“I read once that people like me who are overseas doing our thing are really our grandparents’ wildest dreams. They left the islands and came down to New Zealand for a better life and more opportunities . . . I’ve been carrying on that legacy.” Opera singer Moses Mackay. (Photo supplied)

It’s more than 10 years now since Moses Mackay linked up with his tenor cousins Pene and Amitai Pati to form the Sol3 Mio trio that Sāmoans, New Zealanders and hosts of others around the world have taken to heart. They’re now up to their fourth album — and, naturally, showing no signs of easing up.

Dale doesn’t often get the chance to chat with someone who shares his background as an entertainer and singer. But he’s at home here with Moses in their musical reflections.

 

Tēnā koe and talofa, Moses! It’s great to have a kōrero with you for E-Tangata. Thanks so much for being our guest. I’m rapt to have this kōrero about voice, work and life. But let’s start with names and villages — and pay respect to our tūpuna. Perhaps you’ll kōrero about your connections to various villages of the Pacific?

Absolutely. Ask me anything. First of all, I should explain that I’m talking quietly because it’s late at night and I’m talking to you from a small Italian town called Caniezza, maybe an hour north of Venice. I’m here visiting my vocal teacher Sherman Lowe, who lives here. And it’s freezing. Yeah. It’s just started snowing — and you could say I’m somewhat missing the Kiwi summer, the Pacific summer.

But turning to my whakapapa, my family is from Sāmoa. My mum Penina Felise comes from the village of Moamoa, pretty much in the centre of Apia, and my dad Victor Mackay is from Tufuiopa. This year, I was in Sāmoa to celebrate the 60th anniversary of our country’s independence. We had a big concert outside parliament at Malae o Tiafau with loads of awesome Sāmoan artists, including my baby sister who sang with me.

I was born in New Zealand — and my parents were too. It was my grandparents who came down from the islands. We’re a bit of a fruit salad, our family. My dad’s mum is from the islands, and my dad’s father is Scottish-Irish. But both of my mum’s parents were from Sāmoa.

How many are in your family?

I have three siblings. We grew up on the North Shore in Auckland and I went to Rosmini College, a Catholic boys’ school in Takapuna. I then went to the University of Auckland where I completed my bachelor’s degree. And I did my master’s in Wales.

I read once that people like me who are overseas doing our thing are really our grandparents’ wildest dreams. They left the islands and came down to New Zealand for a better life and more opportunities. And then I left New Zealand to go over to Europe and America where I’ve been carrying on that legacy. I’m very much aware of that privilege.

Moses with his siblings Marley, Ana and Matthias, and Marley’s daughter Teuila. (Photo supplied)

Tēnā koe, Moses. What did you study at varsity?

At Auckland Uni, I studied classical music and languages — Italian and French. I was studying classical voice and was a Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with the New Zealand Opera Company when I was 19. And when I did my master’s in the UK, I specialised in operatic singing.

Beautiful. Do you speak Sāmoan as well, bro?

Sadly, I’m not fluent. I’m learning. Trying. But it’s hard when you’re not surrounded by it all the time — and when you’re trying to juggle so many different languages. As it is, I’m speaking Italian, bits of French, and English. And then, when I can, I hang out with the family and try to surround myself with as much Sāmoan as I can.

Tēnā koe. I’m curious about your interest in classical music and languages. But I’m assuming that your love of voice and song would’ve emerged even earlier. What can you share with us about the musical traditions of your whānau?

I was raised in a house that I’d say was similar to most PI and Māori homes where everyone sings. In fact, getting up and singing was more of a chore. Mum would make us perform in front of the whole family. I was more like: “Where can I hide so I don’t have to get up and sing?”

But my mum is an occupational therapist and, when I was young, she used to work with patients who had dementia. I remember being maybe 12 or so, and Mum bringing me into these dementia units and having me sing for the patients.

Man, I hated it. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But it wasn’t until later in life that I realised how much teaching Mum was instilling in me. Then I was very grateful for those traumatic times, haha.

