Te Vaka Te Vaka Beats Vol.3 Spirit of Play Productions Review by Mike Adcock
"Tuli Te Manu" (excerpt)
The New Zealand band Te Vaka was founded by singer and songwriter Opetaia Foa'i in 1994. Since then the group of musicians and dancers, some of whom have Polynesian backgrounds in Samoa, Tokelau and Tuvalu, have travelled the world presenting their contemporary take on Pacific music. Te Vaka have appeared at key festivals, prestigious venues, major international sporting events including the Beijing and London Olympics and they also contributed to the soundtrack of the 2016 Walt Disney film Moana.
This new release from Te Vaka serves to dispel any suspicions that their commercial success might have led them to lose sight of their musical origins. This is essentially an album of percussion - log drums, skin drums and shakers - which retains the raw excitement of the Polynesian traditions of music and dance for which the group have become ambassadors. There are lively vocal interjections from the group, intermittent lines sung in unison along with animated yelps and cries, but these feel of secondary importance to the unstoppable drive of the music itself. Only once does a non-percussive instrument make an appearance and that's when a single note is played on some kind of horn at the beginning of “Vakaloa.” But don't let that put you off. The music may be short on melody but there's plenty going on tonally and rhythmically to sustain interest and the further you get into the sound world it inhabits the more it takes a hold.
The sixteen tracks of Te Vaka Beats Vol.3 are original compositions representing regional music with a long tradition, but this in no way makes it impossibly esoteric. Coming to it afresh, being swept along by the rhythmic language on display here serves as a reminder that even though we may be missing some of the cultural nuances, there is something universal about the ability of such music to connect. On some level the repetition, the syncopation, the cross rhythms, the changes of tempo, combine to communicate directly, sharing variations on the sound of the heartbeat that sustains each of us. An exhilarating listen.
Te Vaka Beats Vol. 2 (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2020)
Te Vaka is a fabulous Polynesian band that is known for its melodic songs, engaging percussion sets and fascinating dance. In the Te Vaka recordings and live performances there is always time for percussion segments. Te Vaka Beats Vol. 2 focuses on percussion pieces accompanied by chant.
Percussion albums from the Pacific are very rare so this album is a real treat. It presents the enthralling pate (log drums) that Te Vaka is known for. This recording features Te Vaka master drummer and actor Matatia Foa’i (also spelled Matatia Foai) with a fantastic set of percussion compositions. Matatia is the son of Te Vaka founder Opetaia Foa’i and jazz singer Julie Foa’i.
Te Vaka made innovations to the traditional log drum. The group invented the 3-tier log drum stand that allows each drummer a variety of log drums to play during a performance or recording. This groundbreaking idea is now used by other log drumming groups in the Pacific Ocean region. Te Vaka Beats Vol. 2 is a great introduction to the wonderful world of Polynesian drums and can be enjoyed as a straight ahead music album as well as a recording ideal for Polynesian dance fans.
Album Review: Te Vaka’s Greatest Hits – Songs that Inspired Moana
Reviewed by Alex Reif, LaughingPlace.com
Te Vaka's Greatest Hits - Walt Disney Records 2017
Te Vaka is an Oceanic band founded by Opetaia Foa’i, who has writing credits on most of their songs and is also the lead singer. It was the band’s uptempo music that caught the attention of Moana‘s producers, which lead to this auspicious collaboration. Now that the film has become a worldwide phenomenon, fans can connect back to the songwriter’s roots with a collection of eleven songs, ten are their greatest hits and one is a brand new track making its debut in this collection.
Many of the songs have a similar tempo and spirit to “Logo Te Pate,” a song towards the end of Moana performed by members of Te Vaka as Moana and Maui get close to Te Fiti. Songs with a similar tone include the opening track “Tutuki,” “Haoloto,” and X. A song called “E Keli” starts with percussive rhythms reminiscent of the beginning of “Your Welcome” and some of Maui’s score from the film. And “Taku Uo Pele” has elements that clearly inspired “We Know the Way,” on which Opetaia Foa’i sang a duet with Lin Manuel-Miranda. The song “Manu Samoa” also features Tamatoa’s name
There are also some more modern beats like “Havili,” which reminds me of a Pacific Island Dave Matthews Band jam. Two of the more mellow songs in the collection are “Tele Ve Ko Koe,” a soft acoustic track, and “Papa e” has a hauntingly beautiful subdued esthetic. The band also branches into more modern pop sensibilities on my favorite track, “Sei Ma Le Losa.” The album closes with their newest track, “Lakalaka,” which sees the band fusing their Oceanic sensibilities with an edgier sounds.
