Te Vaka
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Te Vaka


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The best kept secret in music


"Transported by Canoe"

Their name, Te Vaka, translates as “the canoe”in the language of Tokelau. It refers to the South Pacific voyaging origins of the New Zealand musical group that performed at the Maui Arts & Cultural Centre last Friday.
But after experiencing the way the high-energy musicians and dancers rocked Castle Theater to about a 10 on the rapture scale, the full-house Maui audience could have come up with our own definition of what Te Vaka means:
Adrenaline-powered, bare-midriffed, percussion-pulsed, infectiously happy, beautiful people bringing ancient traditions into the modern world...with a good beat you could dance to.
Or something along those lines. Call it Te Vaka ‘n’roll. The eight men and three women of the group had finally arrived, almost nine months after they had been slated to open The Center’s performance season last Sept,14. They had to be rescheduled after the events of Sept.11 changed the world - and made it impossible to book flights - in the dark days following the terrorist attack on New York.
The show was worth the wait, as anyone in the audience dancing could have told you. That’s right, dancing - not on the dance floor, but in front of our seats, more than 1,000 of us. The music left no alternative. You had to dance. Even the ushers, keepers of order in the exalted theater, were dancing.
The group’s sound is grounded in giant log drums, and assorted other instruments in the percussion family. At times the drumming, chanting and dancing are reminiscent of a Tahitian hula show, complete with dancers in grass skirts and coconut bras, hips ablur.
But Te Vaka adds guitars, keyboard, world beat and funk rhythms, soaring harmonies, along with the indigenous wisdom of the Maori, Samoan and Tokelauan cultures. It is primal and fun-loving, catching everyone up in its energy.
I think the audience may have had something to do with what happened that evening. Not the usual Castle Theater crowd, the place was packed with Hawaiian hula dancers, moonlighting from their own shows along with Samoans, Tongans and representatives of other South Seas cultures.
Rather than a “performance” it felt like a visit from distant cousins who had traveled along way over the sea. What they did was familiar - but different, Sometimes the dancing looked like hula, but then there would be hand movements that seemed more at home in an Indonesian temple.
Between the performers and audience, there was a whole lot of ethnic melding going on. The members of Te Vaka spoke in clipped kiwi accents. The woman dancer in the coconut bra was prone to clap her hands in sweeping arcs over her large feathered headdress, stadium-rock-show-style.
Acknowledging that this was the group’s first visit to Hawaii and that they liked “our little country here” the group’s leader Opetaia Tavita Foa’i was greeted, not with applause, but with wild yells of welcome.
When he introduced his cousin, the cute, sexy singer-dancer-percussionist Sulata Foa’i-Amiatu, a plaintive voice called out from the audience. “What’s your phone number?”
There are political and ecological undercurrents in leader Foa’i’s song lyrics. They resonate with the wisdom of the earth, known to indigenous peoples around the globe who have fallen victim to colonizers intent on “owning’ the land.
But Te Vaka’s greater gift is for setting pure joy to music.
Responding to the love fest ovation at the end of the show, Foa’i left the crowd with the admonition to “stay Pacific”. He might have just as easily said, “stay human”.
Either way, Te Vaka had offered an unforgettable lesson in how it’s done.
- Making the SCENE by Rick Chatenever Maui News USA

"Fiery display of Island charm"

THE best fireworks display in town last night was Te Vaka’s Arts Festival concert. The opening log drum fanfare saw five drummers beat out explosive Polynesian Rhythms with breathtaking synchronisation. As the exotic Island dancing and full band were added to the mix it became clear this was going to be a roller coaster ride.
Te Vaka (The Waka) is a collective of eleven musicians from the Tokelau, Cook Island, Samoan, Maori and European communities brought together under the inspired guardianship of Opetaia Foa’i. Numerous world tours, successful WOMAD performances and three acclaimed CDs have given the band a huge reputation in the burgeoning international arena of World Music.
Opetaia’s songs, sung mainly in Tokelauan, were drenched in warmth and emotion ranging from poignant 12-string guitar folksongs to the wild fun filled Pate Pate
As the call “Siva! Siva!” went up the audience literally erupted into mass dancing - the stage awash with colour and ecstatic dancers gyrating throughout the theatre.
Te Vaka’s music always embraces indigenous Oceanic roots. The highly talented musicians sensibly look to their rich Polynesian heritage for inspiration.
The seamless cohesion of the band, drawn from such diverse cultures, is a political statement as well as an artistic one. All paddling in the same direction Te Vaka sails straight and true.
The sustained standing ovation at the conclusion of the show (and a haka by one section of the audience) spoke volumes about the power this band has to talk across cultures. A festival highlight.
- By Liam Ryan, Bay of Plenty Times, New Zealand

"Te Vaka - the World’s A Stage"

For Auckland-based world music sensation, Te Vaka, the choice of name has been prophetic. Te Vaka means ‘the canoe’ and in the case of the 10 - member group it has fast become a case of ‘have canoe, will travel’.

