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The power of Te Vaka
October 30, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Funny thing about Te Vaka: The group’s songs come from Tokelau, Tuvalu, Samoa and the Cook Islands by way of New Zealand, but listening to the musical exuberance, catching the pulsing beat, you start thinking you know the words.
If you’re not a Pacific Islander yourself, they’re actually just syllables that you string along to the lilting melodies. Every once in a while, you recognize words, like Pasifika or Sa-moa. Other times, you translate the happy sounds into your own nonsense phrases: “Hey, Fiona, I want my mo- to.” No matter, you still get it.
The 10-member troupe of musicians, dancers and singers returned to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater Friday, generating the same kind of excitement they had in their previous two visits to the MACC.
“There’s so much energy in the house,” observed Opetaia Foa‘i, the band’s charismatic singer-songwriter, leader and father figure (literally, most of the band members are named Foa‘i.)
His comment was as common as the standard, “How’s everyone doin’???!!” heard at every concert since the invention of the electric guitar. But in this case, they were an understatement.
Dancers with glistening skin and coconut bras gyrated their grass-skirted hips into blurs to the frantic drumbeat. Their hands fluttered like birds, their eyes caught fire, their smiles radiated under their headdresses.
Behind them, broad-shouldered men in sleeveless shirts wearing skirts over their trousers made their drums talk, creating an elevated heartbeat for all within hearing distance to share.
Center stage, the voices of Opetaia and mesmerizing Melodee Panapa rose in haunting harmonies from a place between a rollicking dance hall and the fern-covered dreamscape of the ancestors.
A Te Vaka concert is a jolt of life force. Primitive drums meet rock guitars. Although the group’s name translates as “the canoe,” they could be renamed Te Viagra for the sensual undercurrents running through the dancing and musical rhythms.
For all the high-octane adrenaline pumping from the stage, there was plenty coming back at them from the audience. When Te Vaka plays Maui, the performers aren’t greeted by polite applause, but instead by bellowing and roaring from the audience throughout the evening. It’s primal and contagious, as though everyone has been infected … by joy.
The back and forth between stage and audience feels like being in the white water of heavy breaking surf. The currents pull in both directions, the water splashes over you, you have no choice but let it tumble you and carry you wherever it’s going.
The symbol of the canoe is as familiar here in Hawaii as it is in Te Vaka’s homelands. Unifying the islands of the Pacific, the canoe is about making connections, island to island, people to people.
Each song is a story. Explained in English with the kiwi accent adding echoes of “Whale Rider” to his words, Opetaia described how he wrote them, encompassing themes of family and culture, the land and the sea within whatever emotion he was feeling at the time.
In the consciousness of Pasifika, environmental responsibility is inseparable from spiritual instinct. This consciousness is the water traversed by the canoe, until the paddlers make landfall. Different tribes live on different islands, but all are part of the same family.
Like the mysterious force that drove Richard Dreyfuss to seek its source in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Te Vaka has a similar power over its listeners. Many of us in the audience had been at the group’s past performances here; we couldn’t explain why we were back, but we knew we had to be.
Ironically, the group’s first scheduled appearance at the MACC in 2001 had to be rescheduled after the events of 9/11. The smaller than expected audience for last Friday’s concert pointed to more recent upheavals in society, this time on the economic front.
Te Vaka’s energy felt like a remedy for all that. What you see on the news every night is not the whole story, Opetaia told the audience at one point in the show. Things are better than that. Life is better than that.
You leave a Te Vaka concert with a big smile on your face, knowing exactly what he was talking about.
Even if you don’t know the words.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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