My older brother Marley sings. My younger brother Matthias too. And so does my younger sister, Anasetasia, who’s currently in Australia performing. But, in our family, we weren’t just singers. We were writers and composers as well.

I was brought up with my uncles Maurice and Jerry Banse, my mum’s brothers who were writers. They were releasing music and writing songs — just valiantly out there in the music industry releasing art. I caught wind of people like them, and I found my own path in music.

The way that classical music came about for me was probably that it’s very similar to when you go to church, and you hear people singing.

And you don’t realise how unique the Pasifika sound is — the choirs, the choral music, the harmony, our people singing full voice. It’s not until you leave the nest, and you find yourself in northern Europe or in America. And you think, man, we really have beautiful voices back home. But we just don’t appreciate it.

So I credit a lot of my career to my upbringing, to the big fruit salad of teachings I got from the family I was raised in.

I grew up in a vocal quartet too, bro. And I love the richness of harmony and the almost natural harmony style of our Pasifika peoples. When choral singing is done well, which we often see, it’s almost spine-tingling, isn’t it?

Yeah, man. Music is a universal language. We all speak it. And, when it’s done right, when it’s done with honesty, it can tap into the deepest parts of the human experience.

As an artist, I’ve been able to see first-hand the effects and the healing that music can bring to people. And that includes me. I’m not just doing it for everyone else. I do it because it’s part of my being, of my wairua. It’s all intertwined with the way that I am.

And I believe that it’s a language that everyone can speak — whether you’re the one singing it, or receiving it, or you’re the tambourine man at the back of the band.

How many instruments do you play?

Probably the same number as everyone does back home. You just pick up whatever instrument and you start playing. Could be anything from piano to guitar. Double bass, drums. I recently started learning the clarinet which is a pretty cool instrument.

Moses with his vocal coach Sherman Lowe, in Italy. (Photo supplied)

When it comes to singing, do you think you’ve become a better vocalist with the training you’ve received?

It’s one thing to be gifted a voice but, once you start training with an operatic technique, for me it feels like you’re tapping into thousands of years of us being here on this earth.

So like, for example, the microphone. It was only created in 1876, and from that point onwards, we got all these kinds of vocal sounds that people were creating in all different types of cultures. From rock’n’roll, to R&B, techno, house, to hip hop — all these different sounds because the microphone was able to transmit sounds to everyone around the world.

Now, before this, all you had was the voice and its natural amplifier. You come to Europe, to these coliseums and these beautiful theatres that have been built meticulously and specifically to amplify the voice. And when you stand at a specific point on stage, and you sing, I tell you the voice just travels. It’s one of those amazing feats of human engineering.

The only thing that I can kind of compare it to, for people back home, is like when you’re singing in a big church without a mic, and you just hear that raw sound come out of the singers. Imagine that but multiplied a thousand times. It’s an amazing experience.

Teatro Antico Taormina, an ancient Greek theatre in Sicily, where Moses will be performing. (Photo supplied)

And you’ve heard other voices too that have raised the hair on the back of your neck. Who are some of those voices, Moses, who’ve had that effect on you? 

Looking back to when I would’ve been 18, I got the chance to sing in the backing choir behind Andrea Bocelli. He’s a very famous blind singer from Italy, and he came to New Zealand and sang in what is now Spark Arena. I remember just sitting there hearing him sing, and thinking: “Woah!” I hadn’t heard anything like that. Not ever.

That was a pivotal moment in my life. I remember thinking to myself: “I’d love to do that.” It’s been more than 10 years since then, and we now have Pacific brothers and sisters out there in the world doing exceptional things. One name that comes to mind is Pene Pati, who’s currently singing in the San Francisco Opera. He’s really put Pasifika and New Zealand on the operatic map.

Another Sāmoan singer, Samson Setu, is in Europe — in Zurich. You’ve got Filipe Manu who’s singing in L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), the same opera that Pene is doing, but he’s doing it over in England. So there are little pockets of our Pacific people out there waving the flag and putting our people on the map.

