Te Vaka paddles up with news from the South Pacific

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All photos by Julie Foa'i

Opetaia Foa'i's mother's ancestral home is sinking into the ocean. And he's not supposed to talk about it. Tuvalu, comprised of four South Pacific Islands whose combined mass comes to a grand total of ten square miles, has its own language, a distinct cultural heritage like many of its neighbors. But what struck Foa'i (who was born on Samoa and raised in an islander community on New Zealand) saw when he went back was that rising ocean levels had reached up the air strip his plane landed on. So he wrote a song about it. His music and dance group, Te Vaka (which comes to Great American Music Hall Fri/13) plays music that evokes not only the ancient tales of those faraway seas, but also the fact that they matter, here and now.

"I was in the bad books of my parents," Foa'i tells me. We're sitting with his wife, band manager Julie Foa'i, at a table in the courtyard of the Phoenix Hotel on Eddy Street. At the start of a whirlwind two year tour, the band is a bit boggled by their first view of the U.S. on this pass through. "We're like, is the rest of our American tour going to look like this?" Julie tells me of the group's quick trip out for supplies in the textured Civic Center-Tenderloin area before today's drive to Santa Cruz. Her bewilderment is fetching, but it belies the fact the band has been touring the world for the last 15 years, during which time they've performed in Peter Gabriel's WOMAD world music concert series, and in a whole passel of festivals the world over.

But back, for a moment, to the whole ocean taking over ancestral home thing. Opetaia wasn't supposed to talk about it because in Tuvalu culture to speak of the rising waters, attributed scientifically to the dissipation of the polar ice caps, was to give them power. Simply not done. But Opetaia is a man who wanted a voice. One doesn't go from doing covers in New Zealand bars to assembling a ten-piece ensemble of talented young island musicians, touring the world with them, and even recording with Peter Gabriel without a desire to be heard.

Not that he did it alone -- there is a much loved story in the group of Julie quietly writing on a piece of scrap paper at a meeting "Take this music to the world": she continues to be a driving force behind the group's conquests. Te Vaka's name comes from the word for "canoe," paying tribute to the ancients that Opetaia says "sailed the ocean in a simple canoe using the environment to guide them. These guys, they populated the islands and they carried on -- that's why there's this thread of culture connecting all the islands." One senses the group thrives on that connection between cultures, cannot believe their luck when a new city is picking up what they're putting down.

The song about the rising waters, "Toko Matua," went on "Nukukehe," Te Vaka's third album. Subsequent releases have turned a gaze on AIDS, over fishing in the South Pacific -- as well as the joys of island life. In addition to traditional music, Opetaia cites the artists that impressed him when he first went to the New Zealand mainland as a child with his parents for formal education: Jimi Hendrix, Joan Armatrang, Joni Mitchell. The band's repertoire is now vast enough that they can tailor shows to their audience, upbeat for dancing crowds, slowed down for the times when a more traditional sound is appropriate.

And oh, those joys of island life. 

I mention an observation from many a review I've read of Te Vaka's stage show: that it is undeniably, hip-thrustingly sensual. Is that a conscious effort on the part of the band? "We actually underdo everything!" laughs Opetaia. "If they call that sensual... If you want something sexy, go to Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The ritual of shaking hips, it has sexual connotations. That's the original meaning, courting." He smiles. "It's not done on purpose." "Although the girls do wear coconut bras," Julie tells me. Apparently, the band has a boatload of costume changes at a typical show.

Which tends to confounds customs. Between the skins and feathers of the costumes to the backbone of the group's percussion, the traditional log drums, they tend to get hassled a bit in the airport. Not to mention those drums are heavy. "We can't do without them," muses Opetaia. "But I can understand why other bands have ditched them."

That's not all that other groups from their region have ditched, either. The couple can't name a single other band who has successfully brought the traditional sounds to the rest of world. "We're the first that delivered it more South Pacific than any other group," Opetaia says. Julie adds "we're not vaguely related to what's happening in Australia and New Zealand, most groups are doing reggae." "It's really sad," Opetaia chimes in "I thought a lot of people would follow, there's a lot of great musicians out there -- but you've got to have patience" to make it big on the international scene "I think that's what they need." Of those who have turned to the fallback of modern island cultures everywhere, reggae, he says "they make more money than we do, but we don't do this to be rock stars."

But that patience that he was talking about is beginning to pay off for Te Vaka. Earlier this week, the group was selected to play the after-party for the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, a packed, high energy affair in a cavernous hotel ballroom. They were under the impression they'd be background music to the crowd, but were surprised when the floor started shaking beneath them. "You see that at rock parties -- but people were jumping!" says Opetaia, aglow with the way the South Pacific's sounds are resonating far beyond the reach of even the most intrepid canoe paddler.

Te Vaka

Fri/13 9 p.m., $26

Great American Music Hall

859 O'Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.gamh.com