According to historians, the 19th century belongs to Europe and the 20th to America. But the next hundred years well could be the Pacific century.
Te Vaka believe their time has come. Mostly from the island of Tokelau, now based in Auckland, New Zealand, they hope to spread the word on Polynesian culture, which they do most melodiously on their self-released second album, Ki Mua (The Future).
"We've been getting a lot of exterior influences, mainly American, coming into our area, and it's drowning out a lot of our traditions," explained bandleader Opetaia Foaì. "We're just trying to create a sense of pride, so people will take more notice of our traditional music."
Throughout the islands that constitute Polynesia, that tradition consists in large part of chanted vocals accompanied by log-drumming. "The South Pacific is very percussive," Foaì said. "Melodies really came in later, from Europeans. So I try to emphasize our percussion because it's unique to us."
On top of that are such Foaì's songs as Ki Mua's title track (RealAudio excerpt). Sung in their native Tokelauan language, Te Vaka's tunes are folk-rocky, with ineffable, sliding Pacific harmonies that are filled out by the rest of the 10-piece band. Musically, Te Vaka offer a arranged marriage of past and present.
"The first album we made [Te Vaka (The Canoe)] was very roots-oriented, as a starting point on the road to finding a contemporary Pacific sound," noted Foaì. "My writing is more contemporary and can go over to the pop side. But I wanted to establish where we were coming from."
For many native Pacific Islanders, including Foaì, pride and consciousness have taken a long time to bloom. As described on "Vaka Atua" (Missionaries) (RealAudio excerpt), the islanders' past, religion and everything they valued were crushed by colonialism and Christianity. Nineteenth-century inhabitants of Tokelau, for example, were warned that gunboats would visit them if they refused to accept the new faith.
"For years I wasn't aware of what went on before the Europeans arrived," Foaì said. "I was never told we had a fantastic history of our own. But I dug it up, and that's where my awareness began, which resulted in my music and storytelling."
After five years of playing, Te Vaka have finally been accepted in New Zealand, Foaì said, but only because they first were recognized in Europe and America "and New Zealand follows America."
Now Te Vaka are looking ahead to their third album. The biggest change will be the inclusion of songs with English lyrics.
"It wasn't right to do it on the first or second album," Foaì said. "But it seems to be coming naturally, since I've exhausted a lot of the things I wanted to do. Tokelauan is a very poor language; you can end up chasing your tail, so I'm writing things partially in English. But, just like before, I'm telling the story of the Polynesians."