Sol3Mio: Amitai Pati, Moses Mackay and Pene Pati. (Photo supplied)

The Covid pandemic hasn’t earned much by way of favourable publicity since it began its lethal travels early last year. But there have been some positive consequences, one of which is the Coming Home album from the Pati brothers — Pene and Amitai, both tenors — and their baritone cousin, Moses Mackay.

The three of them are comfortably at home with opera or pop music. But, last year, when Covid forced opera houses to close their doors in Europe, the US and everywhere else, Aotearoa beckoned irresistibly.

So, here they’ve been. Not being idle, though. Among the jobs they assigned themselves was to narrow their favourite pop songs down to a dozen and record them. Now Coming Home is out and, most likely, will enjoy the same success as their previous chart-topping, platinum-plated albums.

That’s more than they hoped for when they formed Sol3Mio a decade ago to raise money for Amitai and Moses to study in Wales.

As you’d expect, their name is a play on the song “Sole Mio”, the first song they ever sang together. In Italian, it means  “my sun”. And “sole” is a Sāmoan version of “bro”.

“So, not only are we your bros,” says Pene, “but we can also shed a bit of sunlight on your day.”

Anton Blank talked to each of them about their careers.


Pene (second from right) and Amitai with their parents Iulieta and Pene Sr, in London, around 2013. (Photo supplied)

Pene Pati

I was born in Sāmoa and moved to New Zealand when I was two. I was raised in Māngere. My upbringing was very religious and traditional. We had to do the right things in the right order, and there was a lot of singing. Both of my parents worked at a local retirement home, and Dad used to sing there a lot.

My parents are Pene Pati, from the village of Satupaitea in Savai’i, and Iulieta Pati, from the village of Tanugamanono in Upolu. I’m the third of four siblings. I have two older sisters, Torres and  Fa’anenefu, and my brother Amitai is the youngest.

Nowadays, I consider myself a spiritual person, but I’m not religious. When I’m home, I worship at the Māngere Methodist church with my parents. It gives me a sense of home. I do respect religion but through my career I’ve travelled a lot, which has made my mind more open to other ways of looking at the world.

I’ve worked with a whole lot of different cultures, and I got to view the world through their eyes. At the end of the day, they’re just like me. I have to sing their songs in their languages which means I get to see the world in a different light.

Traditionally, opera is about European languages — Italian, German, French, Russian, Spanish. But Asian opera is also emerging and it makes me think there must be an opportunity to develop a true Pacific opera. That’s the next step in the evolution of opera. Singing in Russian is totally daunting. They have such a different way of thinking and feeling. I only know what a Sāmoan man, a Kiwi man, might feel.

There are so many obstacles to overcome in this life of performance because I’m seen as an outsider. Pacific singing is very personal because it’s the way we pass on our culture, so we bring a different range of emotions to the operatic world.

Kiri Te Kanawa paved the way. She had this beautiful Māori sound to her voice. The Pacific tone is warm, robust, and colourful — it’s like the merlot of all the sounds. The European sound is sharper.

In high school (Aorere College), our teacher Terence Maskell noticed a talent in me and encouraged me to join the school choir. I loved the discipline of classical music. I don’t know why, but I just loved the harmony and how it all worked together. I ended up joining a community choir. And, at 16, I reluctantly auditioned for the New Zealand Youth Choir and got in. We toured around the world.

From there, my teacher said: “Hey, you should really consider classical singing. You have something special.”

I started tertiary study at the University of Auckland, doing a Bachelor of Science in software engineering, because I really didn’t believe I could sing. Then a singing coach persuaded me to do a Bachelor of Music in voice, so I switched over.

That was when things got really tough because I didn’t know anything. The other students knew these pieces by Mozart, Donizetti and Verdi, and I sat there thinking the only thing I know is music from Sister Act.

Compared to the other students, I started late. The others had been learning this stuff since high school. And a lot of people said: “Don’t worry if you don’t make it. You’re a Pacific boy and it’s not your artform.”

And I thought: “Why is that? How can I change that?” Which is why I really chased this career. I don’t think the Pacific community says that to offend you, I think they say it out of love. Don’t expect too much because that way you’ll always be happy. But it stops us from being great.

After university, I competed in the New Zealand Aria, which was the biggest operatic singing competition at the time. A lot of people said no one ever wins this competition on their first time. And I won it my first year. I was super surprised, but it was then that I thought: “You know what? I might just have a talent.”

I went on to win two Australian competitions, and another in New Zealand.