Listening to Te Vaka’s Greatest Hits produced a similar feel to Rhythm of the Pride Lands, an album produced after the success of The Lion King that allowed Lebo M. to shine with some original songs of his own (it produced the incredible “He Lives in You,” which was used in the Broadway show and direct-to-video sequel). If you loved the music from Moana, you owe it to yourself to connect with the music’s roots by experience original music by Te Vaka through this wonderful collection of island rhythms.
Album review by Seth Jordan, Songlines Magazine UK
Te Vaka Beats: Vol I (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2017)
Putting Polynesian percussion firmly at the fore With ancestral links to the small Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Tokelau, Polynesian group, Te Vaka originally formed in New Zealand and these days members are based both there and in Australia. Having always been a family band, led by patriarch Opetaia Foa’i, the ensemble has enjoyed considerable international success, and Foa’i recently contributed compositions to the animated Disney film Moana, with his daughter Olivia also featuring on the Pacific-based soundtrack. Now it’s percussionist son Matatia’s turn. Bringing his complex Polynesian rhythms to the fore on this new ten-track release, the sharp sounds of pātē (log drums) dominate, along with accompanying skin drums and Deep male voices provide the chanting counterpoint to the fast-paced wooden slit-drum rhythms, giving emphasis and vocal punctuation to these ten short but highly energised tracks. Only on ‘Maua Tokelau’ do women’s voices join in, instilling a fuller community feel, but you can easily imagine the hip-swivelling female Pacific dancing that would normally accompany this music. Mastered in Los Angeles by the Grammy-winning engineer Eric Boulanger, Te Vaka Beats: Vol I carries on the larger ensemble’s dedication to contemporising authentic Polynesian music and culture.
Amataga (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2015)
“TE VAKA Amataga Spirit of Play WMCD1010 Aue! One shouldn’t take groups too much for granted. Despite the title, Amataga (The Beginning) is the eighth release by this New Zealand-based Pacific island group; but even if you’re at all familiar with their style, this album will still probably surprise. Te Vaka have clearly progressed greatly since their early days and the album shows unexpected depth, poise and maturity. For although Amataga is still basedaround a well-produced mix of the expected – ‘island’ flava and pan-Pacific percussionwork outs – it’s the songwriting that was the biggest revelation. The group’s leader, guitarist, songwriter and producer, Opetaia Foa’i, is of solidly Pacific stock (Tokelau andTuvalu) and has been described as “one of New Zealand’s finest songwriters”. On Amataga we can see why. Foa’i’s songs not only celebrate Pacific culture (Majestic Dance and the possibly tongue-in-cheek Paradise) but are also by turn thoughtful (Big As You Are and a rueful My Sunny Days), heartfelt and topical. There’s a song about the MH370 air disaster, and another highlighting the under-reported struggle for freedom in Indonesian-occupied West Papua with the chanted refrain: “West Papua/ With you now/ Freedom/ Freedom now”. Foa’i has dedicated this album to those trying to do something about injustice and the state of the planet; and with Amataga, Te Vaka show they have the music to back it up
Havili (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2011)
The seventh album from Te Vaka doesn't bring any huge surprises, but then it doesn't need to. They've honed their South Pacific sound into a beautiful art, with warm harmonies, plenty of passion, and the log drums under it all the didgeridoo under "Lug Ma Lalo" adds some real primal earthiness to the track. But so much depends on the percussion, and that receives a proper workout on "Vevela." Much of the album stands as a reminder of just how good a songwriter bandleader Opetaia Foa'i is, and his skills have developed over the years. He creates infectious melodies, and even if you can't sing along in his language, you can certainly hum and tap your feet. There's a very tribal feel to the call and response on "Logo Te Pate," for instance. At heart they're an acoustic band, but there's strong electricity in the sounds they make, the vocals mixed bright and upfront to take advantage of the massed voices. Their aim has always been to make music for the South Pacific, and on Havili they've done exactly that, on their own terms.
