Sound of the Pacific

Te Vaka and Opetaia Foai perform their favourite tunes. Photo: Disney
Te Vaka and Opetaia Foai perform their favourite tunes. Photo: Disney
The songs of popular Disney movie Moana will come to life in Dunedin this weekend as the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra performs with Grammy-nominated Pacific Island music group Te Vaka.

Wellington-based conductor Kenneth Young has the job of combining the two quite different styles.

It is another example of the DSO stepping outside its traditional classical repertoire, but general manager Philippa Harris says performing Pasifika music with the full Te Vaka group will be a real thrill for the DSO musicians, especially the percussionists, who have a special interest in Te Vaka's log drums.

''The songs [will be] complemented by the rich textures and colours from the orchestra, providing a unique blending of Pacific music and musicians.''

Rebecca Fox talks to Te Vaka's songwriter and lead singer, Opetaia Foai, about discovering music, the band and, of course, Moana.

Q How did you discover music as a child?

I was raised in a village community, Alamagoto village in Apia, Samoa, surrounded by traditional music. It was everywhere.

At 9 years old I arrived in New Zealand and grew up in West Auckland.

Opetaia Foai helped write the songs for Moana. Photo: Supplied
Opetaia Foai helped write the songs for Moana. Photo: Supplied
Q What instruments do you play?

Guitars and log drums.

Q Was music always going to be a career for you?

I was always playing music, but I never thought it would become a career.

Q How did your career in music begin?

It was by coincidence that I was experimenting to find my own sound at the same time Womad was on the rise in popularity around the world. We were lucky to be among their group of artists.

I think we performed in about 13 Womads around the world and it continued from there.

Q Why did you choose to perform Pacific music?

The amazing achievements by Polynesians on the sea as sailors and navigators held me in awe; the way they lived, their stories gave me inspiration to write.

Q Have you always written songs?

I think I've always dabbled, so the desire was there, and it just opened up for me when I got interested in my ancestors.

Q How did Te Vaka come about?

One of the first songs I wrote for the first album is called Te Vaka and because my inspiration came from these amazing pioneers, naturally, I called it Te Vaka which means the canoe.

Moana and Maui, the main characters of the 2016 film Moana. Photo: Disney
Moana and Maui, the main characters of the 2016 film Moana. Photo: Disney
Q What were your goals for the group?

I wanted to tell their stories through music and tell it whenever and wherever we performed. Basically, I wanted to tell the whole world.

Q What response did you get in the early days?

We got excellent response throughout Europe and in the United States.

Q Your music is better known overseas than in New Zealand (before Moana).

It made a lot of sense to me that to tell the stories of my ancestors musically, I had to use instruments like log drums, chants and include the ancestor's language too, as opposed to singing in English.

You won't find this approach to music playing on your standard New Zealand radio. That may have something to do with it.

Q How did you get involved in Moana the movie?

I got a phone call saying, ''Think Lion King 2000 years ago and we want you to write the music.'' I felt I was in a Disney movie, it was incredible.

Q What was the biggest challenge to doing the music for Moana?

The story would change every one or two weeks and so we [the music team] would change or write a new song for it.

Q Where did you write the music?

On the plane home, or when Lin [Lin-Manuel Miranda], Mark [Mancina] and I got together in Carmel, New York or Burbank. Inspiration seemed the easiest part.

Q Did you have any concerns about how Pacific people and their music might be portrayed in this movie?

Yes, but I had confidence that it would turn out fine. I knew we had the team to do it right.

Q Do you identify with any of the themes in the movie?

Most of it because it's the Polynesian culture that I've been promoting for over 20 years prior to Moana.

Q What was a highlight of the Moana experience?

Writing We know the way and getting the green light from everyone that it would anchor the movie.

Q How did you feel when you first saw the movie?

Very happy. I'd seen the movie every 2 weeks over 3 years, seeing and having an input in the changes right up to its premiere.

Q Has Moana taken over your life?

It's been very satisfying seeing this beautiful culture make its way to many homes around the world. It's creating a lot of interest for people to look deeper to discover there's more than what is offered by the standard tourist destinations.

Q What do you hope the Dunedin audience will get from watching Te Vaka and the DSO?

I hope they enjoy and appreciate this unique experience of Te Vaka playing Moana songs alongside the DSO. and with our full ensemble of log drums and dancers.

To see
DSO: Songs of Moana, Dunedin Town Hall, Sunday, 5pm-6.15pm

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