The Cardiff School of Music scouted me out after a competition in Australia. It’s a very prestigious school and they said come over and do your master’s here. I thought: “You must have the wrong person.” Because I hadn’t even finished my bachelor’s. To have enough money to go, I had to win a second competition in Australia — which I did — and then I went to Cardiff.

The course was two years long and I had only enough money to pay for my study. Apart from that, I had nothing.

I had to stay with friends, and the first week I was there, Kiri Te Kanawa turned up. It was freezing and I was wearing shorts. She said: “I know you Pacific boys say everything’s okay, but it’s freezing.” Then she turned to her bodyguard and said: “I want you to take this boy shopping and buy him everything he needs.” I will never forget that. And that day, I bought myself a puffer jacket and some jeans to keep me warm.

After two years in Cardiff, I came back to New Zealand for a programme in Christchurch called the Pacific Opera Programme. The San Francisco Opera also came to Aotearoa to hear 20 opera singers from New Zealand. I auditioned for them, and I got on to their programme as an intern.

I was fortunate enough to do the internship with my brother Amitai and my wife-to-be, Amina Edris. In my second year, I got a leading role and, from there, opera houses and managers from around the world started calling. My career was really launched from there.

Pene and Amina were married in Māngere, Auckland, in 2016.

Sol3Mio started in January 2012 at the New Zealand Opera School. The reason it started was because Moses and Amitai got into the school at Cardiff. Like me, they didn’t have the money to go, so I said: “How about we form a trio, and travel around doing recitals to raise the money so you can go?”

At our first show in Massey, someone from the Breakfast show said: “Hey, would you like to come on the show?” A week later, we sold out the Town Hall. Universal Music attended that concert, and, later on, they signed us to a record deal.

All our albums have gone platinum, which is just insane. We were up there with Lorde and Taylor Swift, and we thought: “How did we get here with classical music?”

As a group, we are three individual artists with our own careers. We each have our own credentials, and that gives credibility to the group. We’re all singing around the world.

Every time we want to do a tour, I fly in, we rehearse for about a week, we record an album, or we tour, then we part ways again.

Every time I come home, I get emotional flying in and out. I see the landscape and think to myself: “I’ll be back.” Living abroad, I get to see these places I never dreamed of seeing. I live this life and feel very blessed.

Because my wife is an opera singer, we understand the job and the separation from one another. I’m performing in up to 10 shows a year, each season running four to six weeks. We try to co-ordinate our schedules. It’s a challenging life for a family and I’ve started to think to myself: “Maybe I don’t have to have kids. I can have children in my life in other ways.”

As a child, I thought I was going to be a chef, but I knew I was also artistic. I resisted the idea that I was a Pacific boy who had to stay in Māngere and play rugby and care for my family. I can still care for my family — but I can do it in a different way.

The Pati family in San Francisco in 2017. From left: Torres, Pene Jr, Pene Sr, Iulieta, Amitai, Nefu. (Photo supplied)

Amitai Pati

My parents are both nurses, and when I was a teen, I wanted to do something in the health field. I never thought of pursuing music as a career. It wasn’t until I was told that I have a gift for music that I started to consider it as an option. And having my older brother, Pene, follow this path before me made things a whole lot easier. I’m glad that I fell into this, and I haven’t looked back since.

Growing up in Māngere, I can’t say we really had any difficulties. Our parents made sure they gave us as much as they could, and my older sister also helped raise us.

I can’t remember anything negative about my childhood. Pacific families in the area all had a shared experience with parents who worked really hard and older siblings assuming a parenting role. It brought us closer together, and I still have a huge amount of respect for my older siblings.

My parents introduced us to music. They loved country and gospel music. Classical music came on to my radar when I joined the choir at school. I’m the youngest of four and all my siblings had been in the choir. Back then, Aorere College had an amazing choir. It was then I realised that reading music and making sense of it on paper wasn’t too difficult. And I started to fall in love with choral music, which is how I segued into classical music.

The director of the choir said that my siblings and I had a knack for being soloists. I thought: “If he’s saying this, I’ll take it on board.” That pushed me towards some easier solo pieces, which led on to wanting to sing bigger things, including opera. There’s a book with 26 Italian art songs, and when I started on those, I thought: “I’m way out of my league here.” I thought it was the hardest thing in the world.

But, in our house, we saw challenges as ways of improving ourselves. My dad always pushed us, and my mum always made sure we only spoke highly of ourselves. When I look back at those songs now, they’re so beautiful — and knowing I can sing them, it’s like: “Yeah, that’s cool.”