Haoloto (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2009)
“Te Vaka - Haoloto OPETAIA FOA'I continues to guide with ease what can only be described as one of the greatest South Pacific bands of all time - Te Vaka.Since the establishment of the group in New Zealand 15 years ago, Te Vaka's music has encapsulated the heart and soul of the Pacific, Polynesia specifically. And, in the process, it has crushed underfoot once and for all the widely-held perception that Pacific music is only about ukeleles and hip-swaying hula girls. With his trademark open-key acoustic guitar, Foa'i steers Te Vaka - "The Canoe" - up several notches with the release of their latest South Pacific fusion CD Haoloto - their sixth since their self-titled debut album in 1997.But in doing so, the band doesn't stray an inch from the world-renowned Te Vaka tradition of adrenaline-pumped tribal percussions and soft-rockish ballads that pack the potential to pop goosebumps, or even reduce one to tears. While categorised "world music", several of the 15-track CD are definitely crossover material, particularly the anti-drug cut Well ... you lied,which lead female vocalist Olivia Foa'i delivers with a passionate, forceful grace.The vocal arrangement here is eerily reminiscent of the 1992 Herbs and Annie Crummer collaboration See What Love Can Do.In an acknowledgement on the CD sleeve, Opetaia describes the record as "the most challenging and most satisfying of all the Te Vaka albums".He says: "Once the canoe got rolling with all on board, there was a feeling that we were heading for somewhere special". Te Vaka has also been heading all over the world since day one. The multi-award-winning ensemble has globe-trotted ceaselessly and performed at prestigious venues in Europe, the Rugby World Cup in Paris, the Beijing Olympics, the United States and throughout the region. Haoloto is a special dedication to the victims of the tsunami in Tonga and Samoa and the earthquakes that claimed over a thousand lives in Indonesia.Opetaia writes: "We owe much to groups like the Red Cross, Oxfam and the Volunteer Ministers (the flash of yellow) and all other emergency response groups like them."It is with great respect for their hard work and care that I dedicate this album to them."But most of all, in this writer's humble opinion, the music of Te Vaka is a kind of rallying call for people of the Pacific diaspora, no matter where in the world they have established their new Jerusalem.
Olatia (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2007)
“Te Vaka – Olatia Pumping through the veins of the Polynesian's heart, discover the tribal and passionate sound of Te Vaka's fifth album Olatia. Written by the widely respected Opetaia Foa'i, the people's musical voice of the past and present, unveiling political and spiritual issues. Te Vaka is the most internationally recognised modern Polynesian band. Comprising of eleven native musicians and dancers, four of which are part of the Foa'i family, who through their music are trying to keep their traditional culture alive. The album emulates an earthy grounding beat, full of melody. Never straying from their roots. The theme of nature atmospherically binds some of the tracks together. Each track has it's own strength. Birdsong opens Ki Te Fakaolatia (To The Resue) singing of the survival of their environment and the power of life. Changing the tune is Nonu Paoa (Nonu Power), an energetic journey, chanting along powerfully enforcing the importance of uniting families together. The wide spectrum of instruments in the album simply diversifies the feel and the sound of the Pacific culture. Lima Tane features the Hawaiian ipu, which was a gift to Foa'i during their tour of Hawaii in 2005 - a very inspiring beat. This collection of 13 tracks expresses the intense desire to share their story, also covering issues such as global warming. The lyrics, which are mainly in Tokeelau, but also in Tuvaluan and Samoan, are translated into English in the accompanying 16-page booklet. The tone of the majority of these tracks is of a powerful spirit, however there is also the voice of a broken heart, representing the sadness of the loss of identity in this region. Olatia is to be promoted at the Rugby World Cup in France where Te Vaka shall be guests. The Polynesians should be proud to have a band like Te Vaka to represent their people.
Tutuki (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2004)
“Te Vaka - Tutuki Sumptuous stuff from Aotearoa’s Pan – Pacific Polynesian 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.
Nukukehe (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 2002)
“Te Vaka - Nukukehe 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. There 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.
Album review by David Gideon, New Zealand musician magazine
Ki mua (Spirit of Play Productions/Warm Earth Records 1999)
“Te Vaka: Covers stars of Feb/March’s NZM, Te Vaka have compiled a faultless selection of tracks with an obvious focus on Pacific culture and character. ‘Ki mua’ is what I would term (dare I say it) ‘Pacific Rock’. It has a very professional sound, is well produced by Malcolm Smith and Opetaia Foa’i with cool and easy grooves with chants that have a real, authentic sense of culture and Polynesian style. There’s no English here, the songs penned by frontman Opetaia Foa’i are all sung in Tokelauan which benefits the overall sound of the album. Title track Ki mua starts off nice and easy, drawing the cultural sounds of the Pacific up from the depths of Tradition and into the realms of it’s future. A song foundation of male harmonies layer well with an equally strong mix of angelic tones from vocalist Sulata Foa’i. The combination of vocals is best displayed on the harmony drenched Pate Pate while Lua Afe should be heard in dance clubs throughout the nation, if not the world. It makes way more sense to me to dance to these songs than all of the boom box techno junk food busting our eardrums today. There’s nothing I can fault about the musicianship on this album, nor the song construction or production. Even the addition of children’s voices on Ke Ke Kitea bring out a serene vibrance of culture and art inspired mainly and uniquely by the past and present lives of a people led by an adventurous and free spirit.