If you love great dance music, if you thrill to the sound of live drums, and if the Polynesian rhythms drive you to your feet, then you have got to find the next concert by Te Vaka. The 10 or so Polynesian singers and dancers (I lost count) simply blew me away last night at the Catalyst in downtown Santa Cruz. I’ll try to write a descriptive review but all I can really say is that they were awesome. Jaw-dropping, how-did-I-get-so-lucky awesome.
Te Vaka is a Polynesian performing group of musicians and dancers from New Zealand, with ancestry from several Pacific Islands including Samoa and two very small islands called Tuvalu and Tokelau. They are lead by singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’i, who writes songs in his indigenous language, Tokelauan. He writes upbeat songs about important things: home, family, the islands and the oceans. And while the style is contemporary rock, its heart comes from the rhythms of islands life.
Their pure, open-throated vocals made me wish I could sing—it must feel divine to sing like that. In addition to full-band (guitars, drums, singing) they performed a number of percussion-only compositions that were as complex and exciting as any I have heard (right up there with taiko—indeed, I am certain one of them practiced taiko). The sound/spirit of those drums reached out and grabbed me by the solar plexus. And through it all, they danced. Three dancers, two women and one man. This style of Polynesian dance is irresistible. The women’s dances are very feminine, the men’s dances very masculine. Both are infused with power, grace, and shear, unadulterated joy. The women were gorgeous, with hand and finger movements as supple as sea grass and hips that circle at breakneck speeds. And they perform these charming little gestures, like a small flick of the head that seems to say “ain’t I cute and I’m so glad you are here watching.” The primary male dancer danced with a wide stance, big leg kicks, powerful arm and hand gestures, like that flicking, twisting fist that I can’t get enough of. (Yes, I’m in love again, this time with Pacific Island dance!) In addition, local Polynesian dance troupe Te Hau Nui (lead by my hula teacher Lorraine Kinnemon) performed two choreographies with the band including Pate Pate (pate is a log drum), Te Vaka’s signature piece.
Despite the driving spirit of Te Vaka’s music, they had a hard time convincing anyone to get up and dance. “Its been a long time since I played for a sitting audience,” Opetaia said hoping to embarrass us out of our seats. After the intermission, people did loosen up and dance. That’s when the native islanders came out to play. I was passed by three men who emerged from behind a bar, each of them the size of a Volkswagon, Samoan style. They danced a modest men’s dance, but it was the sharp, whooping vocalizations that sent a thrill through me.
Oh well, no words are ever going to express what I experienced. No CD or DVD is ever going to capture what Te Vaka has to offer. They play again tonight in San Francisco and then a half a dozen other west coast spots. I may become a groupie. Or move to New Zealand. I wonder if there are any jobs there…?