No matter what language I’m singing in, I still need to be able to interpret the piece as a performer. Our childhood helped with that, with the church gatherings, and White Sunday where we had to stand up, manage our nerves and perform.

Singing in other languages was initially a little daunting. I’m pretty good at picking things up by ear, but you have to take it a step further and really bond with the language. I take a lot of care with pronunciation out of respect for native speakers. The biggest compliment is when a native speaker tries to speak to me after a performance, and I have to explain that I can only sing the language, not speak it.

My favourite languages are Italian, German and Spanish. French is one I need to work on. Czech is one of the more difficult. I hope I won’t have to sing anything in Czech!

Pene’s done a lot more competitions than I have. I’ve only competed in three. I came third in my first competition, second in the next one, and, in the final competition, which was the Lexus Song Quest, I won. Overall, competitions have not really been my thing.

Amitai singing at the 2012 Lexus Song Quest which he won. (Screenshot)

I took a year off after high school, then I did 18 months of music at university. Then I got an invitation from the Wales International Academy of Voice. So, I went to Cardiff to do my master’s degree with Moses (Mackay). That’s when I started to pursue a vocal career seriously.

There’s a lot of in-person, one-on-one coaching (at the Cardiff school). The teacher knows whether you’re comfortable singing a particular piece. If you aren’t, they’ll troubleshoot. They’ll focus on breathing and phrasing and resolve any issues so that the student is completely comfortable when they’re on stage. You have to develop good habits because, as soon as you’re on stage, you’re basically on autopilot.

Pene and I are similar because we’re family, but he does a few things that I can’t do. It takes a lot of patience, and I’m still learning. I can perform safely, but there’s always room for improvement. We’re still maturing — our voices are maturing. We’re singing without amplification for two to three hours, so we have to make sure we’re healthy and safe. The more I get used to the singing, the more I understand how my body works.

Singing is basically about fighting your involuntary reflexes. As singers, we have a tendency to overwork ourselves. Our goal is to be completely free, completely relaxed and in the music. If I’m not prepared, the stage is definitely not my safe space.

I started singing internationally in 2017 with the San Francisco Opera. As well as that, I performed a couple of times in France. And then Covid landed.

We were lucky enough to be hired by Flava as radio hosts, so that’s kept us going throughout this whole pandemic. Now we’re setting things up for the next year and, by the end of January, we’ll be working overseas again.

The Flava radio opportunity is something we didn’t expect. It’s nice to try new things. Pene has his radio equipment in Europe and, when he’s available, the three of us host the morning show. It’s been an amazing experience to interact with listeners. And for me, it’s been healthy to focus on something other than my music and performance.

The new album is a collection of songs that meant the most to us when we thought about home. E I Pō is a very significant track because it’s the first Māori piece I ever learned — all thanks to my dad. We would sing it in the rest homes. As we got older, we got better at understanding and pronouncing the language. It’s such a beautiful piece, and it reminds me of home.

We had a massive list of songs and we whittled it down to 12. And the feedback we’re getting so far is great.

For me, Sol3Mio is on a par with my opera career. No matter what happens, the group will always be there. We need both aspects. If we don’t pursue opera, the voices don’t stay healthy and maintained.

Sol3Mio is refreshing, it’s a contrast to opera, and it’s great to be able to make music with my brother and cousin.

I’ve never been a huge review reader, and I’ve not really thought too much about the success of the group. I’m more focused on the job, which is my passion. Hearing feedback from people who enjoy our music is more important to me than record sales.

I want to pursue opera as much as possible. I want to perform in leading opera houses on the other side of the world and perform with my brother. Judging by the work we have lined up for next year, we’re not too far off. I’m looking forward to getting back onto the international stage.

I pray prayers of gratitude every night for the life I live now, but I can’t take all the credit for it. My family has been there. I’m very proud that young Pacific kids look up to us because of the path we’ve taken. It feels amazing. I want to encourage our kids to pursue things that are new and difficult.

Moses (left) with his brother Marley, who is holding his daughter Teuila, and their younger siblings Ana and Matthias. (Photo supplied)

Moses Mackay

Life started for me on the North Shore of Auckland. When I tell people where I was raised, they immediately think: “Wealthy, well-off.” But we were in the state houses. There’s state housing all through Northcote, Glenfield, Beachhaven. A lot of my family are still there.

I’m a second-generation New Zealand-born Sāmoan, so my parents were born here. I come second in a family of four — I have two brothers Marley and Matthias and the youngest is my sister Anasetasia. The two youngest siblings are significantly younger than me, so my older brother and I became surrogate parents. We changed their nappies, read them stories, and took them to school.

