Last month when I was in Los Angeles for the Moana press junket I interviewed a whole slew of incredibly talented people including Samoan singer and songwriter Opetaia Foa’i of the group Te Vaka. Opetaia Foa’i is one of the three key people, along with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney Legend Mark Mancina who is responsible for the beautiful music in Disney’s Moana.
Foa’i is humorous and humble and still in disbelief at the popularity and in how his music and career path has taken a turn since Disney found him for the Moana movie. His song “We Know the Way” is so infectious and dazzling. My kids sing it (and the rest of the soundtrack) all the time. It was the firs track he wrote as soon as he started working on Moana back in 2015.
Here are some fun facts from our exclusive interview with Opetaia Foa’i.
Opetaia Foa’i was the cultural backbone to the music in Moana
Opetaia Foa’i: Before I became famous, wicked famous, it was awesome because we had a lot of time so when we [Lin-Manuel Miranda] got together, he works very fast and I work very fast too. It was quite an amazing combination cause you’ve got Mark [Mancina] who, of course, is very experienced along that line and you’ve got Lin who’s very good with lyrics and directing. And there’s me who, I don’t read music but I do write from emotion.
I can grab a scene and I can get emotion out of it very quickly, so we found that that combination worked really well. I’m very childish in the studio and luckily so was Lin and so we had a lot of fun together.
On the mix of modern music and cultural music for the feel of Moana
Opetaia Foa’i: I sort of trusted that Mark and Chris Montan and Tom, I trusted that they would make those decisions, you know. And I didn’t compromise from my cultural background either. You know, I’ve got many things that didn’t get onto the movie and, they would dutily say, ‘Oh that was good but we don’t want to scare the children.’ So after a while, I got the message because I’m very, very passionate about the chance of the olden pre-Missionary Pacific who didn’t have melodies but just chants and beats and I love that.
On other members of Te Vaka being involved in Moana
Opetaia Foa’i: I quickly discovered that my voice trying to, when I had an idea with a girl singing, it didn’t work so luckily, I have a daughter, Olivia, her voice is in the opening castle animation, so I used her a lot. She’s been doing a lot of demos. And my two sons, they are Percussionists. They’re very, very good, yeah. I used to be better than them.
On his favorite part of the process of Moana
Opetaia Foa’i: Well, you know, I was born in Western Samoa in a thatched hut. You know, we’re talking about you know, just the thatched hut with no walls, so to find myself here is an incredible journey. My jaw’s been open for quite some time, you know when they restrained me. And I couldn’t believe, I call it an aesthetic Heaven, that people can be around the table and they can talk about anything they like and there’s no one running anybody down, it’s incredible. So all that’s new to me. In my culture, music is like breathing air. I can never understand why I was always trying to write songs or do something musically, so it was a hard journey for me to go get a real job.
He listened to his voice inside. What’s on the horizon for him.
Opetaia Foa’i: I’m happy where I am now. Just to get here, you know. I was trying to explain to you my journey, it was really to promote my culture and you know, I’ve traveled the world and people got sick of me talking about these people that are the best Navigators, best Sailors in the world, everywhere. And to be honest, I thought I’d reached the end of my run, and I was ready to, you could say, hang up my horse unless the opportunity came up. So it’s just extended it a little bit more.
What Foa’i thinks of the finished film, the meld of music and cultural elements
Opetaia Foa’i: Beautiful. You know, animation, everything. I was saying, those guys, the animation, the story, everything was just incredible. I could say this, you know. I could say this daringly. My ancestors would be proud of this Movie.
Chants, lot of drums and of telling of the stories of ancient Polynesia. Yeah, those are the 3 elements that I always push. And probably if you’ve seen the movie, you get a lot of ‘Mmmm,’ a lot of chants, I think I try to put in there. And you hear a lot of drums, percussions, and all those key things.
His message for young people and young artists
Opetaia Foa’i: The journey that I made coming from a village to this big City, my roots were firmly entrenched, so there was no way you could shake it, no matter how much I try and check, it’s all in there. So this movie for me, as much as I want other cultures to be really interested in what the culture is all about, the biggest buzz for me is for my own people because a lot of them were brought up in the cities.
And you know, they go, ‘My father told that I’m connected but they don’t, until you put your feet on that ground,’ so I’m hoping that this will open the key for them to go, ‘Oh I feel pride,’ and ‘I’m gonna go back and check it out.’
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