Moana: The Kiwi musician behind the next Disney blockbuster

Te Vaka singer Opetaia Foa'i.

Te Vaka singer Opetaia Foa'i.

When you wish upon a star/Makes no difference who you are/Anything your heart desires/Will come to you/If your heart is in your dream/No request is too extreme/When you wish upon a star (Walt Disney theme tune)

Opetaia Foa'i, like all children, made many a wish growing up in the small village of Alamagoto​ in Samoa.

How many of them were upon a star, he doesn't remember. But becoming inextricably linked to that Disney theme tune is a dream come true, with or without the wishing.

Opetaia Foa'i with director John Lasseter.

Opetaia Foa'i with director John Lasseter.

Foa'i is one of two "creatives" with New Zealand connections working on the upcoming Disney animated movie Moana.


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Opetaia Foai is introduced to the world at the Dinsey23 expo.

Opetaia Foai is introduced to the world at the Dinsey23 expo.

The other is Kiwi director Taika Waititi, whose latest movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople is busily breaking New Zealand box office records.  Foa'i is writing the music and Waititi the script.

The New Zealand-raised musician, the driving force behind the internationally acclaimed group Te Vaka, has been working on the movie since December 2013, though his role wasn't officially announced until Moana was unveiled by Disney last August.

"They [Disney] had been looking for a songwriter from the Pacific area," Foa'i says. "My manager [his 'rock' and partner Julie] noticed they had ordered everything from our [Te Vaka] website.  She contacted them and said 'hey you are missing one album are you interested in that one'.  Of course, they were.

Opetaia Foia and members of Te Vaka perform the theme song from Moana at a Disney conference.

Opetaia Foia and members of Te Vaka perform the theme song from Moana at a Disney conference.

"One thing led to another and they got me to fly over there [to America] to check me out.  It was great because I was checking them out as well - seeing if they were doing something respectful to the culture.  I discovered they were amazing people, very respectful and very intent on doing a good job on the movie.  I think a lot of people will be surprised, in a very good way, when  they see the movie.

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"They immersed me in the story, gave me different ideas they had on it and were interested in my views on it from a cultural perspective.  They gave me a clip to take home and come up with a song to go with it.  Luckily, I wrote something they loved.  It's actually the theme track to the whole movie. 

"I found out later that was a test.  It has been a challenge because the story has been changing all of the time.  Disney animations are very relatable to who we are as human beings and what we are trying to achieve.  The stories might be aimed at kids but the themes also apply to adults.  

"I think they discovered that I could offer a lot more than they intended in the beginning.  I am the songwriter, Mark Mancina is writing the score, which I've been assisting him on because Disney realises everything has to be aligned to what I am coming up with.  Then I have [lyricist] Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has done very well on Broadway recently with his smash hit Hamilton. It's quite an amazing team.

"Disney is very excited because it is something quite different to what they are used to.  The music is going to be very Pacific but it will be very relatable just like The Lion King and Frozen.I made the mistake when I first went to Disney of saying to my music team, 'it's only an animation'.  They then reminded me that Frozen was the fourth highest grossing movie of all time."

Foa'i was born in Samoa with Tokelaun and Tuvalan heritage and he says that upbringing taught him humility. "There is no such thing as trying to be a star and rise above the others.  I will always treasure the freedom I had as a child to go from house to house within our community where everyone was family. Watching and learning was a lot of fun.  I knew how to hunt, make my own fire and cook a bird when I was 6 years old.  They are great memories and, of course, singing and dancing was everywhere. Things only got serious when I started going to school."

Foa'i arrived in Auckland with his uncle at the age of nine, in 1965, in search of better opportunities in life. "It was a huge shock. I felt like an alien because all of a sudden I was surrounded by white faces and I couldn't understand a word they were saying," Foa'i says. "Needless to say we didn't speak English at home.  I quickly learned basic English in the playground but they were words that got me in trouble. Help arrived in the form of Mrs Joan Hoffman, my intermediate school teacher.

"She got my parents' permission for me to spend weekends with her family in Northcote and after 5 or so years I learned a lot.  I'm truly grateful and affectionately refer to her as my second mum. I still visit her and her husband Tom when I'm in New Zealand."

