Disney A-listers awestruck by ‘Pasifika Voices’ and their Samoan, Tokelauan, Kiwi and Melanesian connection
Meet the 20 young singers from Fiji and the Solomon Islands, members of Igelese Ete’s Pasifika Voices choir who recorded for Disney’s Moana producers. The Disney team travelled to Fiji the day its Rugby 7s team won Olympic Gold in Rio.
Disney’s music supervisor and 2013 Oscar winner, Tom MacDougall thought he’d heard it all.
That was until last week when he, and six of Disney’s top notch music team landed in Fiji to hear Pacific music genius Igelese Ete’s choir, Pasifika Voices (a nurturing hub for many of Fiji’s musical success).
MacDougall who has supervised music for all of Disney and Pixar’s animated features since 1995, is finalizing the music score for Disney’s latest animated princess feature – Moana – set for release on 23 November 2016.
Their trip came about after the Wellington-raised, Samoan-born Igelese Ete traveled at his own expense to leave a personal message at Disney studios last year saying: “that they cannot produce a movie about the Pacific and not include voices of the Pacific.”
In 2002, Disney produced Lilo & Stich, a story about a lonely Hawaiian girl who adopts a strange creature, and used a choir from Auckland. Igelese told Disney that was “Not really Pacific”.
So the Disney team flew in hoping to hear the music of the Pacific. One that captures the Pacific’s heart, soul and mythical essence. But in reality, they knew it was a very long shot, if not impossible, as they had no prior experience of what’s available in the Pacific, talent and technical wise.
So they kept expectations to a minimum, aiming to come away with ‘something’ good enough for a placeholder in the film score.
But what they got, they were totally unprepared for.
“The balance of the choir and the beauty of their voices, the feel and blend of what we felt will take the film [Moana] to a whole new level,” gushed Music Editor, Earl Ghafarri.
“Its everything we could wish for. We can’t wait to take it back and have everybody listen to it. As we go back and do the rest of the music – this is going to lift everybody up.”
Don Harper, Moana’s Orchestral Conductor could only muster, “It was an exceptional experience.”
The soundtrack for Moana is due for release in late October. There will be 20 Fijian and Solomon Islands names amongst the credits.
For Oscar winner, MacDougall, he gave Igelese and Pasifika Voices the ultimate accolade.
“I have been working in a lot of movies and whether recording in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the world, I can sincerely say that the experience in working with Pasifika Voices has been the absolute tops,” Mr MacDougall stated.
“I can’t thank Igelese enough for getting the group ready and lending us their spirit for this project because it’s going to last for a lifetime.”
But there’s news for MacDougall, Disney and Hollywood. They may have just stumbled on Pasifika Voices and Igelese’s talent last week, but for Pacific islanders, stars and geniuses are a dime a dozen – it came as no surprise that they finally discovered Igelese. Mind you, Igelese was always this good from a young age – but, his type and quality of talent is said to be quite normal back in the villages of the Pacific islands.
To enlighten foreign readers, following is a brief take on Igelese’s Kiwi history and Samoan lineage. It reveals extra background on him, but also provides a brief window on the depth and richness of the Pacific’s untapped potential in its unique communal setting.
Igelese grew up in the Wellington suburb of Mornington. His parents Risatisone and Fereni were Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa (EFKS) church pastors in the early 1970s. The church later found a permanent home at Owen Street, Newtown. Last year, the Owen Street congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary, where Igelese’s father, Reverend Elder Risatisone Ete launched his book documenting the history of the congregation.
Traditionally, EFKS churches are key pillars supporting the growth of Samoan families and helped establish their communal/Samoan setting in New Zealand from the early 1960s. A growth that the 2013 census show Samoans making up just under 50 per cent of the entire Pacific population of just under 300,000.
Over the past 50 years, the Owen Street EFKS church contributed many notable Samoan achievers. One of those is the Laughing Samoans comedy duo with Igelese’s older brother, Ete, the senior member. The younger half, Tofiga, is the bigger and louder of the two. It is worthy to note that the fundamentals of their evolving comedy production are still based on skits perfected during Sunday school plays, White Sunday renditions, and Christmas dramas from the early 1980s at Owen Street.
