photo: Charley Gallay/Getty

In my culture, music is like breathing air.”

Opataia Foa’i has been a musician his entire life and had made it a family affair. With his band Te Vaka, he travels the world entertaining fans with his Oceanic Polynesian/contemporary fusion sound in Tokelauan, a Samoan language that only about 4000 people in the world speak regularly (areas of New Zealand, Tokelau, and Swains Island). Even though most fans don’t speak the language, it doesn’t stop them from appreciating the music. It’s because of this pureness that Disney approached Opetaia to collaborate on Moana.

photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

“Julie (our manager) saw somebody ordering all these CDs and I saw Disney underneath so she contacted them.  Apparently, they checked out a lot of Artists and luckily they chose me.”

Ta Vaka consists of several musicians and dancers, with Opetaia and his daughter Olivia fronting the band. Both sing on the Moana soundtrack that Opetaia worked on with Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Opetaia was a bit start-struck but knew that they would make a perfect trio for the music of Moana:

“Before I became famous” (he says with a laugh) we had a lot of time. So when we got together, it was quite an amazing combination. Mark who, of course, is very experienced and Lin who’s very good with lyrics and directing, and me. 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, so we had a lot of fun together.”

Something that everyone should know about Opataia is that music is in his blood and soul. While a little worry was there for working with such powerhouses, he knew that Mark and Lin were the right ones for his craft and have Mark & Lin there to fill in anything he wasn’t quite sure of.

I trusted that Mark would make those decisions.  And I didn’t compromise from my cultural background either. I had many things that didn’t get into the movie – they would dutily say, “Opetaia, that was good but we don’t want to scare the children.”  I’m very, very passionate about the chants of the pre-Missionary Pacific,  who didn’t have melodies but just chants and beats and I love that.

One of my favorite songs on the Moana soundtrack is one that in fact has some wonderful Oceanic chants and beats that Opetaia loves, called “Logo Te Pate” which is entirely in the Tokelauan language and sung by Olivia Foa’i and Opetaia.  Although Opetaia and his music continue to spread across the world on the success of Moana, he remains humble and grateful.

photo: Louise Bishop/Momstart

“I’m happy where I am now.  I was trying to explain to you my journey,  it was really to promote my culture. 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.”

Moana has really pushed the Polynesian culture into mainstream, extending far beyond what most people think of the South Pacific as just Hawaii. While Hawaii is a part of the Polynesian triangle, it also includes Tahiti, New Zealand, and several small islands. It’s these islands that the navigators of Oceania searched for and discovered, something that has been a part of Opetaia and his ancestors. He is proud of the way Disney portrayed his culture and believes that his ancestors would be proud of the portrayal of Oceania. Find out more about Opetaia Foa’i, Te Vaka, and the music of Oceania on his official website.

Moana is in theaters NOW! Get the soundtrack from Amazon