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By Jennifer Little

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (October 6, 1998 - Agence France-Presse)---The Tokelau islands form one of the tiniest nations on the planet, with a total land mass of four square miles (10.4 square kilometers), but at the moment they are at the center of the musical world.

Polynesian musicians calling themselves Te Vaka have leapt from humble homegrown beginnings to become stars of international music festivals in just one year. Tokelau, with 1,700 residents, has neither harbor nor airport and its first telephone exchange is just a year old but Te Vaka have outstripped their palm-fringed origins to take on exacting European audiences.

They combine traditional Polynesian rhythms, sounds, stories, dances and ambiance with a touch of modern technology.

"Most people on the other side of the world think instantly of Hawaiian guitars and hula skirts," said the group's manager Julie Foa'i of the music. To the spell of Te Vaka's sweet harmonies, lusty log drum rhythms and feel-good melodies - all sung in Tokelauan and written by the group's lead singer-songwriter, guitarist and percussionist Opetaia Foa‘i - Europeans readily succumbed in 1997. The enchantment grew during the 10-member band's second four month, 15 country tour of music festivals from England to Estonia, from the celebrated Ronnie Scott's in London to the World Expo in Portugal.

Samoan-born Opetaia Foa'i, who grew up in a Tokelauan community, thanks his European wife Julie's marketing savvy and enthusiasm for the voyage from obscurity to stardom.

When someone suggested they send the track to Peter Gabriel's Real World studios in England, Opetaia thought they were crazy. But they sent it and faxes came back immediately saying they wanted more.

The pair assembled musicians -- all family members including their four children, and two Europeans and produced their first album of original contemporary Polynesian music titled "Te Vaka" which was released world-wide by ARC Music Productions International in more than 60 countries last May.

It topped music charts from California to Switzerland, and received rave reviews globally. Opetaia describes a poignant moment when one day his wife wrote on a piece of paper: "Target --we take this music to the world." The band members looked at each other disbelievingly, shrugged, and said "sure." But Julie Foa‘i was determined. After all, Te Vaka, meaning canoe, "is all about taking the Pacific to the world," she said.

Their initial tour was hugely successful, and the return tour this year brought even more acclaim and prestigious invitations, including the chance to record at Gabriel's studios which, because of time constraints, they could not accept.

Though the songs "make people feel good" says Julie, they also impart the sorrow of Tokelau's past that her husband gathers by talking to the elderly and his own family from the islands.

One song tells of how Tokelauans were taken by South American slave traders between 1850 and 1872, reducing the population to 80 people, mainly old men and women, and young children. The song "Taga Sina" expresses the sadness and desperation felt by those left behind.

Back in their hometown of Auckland, where most of the 5,000 Tokelauans not based in the islands live, Te Vaka are preparing to record their next album, and creating a new stage show which does include a hula.

"We take essences from different islands -- the common denominator is that it's all Polynesian," says Opetaia.

For additional information: Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz WWW: http://www.afp.com/english/

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