The Owen Street congregation also gave birth to many other reverend ministers, two of whom are serving Auckland’s larger congregations. Rev Featuna’i Liua’ana, at Sandringham, and Rev Peniamina Leota at Grey Lynn who are also doctors of philosophy. Many others like Rev Aliota Tiatia at Chermside, Brisbane, Australia serve their Samoan communities far away from home.
Igelese’s mother, Fereni, was at the forefront of establishing the Aoga Amata, early childhood movement in the early 1990s. Fereni’s school was also one of the first to provide training in the Samoan language for an early childhood qualification. It came as no surprise when she was awarded a Queens Service Medal in 2014.
In these instances, the New Zealand infrastructure repackaged and enhanced the raw Pacific talents which Western mainstream society is now just starting to recognize. One that comes easily to mind is Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. As a little boy, he grew up in Auckland with his Samoan mother, Ata, but in 2015, is Hollywood’s highest paid actor. He is also the male lead voice in Moana, as the demi-god Maui.
At the country level, Igelese’s village in Samoa is Fatausi in Savaii. A village also notable for producing the seven Tuilagi brothers who played for Manu Samoa and various international clubs where they attract thousands of hero-worshipping fans addicted to the mayhem and carnage only they can inflict on a rugby field.
The youngest brother, Manusamoa Tuilagi represents England. But then again, Fatausi is only one village in Samoa, virtually all other villages have achievers plying their ‘Igelese-type’ talents far away from the prying eyes of Hollywood and Disney.
But it is Savaii that Disney’s Moana and Igelese’s heritage have a common branch. It is now virtually proven beyond all doubt that one of human kinds’ greatest achievements, the settlement of Polynesia, an area of more than 10 million square miles, before the invention of navigational tools, started from Samoa.
If ‘Polynesians are all Samoans’ then Disney’s Pacific princess, Moana’s ancestors originated from Samoa. It means her language, her communal way of living, the legends and navigational heritage that Disney will vividly showcase to the world on 23 November are traced all the way back to Samoa around 800 BCE. Incidentally, the final place that was settled in the Polynesian migration is Aotearoa. The place where the original Moana scriptwriter hails from, Taika Waititi.
The other commonality that Igelese and Moana share is the strong influence of Tokelau in the musical score. Although Opetaia Foa’i’s Te Vaka is one of the song writers in the Moana score, there is a growing group of young Tokelauans who are not happy with the way Te Vaka is treating their language.
They are concerned that compromizing their language in Te Vaka’s contemporary style jeopardizes their language’s integrity especially for the young Tokelauans living overseas.
But that is made up through Igelese Tokelauan connection. His aunty Mavis married doctor Tinielu who hails from the northern-most atoll of Atafu. Igelese’s first cousin, Losa a health professional was in Apia last week attending the first phase of implementing Tokelau’s Health Strategic Plan 2016-2020.
She told the writer about the good old days of going to Samoa College in the mid-1980s and the excitement in recalling the memories of her aunty Fereni and cousins Menime, Ete, Soteria, Igelese and Risati living in Wellington. She asked to pass on her best wishes to aunty Fereni who the writer was going to meet at the EFKS Newlands church in the weekend.
The message was duly delivered and gratefully received last Sunday.
These are the snippets that make up Igelese’s persona, and the essence in Pasifika Voices that Oscar winner Mr MacDougall and his team found so fresh and enchanting last week.
Igelese, a special Polynesian talent, amongst a dime a dozen others, that blended 20 Melanesian voices wowing Disney and Hollywood A-listers.
Moana’s music editor Earl Gafarri said Pasifika Voices was everything they could have wished for.
“The balance of the choir and the beauty of their voices, the feel and the blend of what we felt will take the film [Moana] to a whole new level.”
But for us in the Pacific, and those who grew up at EFKS Owen Street, it came as no surprise, we were already showcasing talents that could take Hollywood productions to new levels. They just never looked this way…until now!