Opetaia Tavita Foa’i was born in Alamagoto, a small village in Apia, Western Samoa. His father is from Tokelau his mother from Tuvalu, they met while attending school in Samoa. His early upbringing was in a small Tokelauan settlement in Alamagoto. The houses were the traditional thatched roof kind, no walls and only one room for the whole family and everyone slept on the floor.
The houses or fales (as they are called in Samoa), were arranged in a circular formation with a playing field in the center, there was a river that ran just behind the village providing heaps of fun for the children and luckily fruit trees were everywhere. You could just reach up and pick a banana or a mango or a coconut, they were there for everyone. The children had a lot of freedom and pretty much did their own thing while the parents worked. Opetaia’s family were very poor and his parents would spend most of their time tending the plantations and catching fish or whatever else they could find for the evening meal. Although life on a pacific Island is considered by most to be paradise, those were hard times and the adults had many stresses and pressures to contend with on a daily basis.
Although the family was poor financially, it was a vibrant environment to grow up in especially when the community came together to celebrate an occasion. It could be somebody’s arrival, departure or an event of some kind but the whole village would come to life. It was an atmosphere that was joyous and free spirited, a huge change from the seriousness of doing mundane everyday work - it was like the reason for living and everybody took part. The beauty of the Island way is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good voice or if you can’t keep a beat - everyone joins in and everyone’s contribution is accepted and valued. In that environment any self-consciousness or shyness is quickly forgotten as everyone becomes one, performing as a group.
Because most of the people in the community that Opetaia grew up in were Tokelauans the main songs and dances performed at these events were the Tokelau fateles, or sometimes Tuvalu fateles if the people were from his mother’s Island. A fatele consists of a group of people in several lines one behind the other doing a set of actions expressing the words contained in the song. There is a whole line of dancers - children, men, women, grandparents etc, females in one row, males in the other and behind the dancers there is a wooden box affectionately called the Pusa, (which means the box). A group of men sit around the Pusa and play an accompanying beat to the song and everyone sings. It starts off slow and gets faster and faster as it repeats and the dancers get lower and lower and the singing gets louder and louder as everyone gets into it. The vibrations of the Pusa together with the harmonised singing is something very special to experience. It was just about heaven for Opetaia who, whenever he could, would sneak in and join in the beating of the Pusa and sometimes be bold enough to join in the dancing as well. The whole atmosphere was one of music and rhythm and togetherness and it created a lifelong impact on him.
There was another style of music sometimes performed at these gatherings - the Samoan Siva. As soon as the igi or the Samoan-style picking started, usually done on the guitar or the ukulele, for people that know the Siva and particularly if you are Samoan, something turns on inside you - there is no way that you can ignore the pride that swells up inside and you immediately jump up and dance. The Siva is a traditional Samoan dance – it is an absolute pleasure to watch it performed because the people dancing radiate this huge pride which is simply infectious to all those around and it doesn’t take long before everyone joins in.
When Opetaia was growing up, there was music and rhythms everywhere. It was part of everyday life. For example there were large bamboo sections with holes in them that were used to play beats on (a variation of the Pate or the lali) and of course there was the Apa or the biscuit tin, which would feature when the village played “Kilikiti” or cricket. Regularly there would be events where one village would play against another village and often there was about 100 people playing per side. Whenever someone was out the Apa or biscuit tin would be played with everyone clapping along. When you had somebody playing the apa that knew how to play it and would vary the beats each time thoughout the game it certainly made the game a lot more interesting and for Opetaia provided a great deal of inspiration that he later put to good use in songwriting. As a youngster growing up in this environment, he just sat there and soaked it all in. He never learned to read music or had any formal training in music but this exposure to real traditional music and rhythms set the foundation for all his upcoming work.
It was fortunate for Opetaia that he had an uncle who was more like an older brother, who came to live with the family in Alamagoto. Uncle Foa’i played the ukulele. Opetaia found himself very interested and started spending a lot of time, watching him play. He began imitating him by playing sticks and later when he started playing the guitar, the stick got bigger. Uncle Foa’i also passed on some bad habits like how to break the ends off the finely woven mats to use as a guitar picks which didn’t please his mother or aunties at all.
In 1965 at the age of 9 in the middle of winter, dressed in a light summer suit, Opetaia and Uncle Foa’i arrived at Auckland Airport alone and neither of then spoke a word of English. The sudden transition from hot and friendly Alamagoto village to a cold Auckland city was a big shock. Before this trip Opetaia had never even worn a pair of shoes let alone a suit. No-one had explained anything about this trip and for a while he was very homesick for his Island home. For the next three years he lived in Grey Lynn, Auckland an inner city environment vastly different to the freedom and family environment that he had come from in the Islands. The whole family and extended family were squeezed into a 3 bedroom flat. The family struggled through some very hard times to get established in New Zealand but they did it all so that the children, Opetaia is the eldest of 8, could have a good education and they hoped a chance for a better life.
There was no formal set up available at the time for those who had English as a second language so he struggled through primary and intermediate school picking up the language here and there by ear. When he hit intermediate school he found himself getting very interested in all the new musical styles around him and starting performing at school talents quests with his cousin Esera. By this time he had discovered conventional tuning and conventional chords which differed from the opening tuning style of guitar playing in the Islands. One of the most important influences on his musical development happened on his first day in high school. Another student offered him an album for a dollar and he bought it. It turned out to be a double album - Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix and so began a major musical phase of his life.
