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Asia Te Vaka nominated for the Asia/Pacific category

Te Vaka
(New Zealand)

Song : Nukukehe
Album : Nukukehe (Warm Earth Records, New Zealand)

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More: New Zealand Music Awards 2003

In world music terms, New Zealand's Aotearoa is most commonly identified with Maori culture. But there are also many people from various Pacific nations living there, especially in Auckland, which has long been the world's largest Polynesian city. Te Vaka are the world's most successful band playing original contemporary Pacific music and they've been energetically taking it to the world's stages ever since their formation in 1995.

The group were founded by Opetaia Foa'i, who was born in Western Samoa. However, his father was from the Tokelau Islands and his mother from Tuvalu, so he grew up in a predominantly Tokelauan community there. That's why Tokelauan is his strongest language and the one he composes all of Te Vaka's songs in. Even so, the 11-member group includes people from all over the Pacific (seven from the extended Foa'i family) and even one palangi - New Zealanders of European descent. So Te Vaka create a truly pan-Pacific sound.

Opetaia says his first instrument was the floor, which would be used for percussive purposes during all-night music sessions at family gatherings during his childhood. His whole family emigrated to New Zealand when he was nine and he picked up ukulele and guitar before eventually starting to make a living playing covers in pubs. He soon grew tired of simply playing other peoples' music though, and increasingly became interested in stories his father would tell him about their ancestors. 'I started asking questions and got more and more intrigued, and from then on I started writing little stories,' he explains.

One thing led to another. Powered by the driving ambition of Opetaia's wife Julie, who became Te Vaka's manager, they have so far produced three acclaimed albums. Even though it includes programming, guitars and rock/pop/funk/soul flavours, Te Vaka's music is grounded in the rhythms of the Pacific by the use of pate (single and double log drums) and Pa'u (indigenous goat skin conga and bass drums).

And their roots are deep, as Julie stresses: 'The traditional influences that inspire Te Vaka are all pre-missionary ­ the very old fatele dances where the rhythms and chants are the focus, and there's a lot of excitement and tribal energy.' The group's four dancers bring a thrilling vibrancy to Te Vaka's live performances and research their own choreography, taking inspiration from all over the Pacific.

There's a serious side to their music as well, as the sleevenote translations of Opetaia's lyrics show. 'We're very concerned about the situation regarding the sea level and what would happen to the very unique cultures and languages of islands such as Tokelau and Tuvalu should people be forced to relocate', says Julie. 'We try to create an awareness about this situation through the music and try to help preserve the language and culture by bringing it into the modern world.'

Jon Lusk 2002

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