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December/January 2017

by Bobby Kennedy

Opetaia Foa’i: Making Moana’s music

by Bobby Kennedy

Opetaia Foa’i: Making Moana’s music

New Zealand composers quite possibly have a strong reputation in Disney land, courtesy of Bret McKenzie’s genius in composing Man or Muppet, for which he famously won the Original Song Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards. Equally it could just have been the international reputation of his show band and the seven prior albums which won Te Vakas Opetaia Foa’i the role of songwriter for Disney’s next-big-thing Polynesian ‘princess’ movie Moana. No matter, it was a role of great kudos, a huge personal honour and likely an even bigger challenge. Three years later the film has arrived and NZM asked musician/composer Bobby Kennedy to talk with Opetaia about the experience.

My personal journey with music began in 1981 when my mum took me to see, Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Even before the film ended I remember having a sense of two things. One, that I wanted be an adventurer travelling all over the world just like Indy, and two, that the combined power of music and film can impact a person unlike any other popular art-form.

I’ll concede that my second point may have been a little too abstract a concept for a 9-year old to grasp but to test this assertion, all you need do is picture the shower scene from Psycho, or when the words, ‘In a galaxy far, far away…’ suddenly cuts to Star Wars.

Leaving Christchurch’s Regent on Worcester Cinema that day, 35 years ago, I vividly recall the feeling of total elation as we made our way across the Square to our bus, dodging imaginary boulders and blow darts along the way. I hummed the Raiders’ theme tune all the way home.

I started taking drum lessons soon after and to this day some of my favourite albums are film scores.

As I went through high school priorities changed. I eventually moved away from the notion of becoming a world famous archaeologist (let’s be honest, my grades forced my hand on that on), but the one constant through the years has been my love of music, and through music, a love of film.

I’ve dabbled in writing music for film over the years, and co-founded The Screen Composers Guild of New Zealand as a way to meet like minded film composers so that we could trade tips and techniques. While on holiday in Samoa recently I received an email from NZ Musician asking if I’d like to interview one of the composers for Disney’s latest animated offering, Moana.

Given that I’m not exactly the target audience for such fare, I’d have to admit I was more excited than I probably should have been. After all, Moana is essentially a kids movie. That the man I was going to be talking to was Opetaia Foa’i, the founder and front man of Te Vaka, made me even more excited.

I first came across Te Vaka’s albums as an assistant manager of a record store in the early 2000s. To be able to sit down in a Skype chat with Opetaia to hear about his journey, and how he came to be working on this massive Hollywood behemoth of a project was nothing short of an honour.

Bobby Kennedy

So you were born in Samoa, to a Tokelauan father and Tuvaluan mother. When did you start playing music and you know, get that ‘bug’?

That’s right. They went to school there and that’s where I was born. They brought me to New Zealand in ’65. I was about nine years old then.

I already had the traditional music. I was really lucky to have the Samoan Siva, the Tokelau Fatele and the Tuvalu as well, so the music was always there. I got to really love that and it’s still there. In high school [Kelston Boys High] I got given the Hendrix double album ‘Electric Ladyland’, and that really blew my socks off. From then on it was just, finding other songwriters, like Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, just anything that really hits, you know?

When did Te Vaka come about, how old were you when you started the group?

Well, I already had children then, and I was in my 30s. It was just one of those things, you know? You do a whole journey and you know all of a sudden something hits just out of the blue. I just felt really inspired to just tell the stories of my ancestors and I’ve been doing that ever since.

What was it like to get that call from Disney for Moana? How had they heard of you and your expertise, so to speak?

It was really amazing, especially when they brought me over to LA and I got to find out what it was all about. It was centred on the voyaging and, it was it was like somebody had just sort of laid something in front of me, a huge gift in front of me, and I couldn’t believe it.

I only found out a few months ago how they came to choose me! I’m sure they were others who could have done the job, but I think they just decided that there was some quirkiness in what I do that they fancied. I was glad they did.

