TE VAKA VISITING FIJI

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (July 8, 2002 – Fiji Times)---Te Vaka is heading back to Fiji -- but a little different this time.

The group’s third CD, "Nukukehe" ("New Land"), is out in New Zealand and while the music remains infectious and lively, solid for a Suva nightclub, its political too.

Lead singer Opetaia Foa'i though is almost bemused at the idea; his agenda is different.

"I am a spokesman for the Pacific, not in a political way," he told the Fiji Times at his comfortable home in bush clad Titirangi ("edge of heaven"), out in west Auckland.

"My aim is to go down this road and to be among a group of people finding something close to a musical identity for this area.

"I can sit in Paris and listen to the radio and say "ah that's Pacific music'. That's my task, and I cannot use other people's stories, I have to use my own stories."

This time he sings over global warming, change in the Pacific and complex issues like a deadly school fire in Tuvalu and colonization in Tokelau.

Some of it is fun too, like his tribute to Samoan boxer Tavita Tua: O te Tamatoa, Tamatoa o te Pasifika ("this warrior, our warrior of the Pacific").

There is also a piece, Tesema, which celebrates the way in which Samoans in New Zealand who go home for the summer holidays can get two Christmas Days or two New Year Days -- thanks to the International Dateline.

In late August Te Vaka will go to Samoa to perform in the annual Teuila Festival followed by a yet to be confirmed Fiji tour in September – Fiji has a problem in providing suitably large venues. Next year will see the group back in Europe, followed possibly by the U.S.

Foa'i is of mixed Tokelauan and Tuvaluan birth who grew up in the Samoan village of Alamagoto, on the outskirts of the capital, Apia. It is there that the expatriate Tokelauans live. He left for New Zealand as a nine-year-old and only returned, with his family, last year. And for the first time ever, he traveled on to Tokelau and Tuvalu.

Ua leva ou Mataga ese atu Tele mea sui i lou olaga Le mafautau mea Na amata mai ai Ae valau mai e foi atu.

(Left this land a long time ago Much has happened in my life Never looking back To where I came from Still she calls me To return home).

He says getting to see again the places he sang about, bought it through more clearly.

"I thought it was beautiful, it was really exciting."

He had to go back.

"It was time and I knew the third album had to be good. I had done the first two albums on my own fantasy island of Alamagoto. I created my own Tokelau island there. I knew it was time to see the real thing."

From Apia the Foa'i family set sail for the three atolls of Tokelau, a New Zealand territory 360 kilometers (216 miles) north of Samoa. The family connection is with the southern most atoll, Fakaofo. Just south of that atoll is another, the lost island of Olohega.

And this is the story with sees Te Vaka become very political, a song called Haloa Olohega ("Poor Olohega").

Mumumumu mai te igoa o te motu Na kave e Ilai i te 1856 Lea mai ko he mea aloha Mai he tama Igilihi Kitea e ia tino kai katiga E he nonofo na tino i ei Heki totokia ni mea ki latou E he nonofo na tino i ei

(Whisper to me the name of this land Taken by Eli in 1856 He said it was a gift Gifted to him by an Englishman He saw natives eating coconuts But they were passing through They didn't grow anything So naturally this wasn't their home.)

A monstrous injustice has occurred at Olohega -- or Swains Island as it now appears on maps -- made worse by the fact that so few people live on it.

Tokelauans lived there for thousands of years; they built star mounds and stone houses, still visible to this day.

An American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, arrived in 1856 and drove away many of the local people. Those that stayed were sold by Jennings, at $10 a head, to the Peruvian slave ship Rosa Patricia and were lost forever. Those that stayed Jennings kept as cheap labor on his copra plantation.

The outrage continues. The Jennings family still claim to own Olohega and will not let Tokelauans back. They pressured the United States to claim the island as American territory, which they did unilaterally in 1925, although Britain, through New Zealand, claimed Tokelau.

In one of those cynical deals diplomats are good at, in 1979 New Zealand renounced its claim on Olohega while Washington in return renounced their claim on Tokelau. Like all good colonial plots, it was done over the resistance of the very people who were worst affected, the Tokelauans.

The political leaders of Tokelau, the faipule, have not forgotten, as Opetaia found out on his trip.

"I am in close contact with the faipule (of Fakaofo)," he said.

"He is very strong on this. He expressed his feelings about Olohega. Every time I go on tour he will say 'Oh, would you mind mentioning Olohega.'

"I knew about it, but as far as I was concerned it was a long time ago. They were telling me they had been trying to start talking about Olohega to get it back."

He discovered that Eli Jenning's Samoan wife, Malia, who had been married earlier, was his great great-great grandmother.

Olohega is firmly in his roots.

"I realize it is a significant thing. It is only a small thing this island, but to Tokelau it is a better place to live, because it is higher."

Last year Te Vaka performed Haloa Olohega at concerts in Hawai‘i, and got an angry reaction.

"I had the Jennings family knock on the backdoor of the stage, basically saying 'you better not put the song on the album'."

He says the reaction is because he has written the truth of this tragedy.

"I am asking that discussion begins on Olohega, that's all. I am opening the door for them and point out that this guy actually gained money helping the slave traders. Ten dollars a head, that's a crime....

"After going and discovering all the history, I felt that at least discussion should begin and what I have done is point out some of the truths that will shock people into movement."

On the CD too is Loimata e Maligi ("Let the Tears Fall Down"), in memory of the 19 young girls who died in a fire at the Motufoua boarding school on Vaitupu, Tuvalu, in March 2000.

Faigata fakamalamalama Tino gafulu ma te toko iva Ave ai te lumanai A te atunuku

(It's hard to understand That 19 lives were taken And along with it The future of a small nation)

Opetaia, who keeps in close contact with the small Tuvaluan community in Auckland, says he recalled how shaken people were by the fire, caused when a candle was knocked over. The girls could not escape the dormitory because they were locked in so that boys could not get at them.

"There were people just scratching themselves because they did not know what to do, the frustration of not knowing what to do," Opetaia says.

"It wasn't as if outsiders came and did it; they did it to themselves. They were locked in and I got that feeling of sadness. I had tears. I sat in the studio and that song came out.... It was all they could do, was to let the tears flow and to let the warmth wash in."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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