My mother, Penina, is an occupational therapist, but she had to make ends meet, so it wasn’t until I finished high school that she completed her degree. Dad (Victor) had a motorbike accident and busted his knees, so he sold and bought boats — he’d scan the Trade and Exchange every week. I had no idea what was going on, but it really was all about the survival of the family.

I felt a big responsibility to look after the family. When I was 12, I decided that I wanted to buy a house. I just hated the idea that we paid rent. So, I started saving through odd jobs and, in 2004, I bought my first house in Torbay and gifted it to my mum and dad. That was monumental for us as a family.

Mum’s goal was always to get us out of poverty, so to realise that dream as her son was really cool. As kids, we thought it was normal to say: “Sorry, I can’t go on the school trip because we can’t afford it.”

At Rosmini College, my brother and I were the first brothers to be head boys, back-to-back. We were both voted in by the students and teachers. It was a proud moment for my family. At the time, I didn’t know where it would lead.

I wanted to be an electrician and an engineer — these were the safe choices. Safe jobs, that was the goal. My dad said that if you work as an electrician, you’ll have a safe job for the rest of your life. The world needs electricians, the world needs engineers.

It wasn’t until my last year of school that my music teacher, Ms Sue Williams, said: “Moses, have you ever thought of studying music?” I didn’t even know it was a thing. I’d already been accepted at the School of Engineering at the University of Auckland. But my teacher said: “If you come and sing a song for this lady, I’ll buy you KFC.”

What I didn’t know was that I had auditioned and been accepted for the School of Music.

Having my talent recognised made me realise that music was my path. It was a difficult conversation to have with my parents, but they gave me three years. If nothing happened with music, I would go back and study engineering.

When I turned up at the classical school of music, there were no brown faces. I saw one brown face at the back of the room, and it was Pene. Music is natural for Pacific people, but we don’t think of it as a career than can sustain a family. It’s challenging, and I see now that my family was trying to protect me. They didn’t want me to struggle.

Pene was the other brown guy at university and it felt really nice to have someone there. On the first day, we had to sing a classical piece, and when I sang “When I fall in love” by Nat King Cole, the class laughed at me. I laughed with them, but everyone else had sung operatic pieces. That’s how out of my depth I was.

As Pacific people, we’re happy to laugh at ourselves and others, because it’s a way of getting through scary moments. And looking back on it, I was really scared and nervous.

I did love opera, though. It was challenging — and I was really intrigued learning about Baroque music. Along with Pene, I was part of Andrea Bocelli’s choir at the Vector Arena which was a surreal moment. One song was so moving that I couldn’t sing.

I knew this was 100 percent me. I didn’t know what it meant or where it would lead but I wanted more. I knew I had a higher purpose of some sort, and my whole world started changing. I went in headfirst and have never looked back.

When I went to school on the North Shore, I felt like I had to try and fit in with mainstream New Zealand culture. It wasn’t like South Auckland where your Pacific identity is affirmed and celebrated.

There was a long time when I was ashamed for not feeling Sāmoan. I didn’t have the language — a lot of my parents’ generation was discouraged from speaking their language. I felt like a weird hybrid. I didn’t feel Sāmoan or Kiwi.

When I talk about this aspect of identity, people contact me to say: “That was my experience too, you’re talking about my journey.” There are other people like me, and when I share my story, I feel seen.

I did three years at university, then I decided to head overseas. Pene was living and studying in Wales at the time, so after some time in Europe, I went to meet him in Cardiff. I met everyone at the Welsh International Academy of Voice. I was asked to audition and was then offered a place in the master’s programme.

Sol3Mio was all about funding me and Amitai to get to Wales, and we organised everything ourselves. I was so nervous and tired before our first performance, I was actually vomiting before we went on stage.

By the end of our first tour, we’d raised $120,000. We were approached by management people and record labels, all before Amitai and I were set to go to Cardiff. Six months later, we recorded our album in the United Kingdom, and sent the tracks back home.

I’ve always been the curious guy interested in a whole range of music. I have my hands in many pies. I write a lot of music. So, you can find me onstage performing opera or in the studio making music with other artists. I love planning the shows for Sol3Mio.

Our last show was at the Spark Arena, and I wanted it to be like the BBC Proms. I also wanted to bring in other young musicians so they could share the journey with us. The theme was hope — and to see it come together was absolutely amazing.

Amitai, Moses and Pene. (Photo supplied)

Anton Blank (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu) is the editor and founder of the Māori literary journal Ora Nui.

© E-Tangata, 2021

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.