I’m very inspired by what we, as a people, can and are achieving on a global scale — and not just in music.

“Music is a universal language. We all speak it. And, when it’s done right, when it’s done with honesty, it can tap into the deepest parts of the human experience.” — Moses Mackay. (Photo supplied)

We’re used to hearing of fantastic Sāmoan rugby players making their mark internationally. But now we’ve got these big voice Sāmoan brothers banging it around in the top venues of the globe. No wonder our people are proud. Can you tell us about what it was like doing your master’s in Wales, Moses? 

When I went over to Wales as a kid of 22, it was the first time I’d left home. That was a big move for me to go all that way from New Zealand. And the training was intense. Not only with the vocal technique but learning a whole bunch of music, a whole new artform. I loved my time in Wales.

I’ve always been a composer. Always. Since I was a kid, I’ve always written music. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I decided to get back into music composition. I found myself needing to balance the world of opera with my love of composing and writing.

And so, a year and a half ago, I decided to fly to Los Angeles on my own with no idea where or how I was going to do it. With the help of a few friends and people I met, I ended up writing, recording and producing an entire album, and I called it GRACE. It’s a dedication to my late Sāmoan grandmother. I flew back to New Zealand and released it. It debuted at number 1 in New Zealand at the start of 2023, which I was really proud of.

Soon after the release of GRACE, I flew to Sicily to the Mediterranean Opera Studio and Festival where I trained with some of the best teachers in the opera world. And, well, I’m still here in Italy, as I mentioned earlier, learning from Sherman Lowe, my vocal teacher.

“I think it’s important to keep that lightness that we were raised with — not to take yourself too seriously.” Moses, centre, with his Sol3Mio brothers — cousins Amitai and Pene Pati. (Photo supplied)

Kia ora. Obviously you got sick of having to carry the cuzzies, Pene and Amitai. How long have you been regarded as having the best voice of Sol3 Mio?

Hahaha. No. Never. Not ever!

It’s a nice on-stage relationship, that you and your cousins have. It’s a different vehicle with your classically trained voices and operatic renditions, Moses. There’s something quite down home about you as well. You’ve never lost your sense of humour or sense of place and perspective, even though you’re in your tuxedos and banging out your waiata in the biggest venues of the globe.

I think it’s important to keep that lightness that we were raised with — not to take yourself too seriously. But there’s a passion for the music and a lightness in the feet and a love of sharing that allows us to be in each other’s presence and enjoy the moments. So, whenever we’re together on stage, we’re almost laughing at each other, just because we’re on stage and sometimes wearing suits that don’t fit us.

I know what you’re saying. In broadcasting, it can take years to find your voice. You’re regarded as a baritone, but I wonder if you’ve ever hoped that you might have a tenor voice or a bass. Or was it that you found your register and felt satisfied with it? And that this is where your vocal skills are at their optimum? Did it take you a while to find that spot?

It’s really taken years, and it’s been such a juggle because it’s so tempting to just mimic. It’s so easy to just be what people want you to be. You know, it’s like you tell a joke and people laugh, and you think: “Okay, well, I’ll just be that person.” Right? It’s the same with music. You make a sound, and people tell you: “Oh, that’s great.” And then you just keep making that sound.

Going back to the question of when I did find my voice, I honestly feel like I’m still finding it now. It’s this wonderful journey of just moving forward and it just keeps growing, keeps getting better.

The voice is not like any other instrument. It’s not something you pick up, dab it with coconut oil and then it’s gonna sound good. It’s very much attached to you as a person. And the more you grow, the more your voice develops. The more the voice becomes you and you become the voice.

Tēnā koe. The term “timbre” is not all that common, but it’s to do with a sort of register and a tone that age affords a voice. Do you think then, if you haven’t quite nailed your voice and it’s part of a wonderful journey, perhaps the best is still to come? And even in our older years, male voices, can sometimes develop this appealing tone. So your best voice may still be years away?

