21 Jul 2018

The Mixtape: Opetaia Foa'i

From RNZ Music, 4:00 pm on 21 July 2018

Opetaia Foa'i is the leader of Te Vaka, the group that created the sounds and songs of the Disney hit Moana. He joins us to share six of his favourite songs and reflect on 20 years of bringing Pacific music and stories to the world.

Opetaia has a talanoa with Dominic Godfrey for the RNZ Music Mixtape.

Opetaia Foa'i

Opetaia Foa'i Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

Opetaia Foa’i grew up in the musical warmth of Samoa with the diverse influences of his parents’ Pacific cultures with which the family still had strong connections.

“People would arrive from the islands like Tokelau or Tuvalu. There would be fateles, these traditional dances, or Samoan siva. There were always beats going on.”

For Opetaia music was always going to be his life.

However, his parents wanted him to become a doctor.

His mum and dad chose to give their eight children better educational opportunities – a better future than Samoa could offer – so in the mid-1960’s the Foa’i family moved to Aotearoa, New Zealand.

“I really take my hat off to my parents for their courage. It was such a vastly different culture they were coming to. They knew no English whatsoever.”

Opetaia arrived in the winter of 1965 at Auckland’s international airport at Hobsonville. With no grasp of the local language and no shoes, New Zealand was a culture and temperature shock.

Opetaia and Te Vaka performing 'We Know The Way' with Orchestra Wellington*

Opetaia talks about the traditional music of Tokelau, Samoa and Tuvalu remaining the soundtrack to family life in Auckland. That was until a schoolmate sold him Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland on vinyl for one dollar.

“I’d never heard of Jimmy Hendrix until I took it home. We somehow had a radiogram lying around so I put it on and it changed me from that point onwards.”

Opetaia remains true to his Pacific roots but says the influence of anyone who can truly master their musical craft cannot be ignored, whether violin, vocals or electric guitar.

“Musically, I become very emotional and I’m very very sensitive along those lines. When I write – because I don’t read music – I actually experience the emotions.”

Opetaia’s other emotional grounding is his wife Julie.

The two met in Auckland through auditions for a band they both ended up being part of. The band disbanded but the two of them remained.

“We both loved music. Music was always… it came above everything else,” says Opetaia.

“We wrote music together and we decided we really liked each other and we got married.”

The relationship blossomed further and their partnership developed into what has become Te Vaka. The two became six with four children who joined the band at various stages. Julie the singer-songwriter progressed to Julie the band manager.

“Taking 16 people to Europe, mortgaging the house, we could have lost the house so many times,” says Opetaia.

“But with her managing skills, she somehow managed to pull rabbits out of hats that no-one thought anyone was capable of.”

He says the success of the band and how far they’ve come is a testament to Julie.

Opetaia and Te Vaka performing 'I Am Moana' with Orchestra Wellington*

Julie’s management skills got Te Vaka in front of increasingly large and more diverse audiences around the world. 

However, it is Opetaia’s Pacific vision that draws people in. The Te Vaka experience is recognised as the strongest proponent of contemporary Polynesian music in the world.

Within the music of the Pacific, Opetaia also takes a stand for the issues of the region. He highlights the climate issues placed upon the people of his parents’ home countries where sea-level rise is an existential threat. He draws attention to the plight of the people of West Papua who he says faces atrocities in their homelands.

“This is actually happening in the South Pacific. This is right next door. This is in our village,” he says.

“People are getting killed and, the thing is, it doesn’t get in the media so as an artist I thought I would do my bit to highlight the injustices that are happening to these poor West Papua people.”

The Te Vaka audience has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly among a new, younger audience following the release of Moana.

That story started in 2013 when Te Vaka received an online order for their entire album selection.

The delivery address was Walt Disney studios.

Te Vaka’s music and their stories of the Pacific are being told to people of all oceans.

Malo le tautua.

Opetaia chose these songs for his Mixtape:
  • Jimi Hendrix - Machine Gun
  • Jimi Hendrix - Little Wing
  • Peter Gabriel - San Jacinto
  • Robert Plant - The May Queen
  • Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder - Bonde
  • Doudou N'Diaye Rose - Rose Rhythm

More about Te Vaka from RNZ:

  • Songs of Moana with Te Vaka and Orchestra Wellington: an 8-year-old's review
  • The Mixtape: Julie Foa'i
  • Authenticity key to Moana movie soundtrack
  • *Video production by JXLive, sound recording by RNZ Music, sound production by Startrek Studios.

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