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Moana composer Opetaia Foa’i on the story behind the best soundtrack since The Lion King

The Moana soundtrack can be heard anywhere; in Countdown, at the movies, blasting from the car next to you at the Royal Oak roundabout. Madeleine Chapman sat down with one of the men responsible for the movie’s music, Opetaia Foa’i, to talk Disney, collaboration, and knowing when to draw the line.

I spotted Opetaia Foa’i in Ponsonby Central before I even saw his face. He’s one of only two men I’ve ever met who can successfully pull off a cowboy hat. The other is my Uncle Pene, and they both apparently wear their hats as much as possible.

“Talofa!” he greeted me and introduced me to his wife and manager, Julie. I brought up his Tuvaluan mother and said that my grandfather was from Tuvalu. Without skipping a beat, he reached across the table and grabbed me by the shoulders. “We’re already family then.”

Opetaia Foa’i, songwriter and lead vocalist of Te Vaka, was an obvious choice to be the voice of the Pacific in Disney’s Moana. Working with Mark Mancina and Broadway legend Lin-Manuel Miranda, the trio produced a movie soundtrack the likes of which we haven’t heard since Lion King. Having listened to the album exhaustively, I wanted to know everything. And my white friends wanted to know if they were allowed to sing along to the Samoan/Tokelauan parts.

Opetaia Foa’i recording for Moana (Image: Youtube)

First of all, how did this even come about? Where did Disney find you?

We noticed that they ordered all our [Te Vaka] CDs online and had underneath, ‘Disney’. They bought them all. Julie wrote back and said ‘look, you’re missing one. Should we send the other one?’ And they said ‘Yes, please’.

I suppose they compiled music from around the Pacific, from various artists. We got a call from the producer, Osnat Shurer, beautiful woman, and she said ‘think Lion King set in the Pacific 2,000 years ago and we want you to write the music.’ I was like wow, yes, cool.

From the moment they announced Moana right up until pretty much the day it came out, there were quite a few people who hesitated to embrace it because Disney haven’t been the greatest at portraying particular cultures. Did you have any of those reservations or did you think you could help make sure it was steered in the right direction?

That’s exactly right. I wasn’t going to compromise. I think various times I could’ve been [out]. But I was willing to do that. I was willing to cut Disney loose if they didn’t share my goals. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, promoting ancestors, so I was very lucky to have John Lasseter [Disney Animation’s chief creative officer]. He has this amazing, unique ability to tell stories and know what works, and luckily his view I agreed with.

Opetaia Foa’i, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Mark Mancina at work (Image: Youtube)

‘We Know The Way’ was the first song I wrote, in December 2013. They brought me over there and got me so inspired, saying it was about voyaging and I was just ‘Yes!’

I didn’t realise until the other day that there were songs available which had been cut from the soundtrack. So I listened to ‘More’ and it sounded a lot like ‘How Far I’ll Go’ except it was less about the dilemma of wanting to stay and lead, but also wanting to leave, looking to the future. ‘More’ seemed more about ‘I’m a bit bored with my life on the island’. How was the decision made to not include that song? Because I think it would have really changed how audiences viewed the character of Moana.

That’s the tricky part of the whole thing because they’re from a different culture so I had to steer things. I realised very, very quickly that these were professional people at their highest level. They had great intentions but they were very foreign to our culture and understanding it. Luckily I was very quick to see that and I knew that I had to do it very gradually. And that’s what I did. If they did something I didn’t agree with I would say no, that doesn’t work.

John Lasseter was beautiful. After a while he said ‘whatever Opetaia says.’ So everything sort of shifted.

That’s what I loved about the story itself. It seemed so familiar to all Pacific Islanders. That decision that Moana is faced with is faced by almost every Islander who leaves their island. Moana could be any of our relatives. Was there a progression in that character or was she always going to be a very relatable, not privileged, character?

There was some progression along the way but this is the message. And you can relate it to your story and I can relate it to my story, it’s very very relatable. The hardships we’ve faced, and doing something that we’re passionate about, not worrying about doing it for someone else.

I went to see it with my mum, and my Samoan is not good at all but I could figure out what most of the lyrics were saying, but my mum was able to watch and listen to it how I would listen to English. That must be the first time Disney has allowed whole songs in a movie to not be in English. Were they always intending to have Samoan and Tokelauan lyrics?

Nope, that’s me. At the time I began, most of the influence was Hawaiian, Tahitian, because that’s all they know. I know that the voyaging began in the Samoa, Tonga, Fiji area, so I knew that the first language to hit had to be Samoan. Because I mainly write in Tokelauan, it just came naturally that the chorus [of ‘We Know The Way’] would lift in Tokelauan. I did that intentionally because I knew that whatever they do in translating this movie to all other languages, they will never translate that.

The first verse is in Samoan but I actually had three verses. My job was to insert as much Pacific language in there, but they had to take away the two verses.

