Disneyʻs “Moana” — Musical Musings

The animated film “Moana,” Disneyʻs latest foray into the island Pacific, was released in the U.S. last Wednesday Nov. 23. In our present-day world saturated by social media, Moana sailed onto our horizons amidst swells of anticipation for Disneyʻs latest, but also tsunamis of criticism on issues of representation. Pacific Islander scholars and activists are legitimately concerned. On the one hand, we enjoy it when our little-known region has new spotlights thrown on our islands, our people, and our life ways. On the other hand, we are thrown into having to explain what is and isnʻt part of our islands, our people, and our life ways. Itʻs exciting when we get to say “yup, thatʻs how it is!” But historically our experiences have too often left us having to say “no, thatʻs not how it is!”

So what is there to say about the music of “Moana”? Well, for starters — It is NOT Hawaiian music, for a very fundamental set of reasons. The film is NOT set in Hawaiʻi. The story itself is NOT set in Hawaiʻi. The characters are NOT enacting an exclusively Hawaiian story. And therefore, there is no reason why the music should be Hawaiian music. So, guess what? The music in “Moana” is not Hawaiian music.

Disneyʻs story line draws upon legends associated with the superhero Maui, a character revered in island groups across the Pacific who now have distinctly separate cultures, languages, societies and histories. Maui is a “Hawaiian Suppaʻ Man.” But Maui is also a super hero known to Tahitians, Maori, Samoans. Tongans, Tuvaluans, and others. The legends of Maui date from epochs before many of our islands were even settled–before there were “Hawaiians” or “Tahitians”, for example. We can celebrate the fact that Hawaiians share Maui with our Pacific relatives. But Hawaiians do not have a monopoly on Maui, or how he should be depicted.

Moana–the princess, now thatʻs another story. Thatʻs where Disney steps in with a princess-able story that can sell movie tickets and merch. In time for  Christmas holiday shopping.

Polynesia — the setting. Moana is the daughter of a chief of a Polynesian tribe. DISCLAIMER: There is no traditional place named “Polynesia.” Polynesia is a region named by the French naval explorer Jules Dumont DʻUrville, who published his schema of Malaysia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia in an article in 1832 after circumnavigating the globe in the 1820s. There was no Polynesia before Dumont DʻUrville. Islanders recognize Polynesia as a region only because western scholars used Dumont DʻUrvilleʻs classifications, and we learned about Polynesia in school. Islanders use the name “Polynesia” nowadays, because it is often more recognizable to outsiders, so it becomes a point of reference for us to be legible. Get it?

Now letʻs get to the music in “Moana.”Disney needed two things, musically speaking: 1) a composed soundtrack to work in tandem with the plot; and 2) island-flavored music for a story set not in Hawaiʻi, but in “Polynesia.” So skipping Hawaiian music, Disney turned to the Pacific recording artist most well known on the world music touring circuit: the New Zealand-based band Te Vaka. Its founder and frontman is singer-songwriter Opetai Foaʻi. Opetaiʻs father is from Tokelau, and his mother is from Tuvalu. They met while attending school in Samoa, where Opetai was born. His early childhood was spent in Tokelau, where he was surrounded by traditional song forms, especially the fātele of Tokelau, but also the siva from Sāmoa, and the ubiquitous yet beloved ʻukulele-based pan-Pacific pop. The family moved to Auckland when he was aged 9. All these elements make their way into Te Vakaʻs music that is described as “south Pacific fusion.”


Two signature elements of Te Vakaʻs sound–strong choral harmonies and lively slit-log percussion rhythms–are the framework for the filmʻs title track, “We Know The Way.” The lyrics are credited to Opetai Foaʻi and Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is Disney; might as well get the hottest Broadway dramatist on board, right? (“Hamilton,” for those dear readers not immersed in musical theater.) So there is one verse in Tokelauan language, but the main lyrics are in English. The better so that fans can sing along.

The featured vocal talent in the film are Native Hawaiian teen Auliʻi Carvalho who voices Moana, and athlete and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of Samoan heritage who voices Maui. Their songs are in English. Auliʻi wails on Moanaʻs feature song, “How Far Iʻll Go,” and The Rock gets Mauiʻs song “Youʻre Welcome”–complete with Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping. These and other English-language songs on the soundtrack are delivered in the inimitable Broadway / musical theater style of singing. (Think “Let It Go.” Thatʻs the sound.)

This is all by way of noting that, aside from the Pacific sonic flavor from Te Vakaʻs drumming, the soundtrack is actually classic Disney musical. Nothing more, nothing less.

Dear Readers, I highly recommend visiting the Facebook page and archives of the community group named “Mana Moana: We are Moana, We are Maui.” The articles articulate the issues of representation and appropriation from a critical islander perspective.  They have kindly gathered key articles and commentaries in an archive.

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4 Responses to Disneyʻs “Moana” — Musical Musings

  1. Anne Blankenship says:

    Thank you, as always!

  2. Joey Cummings says:

    Thanks for he recount and the gentle push to go read more deeply of the concerns of many Pacific Islanders over this movie. I previously held less informed opinions.

  3. Dahmia says:

    I have been a supporter of Te Vaka’s music for a few years and had even given copies of new cds that were signed by the group to Auntie Kau’i and Kawehe Punahele because I thought they would enjoy the mele. Imagine my surprise when I was listening to the sound track and thought “gee, this sounds like Te Vaka”. Small world, no? Appreciate your details on this sound track as I have not seen the movie and wasn’t sure where the lyrics were fitting but did enjoy the drumming & chanting on one of the cuts. Big mahalo – Dahmia

  4. Joey Baloney says:

    Although there wasn’t hawaiian music, there still was hawaiian influences in the movie, but I think for the most part it was Maori, Samoan, Fijian, and Tokelauan culture. Interesting article though!

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