It’s a funny thing with operatic singing because there’s this debate that the voice, especially the male voice, doesn’t fully mature until your late 30s. And the lower the voice, the later it matures. Obviously, with women, it’s different because they don’t go through the same puberty phenomenon that us males go through.

It’s kind of like fine wine. For example, when you see and hear on screen the big actors, such as Morgan Freeman, you think to yourself: “That’s a man who’s lived and aged well.” Just like fine wine.

That’s the way I like to see it anyway. Or maybe it’s just that, the older I get, the more I just enjoy fine wine!

“There’s a mindset in Sāmoa that the only way off the rock is either through sports or the army. When, in fact, the natural talent that we all lean towards is in the arts, in music.” — Moses Mackay. (Photo supplied)

It just feels that our rangatahi, our Pasifika and Māori peoples, are in an unstoppable mode and that we’re seizing the world and realising our potential, whether it’s sporting, scientific, educational or musical. How proud are you to be part of a wave of change that the whole of Pasifika is being swept up in as we push forward?

This time last year, Pene Pati, Samson Setu, Ludwig Treviranus and I were four classical musicians, all Sāmoans, who flew over to American Sāmoa and toured all through the island. We went to all the high schools, and we spoke and sang and introduced orchestral instruments to all the kids.

We were invited as part of a big fundraising Gala Concert to raise money to help build a performing arts centre in the islands. There’s a mindset in Sāmoa that the only way off the rock is either through sports or the army. When, in fact, the natural talent that we all lean towards is in the arts, in music.

There’s so much richness that comes from our people. And sometimes we just need to gather 10 seconds of courage to give something a go, whether it’s singing opera, writing music, writing for film — whatever it is, in whatever medium they want.

What’s your main focus right now?

I’m preparing for two opera roles. My Italian debut will be in 2024 with Taranto Opera where I’ll be singing the role of Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore. I’ll then be flying back to New Zealand in April to sing the role of Raimbaud in New Zealand Opera’s production of Le Comte Ory. That’s in May and June in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

And what about your album of cinematically-inspired soul music? What’s that going to lead to, do you think?

The best gift I could’ve given myself was to write that album. I started writing some of that music when I was in my teens. And one of my first songs was “Grace”, a dedication to my Sāmoan grandmother who was the one who ventured from Sāmoa to New Zealand when she was young.

She basically raised me. Then she got cancer and passed away when I was about 10. She was a pillar in my life — in my entire family’s lives. It took me nearly 15 years to finally release the album. And it’ll be another 15 years before the next one haha.

It’s been a magic journey and you still have a long way to go, Moses. Congratulations.

Oh yeah. In some ways, it feels as though it’s just the beginning.

Is there something else that you do to help keep yourself fresh and enthused about life?

Man, I’m very blessed. My life at the moment is so rich, so full of friends and projects that I’m doing. Unfortunately, with all the eating I’ve been doing, I think I need to up my training regimen!

“There’s so much richness that comes from our people. And sometimes we just need to gather 10 seconds of courage to give something a go, whether it’s singing opera, writing music, writing for film, whatever it is.” (Photo supplied)

Naturally, we’re all proud of what you and your cousins are achieving offshore. What you and your cousins have done for Māori Pasifika operatic music. But thanks for sharing some time with us on E-Tangata. And I want to wish you well until you return home.

Thank you. But before I go, there’s one person in particular I’d like to thank, and that’s Dame Malvina Major. She’s been my mentor and friend since I was 18. She’s someone who’s provided support in all sorts of ways for me.

When I told her of my plans to come to Europe to study opera, she saw to it that I got awarded the 2023 Dame Malvina Major Award. That kind of faith and love, you don’t get from too many people in your life. I wouldn’t be here in Italy if it wasn’t for that special lady. She’s been one of those staples in my life. And I just wanted to share that.

That’s beautiful and very appropriate, Moses. Ngā mihi. It’s been lovely having this kōrero with you.

 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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