Moana choral composer and Lord of the Rings choir conductor Igelese Ete is a guest mentor on TV1's The Naked Choir.

1 You made your break in film on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. How did that happen?

Peter Jackson wanted a Pacific sound for the Mines of Moria scenes, where the Balrog is chasing them through the mines. It's very intense with deep male voices. So he got composer Howard Shore to call me. I had two days to put together a 60-man choir so I had to do the auditions by phone. A lot were my old students. They had to be able to sing a low D because if you can't then you're not a real bass. We recorded in the Wellington Town Hall. The LOTR score is consistently voted the greatest film score of all time so that experience opened a lot of doors for me.

2 How did you get involved in the Moana soundtrack?

Disney came to Fiji, where I'm head of the university's performing arts school, to do some research. They heard I'd done LOTR and asked for my advice. I wanted to ensure the sound was authentically Pacific. My choir Pacific Voices sang all the choral works in the movie including How Far I'll Go and We Know The Way. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the songs. I worked with Mark Mancina, who also did The Lion King, on the choral arrangements and the percussive sounds of the Pacific.


3 Do you have any concerns about the authenticity of the finished movie?

It's a debate that continues. I've got Pacific academics saying, "You should not have gone there". They're concerned Disney is making millions by misappropriating our culture while our people get nothing which is valid. My choir got paid but we don't hold intellectual copyright because we didn't compose the songs so the next step is to write our own productions. I'm taking my production Malaga - The Journey to Hollywood in November and am hoping to mentor young Pacific people there through the help of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's family. I first staged it at Auckland University in 2001 with a group of young people including Vince Harder, Rosita Vai and Nesian Mystic.

4 Is mentoring young people your favourite part of the job?

Yes. Music such a powerful tool to inspire and empower. The majority of my compositions are about believing in who we are. In Porirua I worked with a lot of at risk teenagers at decile 1 schools. One day I got an email from a student who said he had been planning to commit suicide before he came to my rehearsals. So that's the reward for me, seeing young lives transformed through music.

5 What was it like performing at the Rugby World Cup in 2011?

Standing in the middle of Eden Park conducting a mass choir of 300 young Pacific singers was amazing. We brought them together from all over Auckland to perform a Pacific arrangement I wrote of World in Union, the official RWC song. There's so much vocal talent out there. Churches are part of that and also school choirs with competitions like The Big Sing.

6 You're about to appear on TV1's The Naked Choir as a guest mentor for the final four acapella groups. How did that go?

Fantastic. Voices Co are meticulous in their arrangements so I worked on getting their emotions out. Resonate have natural talent and emotion so I worked on their technical accuracy. Chord 5 are a cool bunch of young guys so it was just trying to harness their energy. With Embellished it was bringing together women from wide ranging backgrounds and ages to develop a sound unique to them. There are a few stars in there who will step forward thanks to the affirmation of being on this show.

Igelese Ete, a mentor on the new primetime TV talent show The Naked Choir. Photo / Michael Craig
Igelese Ete, a mentor on the new primetime TV talent show The Naked Choir. Photo / Michael Craig

7 Was choral singing a big part of your childhood?

Yes, our family migrated from Samoa to Wellington when I was 7. Dad was a church pastor. He made three of his seven kids learn piano so we could accompany the church choir. I was a very shy, introverted kid so the piano became my best friend. When you're feeling sad you can talk to it and it'll talk back to you. I spent a lot of time in my room writing songs. I won a school talent quest at age 11 with an original composition. I proudly showed my piano teacher and she said, "It's just a bunch of chords". I was heartbroken but I decided to prove her wrong.

8 When did you realise music could be a career?

I've always wanted to be a musician. At Wellington College I was the only Pacific Islander in the chamber choir and the First XV. I did a degree in opera at the New Zealand School of Music which I loved but I decided to work in Pacific choral traditions because my culture is very important to me and I felt our stories needed to be told in different art forms. My older brother Etuati was in The Laughing Samoans. I had a Top 20 hit called Revelation that went to No 11 in the charts in 1997.

9 You have two teenage children from your first marriage and recently became a father again at age 49 with your new partner. Do you parent differently the second time around?

Having gone through the process of divorce you realise how that affects your children so you're more conscious of ensuring they're emotionally protected. I mentor a lot of young people but the irony is that my kids are the most difficult to inspire - probably because they know me inside out.

10 You hold the high chief title Tuilagi. Have you had your chiefly tattoo done yet?

I'll probably get it done when I go to Samoa for my PhD field research. I'll be filming interviews with various chiefs so I can learn more about my genealogy then. I also need to learn Samoan oratory language which is a very difficult, poetic language that only chiefs can speak.

11 What are you researching?

The pre-Missionary sound of Samoa. It's quite hard to find out what it was like back then because there are no recordings. You can look at the changes made by the missionaries in their writings. They thought Pacific music sounded too sad with too many minor chords. They wanted to make it more "happy clappy" so now it's all major chords. A lot of the original chanting was deleted too.

12 If you had to choose one genre of music, what would it be?

It would have to be a fusion of Pacific music with opera, classical, gospel and stage musicals. That's what I've spent my career writing. It's a sound that could only come from New Zealand and there's no one else doing it.

The Naked Choir, TV1, Sundays 8.30pm or On Demand at