You’ve got to realise that throughout the whole thing, story writers were getting replaced so I was getting a bit worried about my position in fact. So I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t make it they can just find somebody else, which was fine.’ I found out a couple months ago that they did extensive work where they brought in all the CDs of every artist that does anything Pacific and they went through it – I think a whole team of them – and they finally decided on me.

And then I found out they were not going to let me go so, wish I knew that earlier.’ [He laughs.]

Getting a call to do a Disney movie would be a life changer for most musicians. As you say it was sort of like a gift from the gods… that landed in your lap. How has it changed things for you?

Well you do have to realise that if it didn’t align, if they were going to make fun of the culture or not really centre on the voyaging, I wasn’t going to do it. Because I’ve seen other movies that people have tried before and it really annoyed me that, well, I didn’t feel they did it right. So that is really what’s of utmost importance to me. I think about four or five times I should have been sacked because I refused to do things. They ask me to do things and I just said, ‘No’, and I thought, ‘Oh well, here it goes, that’s it. But each time they managed to call a conference in and then get back on track again. And that made me happy.

I think they found out soon after that I really meant what I said. I was in there because I’ve spent 20 years of my life doing this, and that was a huge grounding for me. It’s like I didn’t need anybody else to tell me which was the right way of doing this. I’ve done all my research and I’ve spoken to all the elders before I actually went out on this 20-odd years that I’ve put into Te Vaka. So I was very confident that what I was doing was actually right.

So with Disney, luckily they managed to say, ‘Oh, okay, let’s readjust this to match what you were doing.’ So I didn’t really look for anybody else’s, approval. I just felt like, ‘Okay, I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years and I’m just going to follow that path through this as much as possible.

There’s a huge investment in money and time in these animated films  and with that comes great expectation from audiences who love Disney films. Did you feel that weight of that expectation at all, and did it affect the way you approached the music?

Yes, there was a responsibility that goes with it and I was lucky that John Lasseter the head of Disney, John Musker and Ron Clements, those guys were really supportive. And of course this is not their culture, so when I pointed something out, they were ‘Oh, oh, I see.’ And then they re-adjusted it, you know, so that was awesome…

I went with them to Samoa. It was amazing, you know, just to watch them get excited about things. I mean to see people with outside cultures come in and go, ‘Oh wow, that’s how you cook it?’ and things like that,. It excites them. It’s amazing.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and myself took care of the songs. I was signed on in December 2013 and he was signed on in March 2014 so he came in a bit later. It was just unfortunate though that, we started and then about a month later he got mega stardom…

Yeah, with the Hamilton musical right? So he’s really blowing up right now…

Oh yeah, but we started working together before that happened, you know… You should see the amount of songs they didn’t put in the movie. [He laughs.]

About how many did you have to write?

Oh a lot! Every time the song gets changed… ‘Oh Opetaia, can you just adjust it for these story changes?’ So, yes, so the whole three years has been quite a journey.

Obviously as the script is tweaked the story changes. So how do you approach writing a song based on a moving character that you can’t see in front of you? You haven’t met them so to speak and you don’t really know much about them.

Well, they send me clips. Every time they run a story roughly of course, how it’s going to run, and then they say, ‘Can you do something for that?’

Did you have a different kind of musical approach for each character or different instrumentation? How did you approach that?

It was great having Mark Mancina… musically he understands all that beautifully. And then you’ve got Lin-Manuel whose lyrics are just amazing. And then of course myself. I don’t read music, I write by emotions. So when they send me a clip I can capture an emotion very very easily, and I can give them three different scenarios of sound and melody lines, and then Mark is able to actually pick out parts that he knows Disney will like. So I don’t actually compromise how I run anything, I just write naturally and luckily Mark can pick parts out, and then Lin can add lyrics or melodies of his own to it.

That sounds like you guys are really tightly collaborating there, but how was that possible? Did you have to move from Sydney to the States?