Te Vaka was one of the main New Zealand acts at February’s WOMAD festival in Auckland. The group is no stranger to WOMAD, having performed at six, including those in England, Spain and Australia, since 1997. The groups founder and songwriter,
Opetaia Foa’i and his wife, Te Vaka’s manager, Julie Foa’i, say the international response has been overwhelming- and at times almost unbelievable.

Walking into the Foa’i’s home in Laingholm, West Auckland, the walls are lined with photographs from Te Vaka’s 1998 European tour. Many of the photos look like they should be on the celebrity pages of a magazine - Julie and Opetaia pictured with, among others, WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel, Sir Bob Geldof, Neil Finn, Dave Dobbyn and Ringo Starr. It is almost as though the photographs serve as a pinch on the arm for them - a visual ‘see, it really did happen!’

Te Vaka’s journey to the world’s stages began in 1995, stemming from Opetaia’s frustration with playing covers and a developing fascination with stories about his Tokelauan and Tuvaluan ancestors.

“I always felt uncomfortable about playing other people’s music, making money playing in pubs, just doing covers. After a while it really gets to you,” he says. “My father started talking to me about his experiences in the Islands and I found myself getting really interested. I started asking questions and got more and more intrigued and from then on I started writing little stories. That’s how it all started. As the cliche goes, it’s like doing a full circle. You find yourself back where you started from.”

The result is Te Vaka’s self -described ‘original, contemporary Pacific music’. The songs, written by Opetaia, are sung in Tokelauan by Opetaia and Sulata Foa’i ( Opetaia’s cousin, who released her own acclaimed solo album, ‘Kia koe’, on Deep grooves in 1996). The songs fuse modern melodies with traditional instruments with an emphasis on the log drums. It is a powerful combination, the strong rhythms laced with a tangible sense of respect for the culture and the emotion of the songwriter.

“It takes the essence of the traditional and puts it in a new form,” says Julie. “It goes beyond what happened when the missionaries came in and all that kind of stuff, it’s far more rootsy than that.”

Opetaia elaborates: “It’s Polynesian-driven, this project and when I say that, I mean it’s inspired by the old, original, pioneers of the South Pacific. I find them absolutely, awesomely inspiring. They had a very childlike attitude to life, just hopping into a canoe and saying ‘ I’m going to travel a thousand miles’. It was nothing to them, it was just a daily walk. I thought that was absolutely amazing and that’s what inspired all these songs.”

If Opetaia is the captain of Te Vaka, Julie is most certainly the navigator, steering the group to ever increasing success. Julie says the first time she heard her husband’s new style of songs she knew they were something special. She immediately set about getting the songs heard by the world. Opetaia says Julie’s ambitious game plan caused some raised eyebrows at early band meetings.

“In 1995 she really did put this piece of paper in front of us and it said ‘Target: take this music to the world’. You should have seen the looks from some of the band members who were thinking ‘Is this lady sane?’!”

Julie says her strategy to get Te Vaka on the world’s stages (and they have been on some of the best) was simple. “If people know about this music, they’ll want to hear it and that has been proven. When people hear it, they love it.”

Te Vaka has since completed two world tours and watching a video of last year’s, I witnessed the amazing reaction Te Vaka induces from crowds in country’s as diverse a Spain and Estonia, and from people of all ages. There is a tremendous sense of joy and fun about the performances that has proved irresistible to many. The group will embark on a third world tour in May and can be sure that the people they wowed in past years will be back for more.

“One of the most amazing things for me was when we played in Sweden and this really big guy came up to me after the show and said ‘I cried’,” says Opetaia.

Julie adds: “Then his little wife came up and said in her pidgin English, ‘That’s rock music the way it should be!”

Te Vaka’s performance includes four dancers who are one of the most popular features of the show. “Traditional music is our main influence and if you watch traditional music, it goes hand in hand with dancing- they’re inseparable,” says Opetaia.