He was so enthusiastic about this music that he would force people to sit down and listen to it. He loved it so much and was confused when others couldn’t hear what he could hear. He would dance around the house with a broomstick, pretending it was an electric guitar and make his younger brothers and sister sit and watch while he did concerts for them. Luckily another of his uncles bought him an electric guitar and within two years, at the age of 15 he had a band and a residency in a nightclub in K’road performing mainly Jimi Hendrix material. In later years he got in to other styles of music such as Jazz, Blues, Reggae and began admiring works of various songwriters along the way including Joan Armatrading and Peter Gabriel which all served to reinforce his interest in songwriting but Jimi Hendrix still remained his major influence along with his continuing involvement with traditional song and dance through community and family functions.
There were some serious lifestyle clashes that came about due to trying to operate within two very different cultures. Clashes between the cultures was a problem and adjustments were called for and many compromises made. For example on Sundays when the family expected everyone to go to church he would be invited to a jam session or would have a gig to go to. And of course slowly but surely the gigs won out. His parents were not at all impressed, especially as he was the oldest in the family and supposed to be the one setting a good example.
One of the most unexpected difficulties he encountered was due to being bought up in a community that encouraged performing in a community or as a group but didn’t encourage individual performance so to do your best or to try to do your best could be construed as trying to be better than those around you and you were made to feel uncomfortable for doing this. Also, in the European culture, artists are viewed with high regard, whereas in the Pacific culture music is something to celebrate with, to enjoy, it’s a natural part of life, it’s no big deal. He was always caught out playing guitar and told to go study or do something constructive with the message “your guitar won’t feed you or your family”. His playing music was considered a waste of time and became a source of disappointment to his parents. They came all the way to New Zealand to give their children a better education and then to see their eldest child pursuing music enthusiastically instead of pursuing a reliable career was a little disappointing to put it mildly. Nevertheless, he continued and ended up playing in bands on and off for twenty years playing varying styles of music before finally discovering where he musically felt most at home and hence the beginning of Te Vaka.
Before Te Vaka, Opetaia had been writing and recording music but it was always in styles that belonged to other cultures and this was always something that nagged at him as it didn’t feel quite right. He set up a small recording studio at home and in 1994 started experimenting with a Traditional Tokelauan song, one that he had always had a strong affinity with. He changed it round considerably using the traditional song as a kind of introduction and then writing a percussion piece with verses and a chorus to go with it. This he found exciting - it ignited something inside him and he knew there was no turning back. He recorded this track with the band he had at the time, with the addition of his cousin Sulata and the Tokelauan choir. This was the early beginnings of Te Vaka. Julie, his wife loved the song and although he tried to persuade her not to she started playing it to people, as it turned out they also liked it. In fact much to his surprise people in the music industry started getting quite excited about it. Then someone made the suggestion that it be sent it to Peter Gabriel at Real World studios in England . Now those of you who know anything about the music industry will know that something like this is easier said than done especially when you are sitting on the opposite side of the globe. For a start an unsolicited demo tape doesn’t even get opened just thrown straight into the bin, but everyone was so excited about this idea that even though those in the know said it was all more or less impossible, Julie started scheming ways to make it happen. In 1995, Opetaia’s cousin, Sam Panapa, who was playing rugby league for the Wigan club in the UK at the time was able to get the demo tape straight into Real World Studios and the result was positive - they wanted to hear more so everything snowballed from here. By 1997 the first Te Vaka album was released and signed worldwide with ARC music and the band began touring the world starting with 3 months on the road in Europe – where they rapidly gained a following amongst world music enthusiasts being named favourites at most of the festivals they performed at that year.
1998 saw many invitations for the band to return to Europe and a trip to Texas to showcase at South by South West. There were 800 bands performing and Te Vaka was featured on the 6.00pm & 10.00pm news, got an hour live on the radio and a mention in the New York times. The world was starting to wakeup to Te Vaka music. This time the tour to Europe was for 5 months starting in Spain and ending at a charity pop concert in the UK with Ringo Starr (Beatles) and the Allstars – Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats), Peter Frampton (Humble pie),Roger Taylor (Queen), Gary Brooker (Procal Harum), Simon Kirke (Bad company/Free), Jack Bruce (Cream)and other music legends. This was a great finale to an incredible five months of taking Pacific Music to the world.
Opetaia’s songwriting to date is really the product of his great interest in Polynesia and love of traditional music and it’s marriage with other influences. He was lucky enough to be exposed to authentic traditional music in the Islands and authentic rock, pop, jazz etc via the radio, live concerts and albums. That allowed him to take it all in and interpret it for himself rather than learning somebody else’s interpretation.
Musically, Opetaia has traveled full circle, from traditional music to many other styles and musical influences and now feels he is back home. He is enjoying the satisfaction of doing something that he’s really proud of, something that comes from his own roots and he is constantly encouraging others to explore and create from their own roots instead of always looking toward other peoples cultures.
One of the things that has made his music different is the language. Although he speaks Samoan, Tuvaluan and English fluently, he has chosen Tokelauan because it is not only the most comfortable language for him to work with but also the most rhythmic. It is close to the original Polynesian dialect, due to Tokelau’s isolation geographically but aside from that it’s a unique language. It has a musical sound and rhythm all of it’s own and this is a plus point when you’re writing a song.
Opetaia has now written, recorded and co-produced eight Te Vaka albums and the work to date has been documented with 2 live DVDs. He has toured the world with Te Vaka taking the message of the Pacific Islands – the people, the culture, the music and the dance. Amongst numerous awards and nominations he has won the Senior Pacific Artist award for his contribution to Pacific Music and has been instrumental in getting the music and culture of the South Pacific to a much wider international audience. Although the group has already been touring internationally for 20 years it still feels like only the beginning with many new projects in the pipeline such as writing the songs and music for the upcoming Disney animated feature film "Moana".