It was his uncle, who had sparked Foa'i's interest in the traditional music and rhythms of the Pacific region, who helped foster his growing interest in music. That and the fellow student who offered to sell him an album for $1 on his first day at high school.  The album was Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland.  So began Foa'i's cross-cultural interest in music, which eventually led to the formation of Te Vaka. 

Foa'i set up a small home recording studio in 1994 and started experimenting with a traditional Tokelauan song, turning it into a percussion piece with new verses and a chorus. His wife Julie loved it and played it to anyone who listened. Someone suggested she send it to the singer Peter Gabriel, who had his own label Real World, one of the first to foster real music.

"My cousin, Sam Panapa [who was playing league for Wigan at the time] drove to Real World Studios in Wiltshire, and delivered it personally," Foa'i says. "Sam was quite a celebrity in England at that time. It ended up we didn't have time to wait for Real World as we were going on a three-month European tour and ARC Music, who were based in the UK and US, were keen to get things happening straight away so we signed with them and the first Te Vaka album went worldwide [80 countries]. 

"On the last day of that tour we got a call from Real World Studios with a request from Peter Gabriel for us to come to Real World and record log drums on the album he was working on. Apparently Te Vaka had been a favourite at the Womad festival in Morecambe Bay a few days before. We put it to the vote and everyone was so homesick after three months away from family and were desperate to go home so we turned it down." it wasn't until some years later that Foa'i finally did meet Gabriel at a Womad Festival in the US.

Te Vaka moved to Australia in 2007.  "After many years of touring Europe and North America we got used to big cities with lots of people," Foa'i says. "We were also expecting to do more gigs so we rented a huge Italian mansion for rehearsals soon after arriving. 

"We did a European tour, the rugby world cup in Paris, the Sydney Opera House, Byron Bay Blues Festival and the Beijing Olympics so that worked out but also,  I think at that time we just needed a change and Australia was still close enough to our families in New Zealand.  That was important."

Te Vaka released their eighth album, Amataga, late last year and already Foa'i is working on new material.  Of course, it has obviously had to take a back seat to Moana, which tells the story of a once-mighty demi god, played by Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, and a spirited teenager (Auli'i Cravalho), who embark on an epic adventure across the ocean.

At the time Foa'i was officially signed up in December 2013, the studio hadn't approached Johnson.

 "When they were talking about who might be best suited to the role, Dwayne's name came up.  They looked at me and said, because his mum is from Samoa, if we can't get him is there anything you can do?  And I said, 'yeah, I will personally go and see his mum'."  He was so keen though, I didn't need to do that."   

One of the most exciting aspects of the movie, from Foa'i's point of view, is that it references the lost continent of Oceania.

"Something happened back in 1994 that got me really interested in the history of Polynesia," Foa'i says.  "Books such as Matagi Tokelau by Antony Hooper and Judith Huntsman helped a lot but I found that I preferred talking to people. 

"I literally went searching for old people to tell me their stories especially the ones that their grandparents had told them.  There is a certain magic that happens when they open up to those memories and seeing their faces while telling their stories.  Ours is an oral history so it made sense to get many different stories and then, for my own understanding of the history.  The songs on my albums tell these stories and the Moana movie is now part of that too."

As the release date towards Moana gets closer relatives in Alamagoto and the rest of Samoa are quietly curious about the impact it might have on their culture.

"I hear via the coconut wireless that there is an excitement building in anticipation and they are quietly hoping that the movie will be a success," Foa'i says.  This is a brand new thing for the South Pacific and i can't wait for them to see and hear our culture on the big screen.

"After touring 40 countries with Te Vaka promoting my culture I thought that was pretty good but the opportunity that the Moana movie provides will take my culture into so many different parts of the world it is ridiculous.  It's Disney literally making my dreams come true."

In the last decade or two, Disney soundtracks to animated movies such as Tarzan, The Lion King, Frozen and Aladdin  have been big business commercially. Moana has the potential to make Foa'i a very rich man.

"To be honest, money is a bonus," he says.  "Working with Disney on a movie that promotes this part of the world in a positive light is a big buzz for me.  I'm truly honoured to be working with legendary directors John Musker, Ron Clements, Osnat Shurer and, of course, John Lasseter. I can't say enough about them.  They are amazing people."

 - Sunday Star Times

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