Originally published here
There is a story that Opetaia Foa’i tells, one told with breathless excitement that carries down the phone all the way from New Zealand.
Visiting Samoa with the other members of latest Disney big-screen animation Moana, he recounts it on his blog as “a very old and fragile gentleman who appeared to look into people’s hearts and souls”, telling the story of how wayfinders pioneered the area.
It was an experience that encapsulated what he wanted to communicate with his contribution to Moana – simply “I just love to find different ways to tell stories about this area”.
Foa’i is the voice behind Moana, Disney’s new animated masterpiece about a young Polynesian heir who wishes to explore the sea at a time when voyaging is forbidden.
It’s earned comparisons to 90s classics like The Lion King. It’s not based on a novel or comic book, instead on thousands of years of shared history, passed down from generation to generation. It brings the traditions of Pacific Island music, creating an infectious Disney musical that showcases a number of styles.
Mark Mancina, who wrote the sounds of Tarzan with Phil Collins, provided the orchestrations; Lin-Manuel Miranda (who needs no introduction) the lyrics; but it’s Foa’i that provides the beating heart of the piece, the stirring rhythms that make Moana’s journey across the sea a moving one. “Those guys are so good,” Foa’i says. “I was a newbie.”
Foa’i may be modest about it, but it’s difficult to diminish his own celebrity. Born in Samoa before moving to New Zealand at the age of nine, music was a comfort in cold Auckland winters, where he didn’t know a word of English and missed the warmth and tight-knit community of home, where everyday life was musical.
“When they cut the grass, it’s got rhythm as well,” he says. “Everything’s got such a rhythm. It’s an exciting part of growing up.”
Buying Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland on the first day of high school would provide one of his most memorable musical lessons; before getting into varied styles like jazz, blues, and reggae as a teenager. But something about existing in other musical cultures didn’t feel right, leading him to starting South Pacific Fusion group Te Vaka (“the world’s most successful band playing original contemporary Pacific music,” according to the BBC) in 1995.
Combined with his music-immersed early upbringing and struggle to pursue music as a teenager (not unlike Moana’s desire to explore the sea), it’s his storytelling journey with Te Vaka that prepared him the most. “Over 20 years ago I just set out to tell the stories of the ancestors from a musical angle. That’s my story,” he says.
“It gives me huge satisfaction to tell the stories of my ancestors because that knowledge isn’t known enough around the world. There’s vikings and all that stuff, but there’s this amazing culture here that we need to share. That has been my lifetime goal.”
Arguably Foa’i’s centerpiece is We Know the Way, which forms one of the most memorable moments in the film. It’s a song that feels like the summation of this storytelling legacy, where Moana looks to the past to find her destiny.
Foa’i, who says he “writes from emotions”, capturing them in song even while recording, started to write it on the plane home from his first visit to Disney’s headquarters in the United States, energised about the opportunity that had come to him. “How could you help not being a part of it, you know?,” he says.
But before collaborating with Mancina and Miranda, Foa’i “searched everywhere to try and find a place” to connect with the story, retreating to write in the remote area of Waihi. He decided to write in languages like Samoan, Tokelauan, and Tuvaluan because of their inherent rhythm and musicality.
“Any gap I could see I could put in a Pacific language, I would,” he says. He also gathered thousands of years of stories from across the Pacific to add to what he’d heard as a child. He jokes about his particular enthusiasm for gathering stories: “I headhunted every old person I could find. I practically got them up a wall,” he laughs.
It’s a love that has grown over the years. “I got to understand how they were feeling and how the stories were passed down to them,” he says. “To me, that’s how islanders or people in this culture live. They live through things being passed down.
“What they achieved back then is to me, like going to the moon. There’s so many different aspects to that, to being a way finder. You have to align to the sea….you have to have a relationship with it, otherwise you can’t wayfind.
“You come from a village where people are very close to each other, love each other, share with each other. On a bigger picture, they’re things we need in this world today, but it’s all in this movie. I can’t stop raving about it, you know?”
While Foa’i jokes that after Moana, he’s so satisfied that he’ll “be happy to just go and be a bus driver now or something”, it’s undeniable that what Foa’i has created will leave an impression for a long time to come.
On all the songs, particularly We Know the Way, there is a choir of voices, an idea of a community in song and shared history. When asked about the impression he hopes the film will leave, Foa’i, a man of many stories, has another one.
“There’s something inside us all that’s lying dormant. Of course, this is about Polynesian culture. But we’re talking about voyaging, that is also alive in other cultures. If this can awaken those parts in people, inspired to appreciate where they came from, to appreciate their ancestors, what they did, and bring it back up again, I think it’s a vital thing we’re missing in this world.
‘“The music in Moana is to really assist the story. It’s not based on any (one) story, it’s based on the stories of the South Pacific. It reverberates with other cultures as well. I think this movie has life. It’ll last for a long time.”
With Foa’i’s voice, it certainly will.