Musician Opetaia Foa'i performs onstage at the world premiere of Disney's Moana.
Musician Opetaia Foa'i performs onstage at the world premiere of Disney's Moana. Alberto E. Rodriguez

The man behind the music of Moana

BRINGING the songs of the Pacific to a worldwide audience of movie-goers has been the highlight of one proud Kiwi's career.

If you see Disney's Moana at the cinema this summer then chances are you'll be singing along in no time to the songs in the movie, especially the theme song We Know The Way.

The song was written and performed by Opetaia Foa'i, who has spent more than two decades travelling the world telling stories of the South Pacific.

During research for the movie, the filmmakers visited several locations across the Pacific and New Zealand, including the Polynesian music and dance festival Pasifika. The result is Moana, and it's fair to say this is the first major animated movie that tells the stories of the Polynesia.

Opetaia's involvement came out of the blue, and led to a life-changing involvement.

"I was lucky enough to have the producer ring me up and ask me if I wanted to be part of this movie," Opetaia says from Auckland while preparing for the film's New Zealand premiere.

"It was just like that. I think they'd been listening to lots of islander music at the time."

Moana has four directors, which is odd for a major movie, but when you look at the work these four men have behind them it's a legacy of movie classics such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Big Hero 6 and Hercules.

"We flew to Los Angeles in December 2013 and I met two of the directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, and then they started to tell me about the movie they had in mind with a focus on the ancestors in the Pacific," he says.

"I've been telling these stories for over 20 years, so I was overjoyed to be involved.".

Opetaia is the founder and lead singer of New Zealand band Te Vaka, and a winner of numerous world music awards including the Senior Pacific Artist Award for his contribution to Pacific music. Nobody knows more about the music from the region and the legends.

"I love the way it's worked out. It has a lot of our stories from the South Pacific in the movie, and they respected the culture hugely," he says.

"It has elements about being an explorer, and you can't do that without respect for the ocean. Moana is about being connected to the wind, the sea, your whole environment and seeing all that entwined into this movie is what really excites me."

His involvement in a major Disney animation production has taken him around the world, writing and performing the songs along with attending dozens of premieres.

"It's been fantastic traveling the world; we've done 40 countries so far. Every performance I do I rave about our ancestors, how they traveled the seas and to see this in a movie, and running in cinemas around the world…boy, that a dream come true," he says.

"I think we've been very lucky the stars really aligned on Moana, and to have the world's most famous Samoan Dwayne Johnson and Auli'I Cravalho in the movie... everything just fell into place. There was no question Dwayne had to be involved. Some of the lines he says in the movie, if I said them then it would be so uncool. It's a dream team to me."

The legends and stories told in the movie will be new to Western audiences, and they are stories of which Opetaia is very protective.

"The stories in the movie are pretty spot-on from the traditional tales," he said. "I spent three years with the directors and to be honest I should have been fired four or five times for refusing things if they didn't align. But at the end of the day they were very respectful, and very willing to look at them.

"I also love how they've captured the culture of looking after each other in the villages, and the joys of working together. These are elements of life that are very important to our culture, and especially to the whole planet at the moment.

"Seeing the film for the first time with an audience was very special."

Moana is in cinemas now.

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