Yeah, well, it’s only since Lin got famous that he was in demand elsewhere. But before that we used to get together in New York, in Carmel in LA, and anytime we got together it was just like magic. I’m pretty fast and so we got together really quickly… I think Mark mentioned one time we could have written this whole thing, you know 10, 20 times over. If Lin hadn’t been so famous so quickly!

Mark Mancina has got the underscore, all the orchestral stuff that he’s organised and orchestrated. So when do you come in? Did you get the instrumentation for the Polynesian sounds, the textures and timbres?

My two sons are really good log drummers, so a group of us recorded at Warner Brothers where they had this elaborate set up for all of us with log drums and skin drums, and we laid down bits for the movie. Then later on we went back and I took all the vocalists that have ever been on the Te Vaka albums and we recorded the stuff for the score.

That was a lot of fun, because if you could imagine, Mark was in the studio and he went through your piece and would tell you, ‘We’ve got this section here, can you just make something up?’ So I would just make up a melody line or a chant and my team would just immediately do it better than I first had it, you know? And those are the parts that ended up in the movie.

Did Disney have any particular parameters that they wanted you to work within?

Oh no, they gave me the freedom to express and to write which was fantastic. I think they soon realised that I couldn’t really operate any other way, and I think it was the general joke that was running… ‘Opetaia, umm, that last piece you sent was really good, but we don’t want to scare the children.’ [He laughs.] So when something was a bit too dark they would say that, and we would have a laugh. I was very lucky that I was given free reign.

It’s been big news that the traditional ‘Disney Princess’ approach has been skipped in this one and that Moana is more of a heroine, which is a first for an animated Disney film. How how did you deal with that in terms of the musical approach, writing more heroic kind of themes as opposed… is there a love theme?

I preferred that because I hate writing love songs!

What are some of the main differences between writing songs for a film and writing songs for an album of traditionally structured songs? I’d imagine they are quite different?

Well I try and stay away from writing things in English you know, because I feel there’s much better people that do that. But I can. I’ve written for Johnny Lingo in English [Opetaia wrote the music for film The Legend of Johnny Lingo that was released in 2003.] For me it’s just finding something that you’re really passionate about and is real, and then expressing it so that it comes from you. It depends on what you put out there as your goal I guess.

So when you are up there receiving your Academy Award for best original song [Opetaia’s laughter inerrupts…] who will you be thanking as an inspiration?

Oh man, that’s way too high for me to look at really so… honestly seeing this movie come out and be happy with it… it’s absolutely mind boggling. I’m just so thrilled, you know, because I know that a lot people who aren’t used to the Pacific culture, it will awaken something – which is what makes me happy.

What are your goals going beyond this? I mean it’s pretty hard to top. Clearly if it’s a success there will be a part two and no doubt you’ll be involved in that. But where to from here for you?

Well, actually three years of my life on the movie, this is my first one and it’s probably enough! I think it would be nice just to give someone else a shot. I know that’s what they’re looking at. We were going to release a ‘Best Of Te Vaka’ this year but they asked us if they could release it under the Disney banner. So that’s awesome because I’ve got the ninth album basically all written, so that’s my thing now – just to write the next album. Something different from the usual thing I’ve done, and making something that I’m excited about.

Disney had been accused of cultural appropriation in the past haven’t they, with movies like Pocahontas and Mulan, and various others that had ethnic story elements? How do people like your aunties and uncles talk to you about your role in this film, because obviously none of them have seen it. Are they are as worried as you were initially?

Yeah, because I’ve spent more than 20 years in this and that was a huge grounding for me. It’s like I didn’t need anybody else to tell me which was the right way of doing this. I’ve done all my research and I’ve spoken to all the elders before I actually went out on this 20 odd years that I’ve put into this. So I was very confident that what I was doing was actually right. So with Disney, luckily they managed to say, “Oh, okay lets readjust this to match what you were doing you know”. So I didn’t really look for anybody else’s, approval. I just felt like okay I’ve been doing this for 20 odd years and I’m just going to follow that path down this as much as possible.