As well as the dances, the costumes worn are a source of great fascination for overseas audiences. “I was promoting the show by sending out videos and somebody wrote in saying ‘the music sounds good and I’ve never s - by Jennifer Scott, New Zealand Musician magazine


Original, Contemporary Pacific Music

Opetaia Foa'i, group leader and main composer of Te Vaka, was born in Samoa and grew up in New Zealand. Accordingly, Foa'i’s vision of Pacific music combines elements of music indigenous to both, as well as Tokelau and Tuvalu (neighbouring Islands colonized by New Zealand), and lightly flavours them with Aboriginal and European styles.
The first sound on this disc to grab your attention is the polyrhythmic attack of Te Vaka’s percussion. Log drums and the Pacific version of the conga (originally made with sharkskins) are found throughout Oceania, and Te Vaka’s rhythms, especially on the tunes based on traditional dances, are as vigorous as anything coming out of the Africa diaspora. “Ika Ika,” in which a fisherman dreams of cooking the day’s catch, and the closing ceremonial “Siva Mai” may have echoes in the Caribbean, but it’s the scorching staccato of the log drums that makes these tracks rock. Melodically, Te Vaka is anchored by both the chiming tones of Foa'i’s inventive acoustic guitar picking (using open tunings favored by many Pacific Islanders) and the bands affable vocals, augmented here by male and female choruses that give the tunes an added spiritual depth. The group’s overall sound is soothing, full of melodies that celebrate the South Pacific’s easygoing lifestyle; yet Te Vaka also takes on the weighty subjects of economic displacement and the genocidal raids South American slavers made on Tokelau during the 1850’s.
With the exception of the current revival of the Hawai’ian slack-key guitar, most of the music that’s passed off as “Pacific”is either watered-down tourist fare or hokey, Martin Denny-inspired exotica. Te Vaka’s forceful rhythms, inspired melodies, and heartfelt songwriting offer a long - overdue, stereotype-smashing glimpse into the true soul of the South Seas. - j.poet

- By J. Poet Wired Magazine

"Sumptuous stuff from Aotearoa’s Pan – Pacific Polynesians"

New Zealand based band Te Vaka have consistently proved themselves to be one of the most sophisticated and professional Pacific groups around. Deserving WOMAD favourites, their performances are an impressive combination of vibrant log-drum rhythms, intricate vocal harmonies and hip-swivelling island dancing.
But while their three previous recordings have all been pretty good, to my ear Te Vaka have never quite captured the exuberance of their big live shows. Until now, that is. Remaining true to their mixed Tuvalu/Tokelau/Samoa/Cook Island/Maori roots, Tutuki (Play the Beat) finds all the right balances; traditional but not too provincial, funky but not too Western, polished but not too slick. Frontman composer and co –producer Opetaia Foa’i has used his instinctive feel for the innate beauty of the Pacific melody, along with flawless production, to create a very spacious and elegant album.
A lyrically diverse collection, the opening ‘Samulai’ (Samurai) addresses Japanese overfishing of the Pacific, but is almost reminiscent of South African township jive, the deep male voices a counterpoint to the delicate female backing. Elsewhere ‘Manu Samoa’ praises the sporting/warrior talents of the Samoan culture, while ‘Tauale Mataku”(Terrifying disease) is a moving tribute to the Pacific region’s growing AIDS problem.
On several tracks the band unleashes their formidable and rhythmically complex log drumming, and there’s no shortage of intense, thigh slapping percussion on the brief Maori haka influenced track ‘Oku Tupuga’.
Strong, stylish and sweet, Tutuki is an inspired album that could well prove to be Te Vaka’s most successful recording yet.