I noticed when the Samoan verse became the Tokelauan chorus, but I was surprised that my mum could still understand everything because she’s not Tokelauan at all. But she said it was such a similar language that most Samoans can understand Tokelauan and vice versa.

That was my thought behind it. Because Tokelauan can be understood by Samoans and also Māori. So having Samoan first, followed by that, to me it made it Polynesian.

I saw that the producers hadn’t planned to use Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vocals on ‘We Know The Way’ but decided to keep him in after hearing his demo vocals. Were you always going to be singing in the movie?

For Lin, we were wondering who was going to sing that one. No one was going to take me off the first verse [laughs]. They really enjoyed what I put in. If you notice the character on the boat who’s singing, that’s supposed to be me.

My workmates love to play the soundtrack in the office and they sing along to everything but not to the Samoan and Tokelauan bits. So they wanted me to ask you: are white people allowed to sing the Samoan bits if they don’t know all the words exactly?

Absolutely! It’s just a buzz. This is our culture, the Pacific, to share with the world. I actually gave Dwayne [Johnson] a hard time when we first met. I began speaking to him in Samoan and he spoke a little and it was a bit dusty. But we’d have little conversations in Samoan and he’s very proud.

Just tell them this: in the Pacific, when everyone sings, not everyone sings in tune. That’s not the important thing. The important thing is that everybody participates. We don’t sit there and go ‘that person’s out of tune’, that’s my upbringing. So tell them to sing their hearts out. Whether they’re in tune or singing the wrong words, it’s fantastic.

I was quite surprised at just how much non-English there was in it. I read all the reviews and no one thought it was weird that there were a bunch of songs most viewers wouldn’t understand. It was just so part of the movie no one thought to comment on it.

Can you imagine the movie without it? It wouldn’t be the same. I worked really hard to make sure those lyrics were in there because that’s what our culture’s all about. Without the language it’s empty.

On ‘How Far I’ll Go’, were you…

‘How Far I’ll Go’ was written by Lin, that’s Lin’s song. I’m more interested in our language – when that came in I went ‘mmm you have that one’. I’m only interested in ones that promote our culture. I can write in English but for this movie, to get the final product as I wanted it, my job was to put as much Pacific in it.

Did you help to assemble the choir that sings in the songs and also in the score?

The score is Te Vaka. There is a Fijian group on some of the songs that Disney went to in Fiji, I think. But the whole Te Vaka crew recorded in Warner Brothers in Burbank [Los Angeles]. Most of the voices you hear are Te Vaka. It was very fun. I can write things on the spot very quickly so most of the score with my stuff in it, I made it up on the spot.

Lin said that with ‘We Know The Way’, you just came up with the melody in the room and then he took it away and worked on the lyrics.

That was a good collaboration. When we got together, things moved very quick. He works very fast, I work very fast. When I create something I get bored very quickly, same as him. So we had a lot of fun.

Opetaia in animated form (Image: Youtube)

‘I am Moana’ is based on ‘An Innocent Warrior’, which is based on ‘Loimata e Maligi’, a song that I wrote for Tuvalu. Disney loved that song. But the problem is in Tuvalu, the words ‘Omai fakamafanafanaga’, they said ‘can you amend those words for English ears’. So it’s the same tune but I amended the words to flow better and to match the little baby Moana.

On a personal note, which is your favourite song from the soundtrack?

The one that promotes the pioneers, the best sailors the world has ever seen, ‘We Know The Way.’ There’s an album coming out, actually. We were going to put out a Te Vaka ‘Best Of’ and Disney said ‘we want to put it out under Disney Records’. So that’s coming out in a couple months and on there are my outtakes, the ones that didn’t make it into the movie. So people will understand more of the cultural elements that I put in.

Were you at all nervous about what the reception to it would be? After working on it and knowing more than anyone else, were you at all nervous? Because I had nothing to do with it and I was nervous.

You gotta know we had a Skype meeting every week so I kept up with it every time to write the music. As I said, I’m steering all the way to the end. I was satisfied that this was the movie I’d be happy with. I think my ancestors would’ve been happy with that. Because it focuses on their story; the voyagers, the way-finders, the first in the world. I knew they would be happy.

People were very concerned with ‘what does it do for us?’ ‘Disney are profiting off our culture!’ seems to be the main complaint.

I think for our people who have never been to the village, brought up in the city, it awakens something in them to want to go back, put their feet on the land. For people from other cultures to be interested enough to have a look at our culture that’s more than just the hula and ukulele, I’m a very happy man.

Those people that say negative things about Disney, all I can say is imagine if we didn’t have the movie Moana. That’s about it. Imagine if Disney did not bother making something about our culture. Then you look at what we have. I guess it’s those people who look at the downside of things. Disney’s making a lot of money? They’re the ones who took the gamble. These people should focus on what it’s done, what it’s doing, how it’s inspiring our younger generation, how it’s showing off our culture. To hell with how much money they make. That, to me, is secondary.

This is our movie. It’s not their movie, it’s our movie.


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