Moana's Kiwi composer Igelese Ete's journey to Hollywood

Ete is championing Pacific performers on the big screen.

By Kelly Bertrand

It’s one of Hollywood’s biggest-ever movies, pulling in almost $1 billion at the box office. Though Disney’s Moana has been enjoyed all over the world, the film holds a special place in New Zealanders’ hearts thanks to the depiction of demi-god Maui, and its Kiwi cast members such as Temuera Morrison, Rachel House and Jemaine Clement.

But when it comes to the sound of the hit film, it’s another Kiwi who can take the credit – composer Igelese Ete. Igelese, who also appeared as a mentor on TVNZ 1’s reality show The Naked Choir, was in charge of the arrangement of the choral scores for Moana, after travelling to Los Angeles to convince Disney bosses that a film about the Pacific Islands should star Pacific singers.

“I made a house call,” the musician grins. “Disney had come to me a few years ago, but in 2015, I went over to Hollywood, rocked up to the studio and caught up with them for a coffee. I made it very clear to them that to keep the sound authentic, it needed to have Pacific voices. And they agreed.”

Guest starring as a mentor on *The Naked Choir*.
Guest starring as a mentor on The Naked Choir.

The result of the conversation, says Igelese (48), was Moana's soundtrack being recorded in Fiji, where he’s based for his work as Head of Performing Arts at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. And it was Igelese’s choir, Pasifika Voices, who provided the film’s vocals.

“We had to keep it all under wraps that it had happened, of course, but the day we were due to announce it, Fiji won their first-ever gold medal at the Olympics for the rugby sevens,” he laughs. “So we had to hold onto our own golden opportunity for a few more days! But it was a very good few weeks to be in Fiji.”

Igelese, who was born in Samoa and moved to Wellington when he was seven, has been in Fiji for seven years. He lives with his fiancée Vasiti and their eight-month-old daughter Nafanua, as well as daughter Aria (18) and son Naatapuitea (14), his children from a previous marriage.

Igelese in Suva with his proud family (from left) Vasiti Radekedeke, Naatapuitea, Aria and baby Nafanua.
Igelese in Suva with his proud family (from left) Vasiti Radekedeke, Naatapuitea, Aria and baby Nafanua.

It was during his formative years in the capital that Igelese first became involved with music, becoming the choir master at his church when he was 14.

“So, 10 years ago!” he says with a raucous laugh.

“I went to Wellington College, which had a strong music culture and a strong rugby history – so I did both. At that time, it was definitely not cool to sing in a chamber choir and be in the first XV – this was before shows like Glee. I like to think I made it cool!”

After studying opera at Victoria University, Igelese taught at high schools and even released a top-20 hit, Groovalation, in 1995 before becoming immersed in composition.

He also worked on 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. A master’s degree followed and Igelese is now studying for his PhD at Auckland University of Technology, balancing it with family time, composing original songs and other top-secret projects that could see him head back to Hollywood in the near future.

Igelese with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Igelese with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

For now, though, Igelese says he was thrilled to appear on The Naked Choir to provide the top four choirs with a bit of mentoring. It was fitting, given the theme of the episode was songs from famous movies.

“I was so excited when they called me and asked me to appear,” he says. “There was some incredible talent on the show – the standard is so high.”

His work has meant a little bit of travelling back and forward from his Fiji home, but it’s nothing Igelese isn’t used to and there are an increasing number of flights to the US on the horizon.

“I went over there for the world premiere of Moana,” he says. “I took my son and he was so not impressed. It was just like, ‘Oh, there’s Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Cool. Next!’” Igelese laughs.

“Kids, man, they’re the hardest people to please.”

With former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger.
With former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger.

“But,” he continues, “watching that movie with everyone – man, it was very emotional. Seeing our story on the screen was amazing, and knowing that so many Kiwi and Pacific people were behind it was great.”

Although Igelese can’t reveal too much about his future projects, he does say he’s heading back to Hollywood in September and eyeing up some opportunities on Broadway, no less.

But where music is concerned, everything always comes back to home for Igelese, who says his biggest passion is raising the profile of the talent we have in our little corner of the world.

“It’s not about showbiz, it’s about life, about making music.

“And that’s what it’s about, the joy of getting together and singing.”

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