- By Seth Jordon, Songlines Magazine, UK


It’s very simple. Every time I hear a song from Te Vaka it puts a smile on my face and the melody stays with me for days. What else do you want from pop? But the sound of Te Vaka does so much more. These voices, acoustic guitars and drums speak volumes, they stimulate so many emotions: pride, sense of place and belonging, joy and nostalgia. There are plenty of hipper groups successfully fusing their culture with the music industry’s latest push, but the purity of Te Vaka’s approach makes them that much more effecting. Here is the sound of the Pacific, and style Pasifika, with no marketing, merchandising, fashion designers, tourist boards or government cultural strategies. And Te Vaka’s music is so refreshing and appealing that they have been touring constantly around the world since their first album five years ago.
Thanks to some television airtime, ‘Papa e”, from that self-titled debut, became an underground hit (it deserved to be another ‘Poi e’). It was a Pacific pop tune with an unstoppable melody; traditional but devoid of sunset and ukulele cliches or hip hop affectations. The same strengths are present throughout Nukukehe, Te Vaka’s third album. Once again leader and songwriter Opetaia Foa’i has written songs with contagious melodies, spirited vocals and irresistible rhythms. And if you’re wondering what those songs you are singing along to are actually about, it is the issues crucial to the Pacific’s survival: climate change, family and leadership, homesickness and dislocation. ‘Nukukehe’ about the changes back home has the immediacy of ‘Papa e’; ‘Alamagoto’ celebrates the new life while still hearing the call home; and the gentle and moving ballad, ‘Loimata E Maligi’, pays tribute to the 19 Tuvalu girls lost in a school fire. The instruments are voice, guitars, log drums and also keyboards. Te Vaka may be pure but they’re not fusty ethnomusicologists. ‘Tamatoa’ has a synth riff that could come from blondie’s heyday, and ‘Tesema’ also evokes the mirror balled dancefloor. ‘Pukepuke Te Pate’ and ‘Sapasui’ are log-drum instrumentals that emphasise the timeless impact of rhythm - and the communication and emotions achieved when humans are creating the rhythms.
The is plenty of lip service paid to Pacific culture but Foa’i’s Te Vaka is the real oil: this is the canoe undertaking the great migration. To be moved by something so familiar, so pervasive it is taken for granted, is like rediscovering your own heartbeat.

- By Chris Bourke, Real Groove Magazine, New Zealand


1997 - first Te Vaka album was released worldwide
"Te Vaka"

1999 - second Te Vaka album "Ki mua" contained no.1
single "Pate Pate"

2002 - third Te Vaka album "Nukukehe" nominated for Best Roots album

2004 - fourth Te Vaka album "Tutuki" winner of Best Pacific Music Album, entered European World music chart at No. 4


Feeling a bit camera shy


Te Vaka is a unique group of twelve musicians and dancers from Tokelau, Tuvalu, Samoa, Cook Islands, and New Zealand bought together under the inspired leadership of Opetaia Foa’i, “one of New Zealand’s finest song writers”. (NZ Listener).

Te Vaka has toured the world constantly since 1997, released four internationally acclaimed albums - Te Vaka, Ki mua , Nukukehe, and Tutuki performed in 30 countries, headlined Music festivals and WOMAD festivals around the world and been nominated for two BBC Radio 3 World Music awards as well as three Tui Awards in NZ.

Te Vaka’s music always embraces Oceanic roots. The highly talented musicians look to their Polynesian heritage for inspiration.

The show is dynamic, it ranges from drummers beating out explosive Polynesian rhythms with breathtaking syncronisation to ballads drenched in warmth and emotion and a lot of fun in between. The costume changes are wild, the pace is fast. There is something in a Te Vaka show for everyone.

The length of the show is 60 - 90 mins. ( can be more or less depending on requirements) The show is suited to a large outdoor venue but can be just as successful in a 200 seater theatre, however, the stage must be minimum 7 metres wide by 6 metres deep and larger is preferable for the full show.

TE VAKA’s creative source - OPETAIA FOA’I - speaks about hismusic and inspiration

“I was fortunate to have grown up in a place where I was exposed to Tokelauan*, Tuvaluan* and Samoan* traditional music and dance. This was the music that captured my heart and I grew to love.

Arriving in New Zealand at the age of nine, I was further exposed to other styles of music, for example: Jimi Hendrix and Joan Armatrading were two of my favourite artists.

I am now at a point in my life where I feel my musical journey has come full circle. I have purposefully retuned the guitar to open tuning as that was how I originally played it in Samoa. I’ve also used a Polynesian language (Tokelau) to express different aspects of Polynesia in the most honest and natural way I can. Although I speak English, Samoan and Tuvaluan as well, I was brought up in a Tokelauan community and I found this to be the most comfortable language for my song writing.

My main source of inspiration comes from speaking to the old people and extracting information passed to them by their parents. This valuable information is then put into music and preserved for the coming generations to appreciate. This is a very important part of my writing.

It is very fortunate that my music is appreciated by people from many cultural backgrounds here in New Zealand and internationally. It appears that the language is not a barrier and the music communicates all by itself, supported by the fact that I have achieved a worldwide distribution with my first and second album.

Many celebrity musicians have made comments on the potential of the Pacific including Quincey Jones when he visited New Zealand a few years ago. He was quoted as saying something to the effect of, “The next great musical movement to impress the world will come from the Pacific.”

I feel this statement has a lot of truth in it and if Te Vaka can be part of a group of artists working to achieve or make that prediction come true then I will not only feel privileged but very satisfied at achieving much of my goal as a Polynesian artist.”