Samoan artist, I am a Pacific artist, I am the whole region, I don’t restrict myself to a thing called Polynesia, but I try to without encroaching on what they call other cultures, I just regard myself as owning the whole area. Whatever occurs there I will highlight, I have no back-off from doing that.” This sound was unique for the time, with Foa’i exclaiming “I think we were the only ones mad enough!”
Though there are differences between the Polynesian countries, Foa’i aims to focus on the commonalities between them all, and expressed to us a desire to celebrate them all. Though he has spent much of his musical career interweaving the music of various islands, he has recently completed a project that required him “to find little things that would separate those islands cultures”. Speaking about this project of meditation music aimed at helping the suicide problem in the Pacific, Foa’i said he “wanted to really wake up, and anyone who comes from those islands, I wanted to get them connected to their culture”, but he admitted it was a challenge to separate those cultures considering how much they had borrowed from each other over the decades.
His sense of duty to introduce the rest of the world, not only to Samoan or Tuvaluan culture, but rather all of the Pacific, has been an idea that festival organisers have been very receptive to, and thus Te Vaka have been the recipients of numerous invitations to festivals around the world, most notably garnering a cult status as Oceania’s premier music artist at WOMAD. Foa’i has fond memories of performing at Peter Gabriel’s festival, describing an electric atmosphere of cultural exchange. “What is in common, as far as the WOMAD stage was concerned is the passion that each of these cultures would be [expressing] in describing or in performing their culture, it just blew me away,” he reminisced. “Yes, of course music is music and rhythm is rhythm, but I was always more interested in the differences, because they gave something else to the world and I really appreciated it, and as I was saying, doing a lot of stages with the WOMAD crew it was… aww man, I was spoilt.”
Foa’i’s position as the South Pacific’s key musician was cemented further when Hollywood came a-knocking. “I just got a phone call from an amazing producer [named] Osnat Shurer, and all she said was ‘think Lion King 3,000 years ago, set in the South Pacific and we want you to write the music.’ I think there was about a two-minute pause. A fantastic opening line for any conversation!” The film in question was the Disney smash hit Moana, for which Foa’i wrote the songs alongside Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and composer Mark Mancina. Working on the film was both an exciting opportunity and Foa’i’s biggest creative challenge yet, as he had never worked collaboratively on writing songs, and he feared that if he did not do a good job authentically presenting Pacific music on the film, or if the film itself was inauthentic, he wisecracked “I always felt like if I didn’t do a good job I wouldn’t be allowed back”.
However, those fears were somewhat unfounded, as Foa’i found he was given a large amount of free reign by former Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, who recognised Foa’i’s deep understanding of the cultures that they were depicting would be integral to the success of the film. “He told the rest [of the soundtrack team] ‘follow this guy’”, Foa’i informed us. As such, the film features songs with Tokelauan, Samoan, and Tongan lyrics, and his children feature on the soundtrack too. In the end, Moana was a massive success, earning $645,000,000 at the box office, and it remains a mainstay on the Disney+ trending list, demonstrating its continued popularity six years after its release. However, it was the feeling that he had to please the ancestors which was the main force that drove Foa’i, rather than a fear of displeasing his contemporary Pacific sceptics. “It was because I was so passionate about the ancestors, I felt like it was them I had to please, not the Pacific people.” This was due to the aforementioned spiritual experience he underwent over two decades before the release of the film. “I am glad to say that after Moana it was like a huge relief for me. It is a job done.”
Though Foa’i has found himself at the forefront of Polynesian music, he largely rejects the label ‘cultural ambassador’. This is because he feels that it is a self-appointed term that has to be attained, a status to which he does not ascribe himself. “I don’t feel I have to earn anything like that because I am connected. I am part of the ancestors now, it is like I don’t have to be here to represent here. I am part of it. So, whatever comes out of me is from that connection.” However, Foa’i is keen to be a part of projects that will help the region develop and prosper. “Whatever projects will help this region, that’s all I am here for”, he told us. However, he is also excited to see a new generation of musicians performing the music of their culture, and bringing new blood and fresh ideas with them, going so far as to say that “sometimes, I wish they would give it to somebody younger, maybe somebody that can benefit from it, that can develop something and find something for the Pacific region.”
As two keen music lovers who have explored in depth the music of quite literally the entire world, we are acutely aware of the development of certain music scenes and its progress ahead of others. Whilst it is right to say that there exists musical talent across the globe, it seems that there has been a lack of investment, both financially but also in terms of time and energy given to enhancing and developing the Pacific music scene on the world stage. Recently we have seen genres that come from outside the USA and the UK, such as reggaeton and K-pop achieve huge commercial success, music from Africa has influenced and dominated the music on the charts for decades, and music from Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and China have enormous internal markets. This begs the question why has only one artist performing traditional music managed to break through from the Pacific Islands, and even his success feels monolithic rather than a harbinger of things to come. We were in the privileged position to put the question to the man himself, and he had a characteristically thoughtful answer. “The organisers here are not aware of what the potential and capabilities are of the instruments and sounds [so] that we can turn [them] into something that can be appealing”. He summed it up thusly: “we have a crop of people who are in those positions of power who basically love overseas stuff a lot more than what we have here. They are just missing the understanding of the potential it has here. But I believe it will happen. A group of young’uns will come up.” The reason for this optimism comes from a renewed interest and respect for Polynesian culture in New Zealand itself, pointing to primary schools that are teaching and promoting Polynesian languages. “I really think that is where it will come from, these people growing up in the language as a start and grow to really love the culture, and they will create something amazing.”
Whatever the reason for Pacific music’s lack of presence on the world stage, Foa’i’s hope seems to be grounded in evidence. This is because throughout his extraordinary career he has seen the warm reception of the many crowds he has performed to, as well as Moana’s gangbusters box office business, which indicates to him a huge curiosity and interest into Pacific Islander culture that only just begun. Perhaps the ultimate source of encouragement for the potential global rise of the Pacific Islands music scene comes far closer to home. Not only did he gain a manager who believed in the beauty of his culture, but he also gained a love and a wife in Julie. His music, however, did not hook her simply through the sound alone, and this is perhaps where the power of Pacific music lies. “I don’t know whether it was because of these half-naked men doing the fateles that got her,” he said with a wry smile. He continued, “she told me afterwards ‘that really got me when they were doing those dance moves to the beat of those drums’, she really supported what I was doing after that.” Though jocular in its tone, Foa’i makes a wider point that perhaps to truly fall in love with Pacific music, one needs to witness it live, to feel the intensity of the ancestors and their stories, to understand the history of the people, and the vibrancy of their culture. In short, the world needs to see the village, which Foa’i has been showing us for just under three decades, one concert at a time.