Over the last dozen years or so, you may have had a good few chuckles watching The Laughing Samoans. That’s been the work of Tofiga Fepulea’i (the big guy) and his cousin Eteuati Ete. But the family talent doesn’t end there.
Eteuati’s younger brother, Igelese, has been making his mark in music throughout the Pacific and much further afield — particularly as a conductor, composer, arranger and teacher. Recently he’s had a hand in The Naked Choir TV series. But his international reputation, already substantial, has soared with the Pasifika touch he’s brought to The Lord of the Rings and to Moana.
Here he’s chatting with Dale about his progress from being a shy Samoan youngster to becoming the man who calls many of the shots when it comes to Pacific music.
Talofa lava, Igelese. Tēnā koe. There you are over in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific and on your way to reeling in yet another major academic music qualification — this time a PhD. That’s after landing a couple of music degrees in New Zealand, one from Victoria University and one from Auckland University. But you started off in Samoa, didn’t you?
Yes. That’s where I was born and where I spent my first five years. My parents were involved in the ministry. But I was here in Fiji in 1971 for about a year when my dad was called to do some studies.
Then, about 1974, we migrated to Wellington. Cold, windy, hilly Wellington. I was seven years old and that was pretty much where I grew up. Dad — Reverend Risatisone Ete — was the pastor of the Samoan church in Newtown so I spent 24/7 at the church.
That’s where my music started. I was asked to help out in the worship. I was the choirmaster at 14. I grew a passion for working with people, inspiring them through the power of music. Being surrounded by the Pacific community, I knew the struggles we all went through. Māori and Pasifika peoples. And I thought: “How can I contribute to alleviating that? And empower our people at the same time?”
In the church, I could see that music was a very powerful vehicle. And my thinking was that we should do this in the schools too, and help out our Pasifika and Māori students. Music — and vocal music in particular — is such a powerful tool. And I thought we could definitely use it, not only to inspire and empower, but maybe to generate an income for our people as well.
Your successes have meant that your name is now widely known. But Igelese isn’t at all common, is it?
People often assume that it’s just a translation of “English”. But that’s not so. My dad had a good friend, David Inglis, who was a lecturer at Malua Theological College in Samoa. So my parents decided to give me a Samoan version of his name. That’s where Igelese comes from.
Did you ever get to meet him? I imagine he would’ve been chuffed by your successes.
Yeah, I did meet him. About 10 years ago. Dr David Inglis. He knew of what I was doing and was very proud of that — and glad that I was carrying his name in a good way. For me, it was nice to meet him. It was good to go back to my namesake and acknowledge that connection.
I understand that your mum, Fereni, has been a really influential woman in Wellington.
Yes, she’s been passionate about our Samoan people and education. She has a background in early childhood education and she set up the first a‘oga amata where the preschoolers are taught in Samoan only.
A Samoan kōhanga reo?
Yes. It was the first one in Wellington. And I understand it was one of the first in New Zealand too, if not the first. Full-immersion Samoan language. Then she set up a training course for Samoan preschool teachers. A number of the Samoan immigrants had no jobs and she saw the opportunity to train some of them to be preschool teachers in a‘oga amata.
She’s always been passionate about educating our people in the Pacific. Māori people as well. Trying to make sure that the language was maintained at all times. Our language and our culture. A lot of my work is written in Samoan. Or it’s bilingual. I’ve always felt the beauty of our mother tongue — and I wanted to contribute to that in my compositions. I’ve worked with my mum as a lyricist too. She’s brilliant at that.
The migratory patterns and genetic and linguistic trails of our Polynesian people are well documented now. And we know of our historical connections with Southeast Asia, especially with Taiwan. But the sounds of the Pacific seem to differ greatly from the sounds of Asia.
I’m actually doing my PhD research on the sounds of Samoa, the ancient sounds before the missionaries arrived. There must be a musical link somewhere. It’s an intriguing issue. So I’m going back to Samoa and talking to various villagers — like in my village back in Savai‘i in Falealupo and Lalomalava.
Do you feel that, in the course of the colonisation process, we’ve sort of lost track of our musical history?
I think so. It’s a bit like the way in schools, back in the day, where we were taught Western knowledge, and our indigenous knowledge was ignored. Now we’re in the process of decolonising that — and we’re acknowledging that we have cultural roots and that we have ancestors. There’s a rich cultural history that we need to give back to our people as well.
A production I’ve been working on for some years now is the navigational journey of our ancestors. It’s called Malaga — The Journey. And the young Pacific Islanders are going: “What? We were the first ones to conquer that ocean? We had these amazing people with the foresight and tenacity to conquer the ocean?” They’re really inspired by that.
When I was in school, it was always about the achievements of Christopher Columbus and Abel Tasman and Captain Cook. But to now know that our people did it — well, it’s inspiring. And for me there’s the challenge of going back into our musical history and finding the riches there.
If you read some of the missionaries’ journals, you can see they felt like all our music was minor chords — the sad chords. They thought they should change everything to major chords, to happy sounds. But our pre-missionary music was very chant-like and modal. There was a beautiful, amazing richness. It’s just that the missionaries felt some of it wasn’t right. So they tried to correct it. And, really, they should’ve left it alone.
When you arrived in Wellington as a young boy in the 1970s, there was at times a bit of heat on between Māori and the migrants from the Pacific. There was a standoff. Did you get caught up in any of that? Did you sense any resentment?
Yeah, there was some of that. I was at Ridgway School and there was a bit of bullying. People calling me “coconut”. Or “blackie”. You felt the tension. Of course, it was a new thing to me. And what did they want me to be anyway? I thought: What the hell is happening here? I am who I am. What else could I be?
My music confidence took a hit too because, when I was 11, I had this music teacher, a Pālagi, a sweet lady who must’ve been about 80 years old. And I won this talent quest with one of my own compositions. So I took it back to show her. And she said to me: “Oh, it’s just a bunch of chords.” What? Just a bunch of chords?
Boy, I was heartbroken. She was telling me that I couldn’t write music for peanuts. It was like: “How can a coconut write music?” Well, that’s what I felt. So, ever since, I’ve sort of had this mission in life — to prove to this lady that she was wrong because it wasn’t just a bunch of chords at all.
And even when I was at Auckland University working on my Masters degree in music composition — or working on the Hollywood movie, Moana – I was thinking: “I need to find this lady and show her she was wrong.” Obviously, she’s sadly passed away. But with that “just a bunch of chords” remark, she challenged me big time.
Let’s talk about music and its power to bring us together. Music is a very unifying kaupapa. Our Polynesian people seem to have an almost instinctive ability to harmonise and make this harmonic wall of sound. Or do you reckon this is a learned skill?
I think it’s a natural ability that comes with cultural roots — and it’s enhanced and supported by our churches and community get-togethers whether that be around the kava bowl or Ten Guitars at a party. The Pacific Islanders, the Māori, and all of us like to get together and unite in song. It’s what we do.
When I’m teaching singing, I feel it’s a lot easier to work with Pacific Islanders. It’s a part of our cultural make-up. And the church contributes to that. I remember when a few Samoans were auditioning for a friend of mine and he told them they were singing a bit flat. So he asked what church they went to. And they said: “We don’t go to church.” And he said: “That’s why you’re not singing in tune.”
Whatever community networks we have, there’s always bonding and singing. And, for me, the question is how can we use music to embrace, empower and inspire our people. Especially our young people who feel that we’re always being seen in a negative light. Especially in New Zealand.
So I ask myself how I can contribute through music. Obviously one way is composing music with lyrics that speak about empowerment, our ancestors, their navigation skills and other positive things.
And I’ve seen the fruits of that in a lot of the people who’ve come through the process of performing and singing these songs.
One person wrote to me years later and said: “Listen. I was going to commit suicide but I came to your rehearsal and did the Malaga production — and I felt life was worth living. I can contribute something to this world.”
So I felt like I really needed to continue with what I do. If I saved one life, then I’ve done my deed and lived my life to the fullest. I believe that music can contribute so much to individuals — and to our whole community as well. That’s my pathway and my mission and my vision.
One unfortunate aspect of our education system is that music doesn’t play a big enough part. Our Pasifika and Māori kids are often criticised for their low achievement at school. But they aren’t judged on their ability to harmonise. They don’t have exams for that. Yet they’re brilliant at it. And it’s a significant skill.
You’re right. It’s always been downgraded. People seem to have the view that, if you’re succeeding at music, it’s because you’re naturally good at it. Well, no. There’s a definite skill, for example, to harmonising and group singing. It needs work if you’re to refine and develop that skill. And that’s under-rated in Western education.
It’s good for the soul too, isn’t it? But there’s another aspect that intrigues me and that’s to do with the cultural emphasis on humility and how that has to be set aside when a choirmaster takes charge. There you were a shy, teenage Samoan kid who was up front saying: “Stop. Stop. Start again — you’re going flat over here.” And you’d be pointing and controlling these groups, often of adult singers. How did you handle that?
That’s the irony because I’m probably the shyest one in my family — and there were eight of us kids. I’d hide myself in my bedroom as a youngster because I was too shy to come out and socialise. I felt like my best friend was that piano sitting in the corner. So this is where I grew up — in my room, writing songs. I felt like this was the way I should be.
But my dad, in his Samoan fatherly way, reminded me that I was a pastor’s son, so I needed to contribute to the church. And he told me to teach the choir. As a son, you can’t say no. So you go and do it. As I did, at 14. Directing the matai, the chiefs, who were all basses. And the old ladies, the sopranos. My goodness, you couldn’t get a harder bunch to teach. You couldn’t be rude. It was full politeness, full of respect. But that was my learning curve.
Twenty years on, I said to my mum: “What good is this gonna bring me? What career is gonna come from me teaching this choir all this time?” But I’m sure she’s smiling back home in Wellington seeing me do all these things in Hollywood and TV and now teaching at university. It was a bit like boot camp for 20 years. But it’s come out well.
It’s come out well, I’ve no doubt, because you had the talent and you put in the work.
Thank you. But I should make it clear that I wasn’t really that strong in school. Probably music was my saving grace. And I didn’t get into university until I was a “mature student” at 21. So anyone who has the idea that I’m naturally, intellectually amazing, should realise that I’m just like anybody else — and I had to work really, really hard. The only thing I was good at was music. And I’ve had to constantly push myself to get out there and get the qualifications.
You’ve been in the limelight internationally, particularly with your work with Moana and The Lord of the Rings. So I imagine that you’ve had a few magic moments along the way. But what has been the most memorable?
Well, there was one pivotal moment with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. It was when we had the Pacific Island group and the kapa haka group from Victoria University bringing together their voices. And these 60 men from all around Wellington created a sound that even they were amazed with. This New Zealand multicultural mix contributed to a soundtrack that’s now considered one of the best soundtracks in movie history.
And the strangest thing for me was that they were singing Dwarfish and Elvish. That was the language they were singing. Many people have been inspired by this soundtrack. And what hit home for me was it showed that our people are amazing — and that they’re world class at what they do.
Let’s turn now to Moana which has been a great success but which has also had critics who haven’t liked the idea of our Pasifika stories being misappropriated by the money men of Hollywood. Did you have mixed emotions about contributing to the project?
Well, earlier on, I heard that, for Lilo & Stitch, one of the soundtracks was recorded in Auckland at Westlake Girls. And I thought the next time Disney does a Pacific stylised animation they gotta get the sound right. So I hit them up. And they contacted me about the Moana soundtrack.
I said: “Listen. If you’re gonna do a soundtrack, make sure that you get the right voices. You can’t just get any choir and expect to have the right tone or the right sound.” So they asked if I’d provide the right choir — which I was more than happy to do.
I realised that various purists were saying that you’re selling out. But I felt that the only way we could make a difference was to step in there and show them how it should sound, how it should be recorded — with the right voices. Between myself and Te Vaka, we felt that we could create music that would inspire.
There was a limit though to what we could do. And some songs weren’t from the Pacific. Then, when Temuera Morrison came over for our premiere here, he shook his head and said: “Bro. Some of those songs. You should’ve written them.” So, obviously there were songs that we felt weren’t Pacific enough. But I could only do what I could do. Still, I felt like we contributed greatly to ensuring the choral sounds were Pacific. And that was my greatest concern.
Now we need to get in there and apply some leverage so we can create our own musical theatre and our own musical movies that will speak proudly about our peoples. This is just a stepping stone really. People may think this is the end of what I’m doing. But it’s actually just the beginning. And we’re heading into Hollywood again hoping to create something that’s richly Pacific and will also represent our Pacific-Māori peoples in New Zealand.