Tagata Pasifika The Pacific voice on New Zealand television since 1987

Polynesian classical music fills the Beehive in Wellington

The Virtuoso strings orchestra was set up in 2013 in Porirua to introduce Pasifika and Māori youth to classical music. They’ve grown from 16 to 300 members, and they’ve toured New Zealand and performed with some big names including Grammy award winning opera singer Jonathan Lemalu recently.

The Beehive in Wellington is buzzing to the sound of the Sāmoan national anthem sung by Jonathan Lemalu.

“I feel this is another, maybe a feather in the cap and another opportunity on the bigger stages and in front of our people and our nation,” Jonathan says.

The Grammy award winning bass-baritone is accompanied by the Virtuoso strings orchestra of Cannons Creek, Porirua. Many of the young Pasifika and Māori musicians are excited to share the stage with the Sāmoan opera singer and the opportunity to perform at the Beehive’s Banquet Hall, the largest function room in the parliamentary complex.

Jonathan Lemalu with Virtuoso Strings at NZ Parliament
Jonathan Lemalu with Virtuoso Strings at NZ Parliament. Photo: Tagata Pasifika.

Sāmoan violinist Aaron Moe is enjoying the experience. “Parliament being the seat of our government, seat of power, we don’t often play in this kind of venue. This is kind of our first time,” he says.

The orchestra has been around for eight years and is proud to represent Cannons Creek. This is music to the ears of Barbara Edmonds, who is their local MP.

“Parliament is the house for everybody. I don’t think that message is across enough, so being able to bring them in here to see what is possible for them and to say, ‘This is your place as much as it is mine,’” Barbara says.

The new Labour MP entered Parliament last year and is already in tune with the orchestra’s history.

“When I was about 14 years old, I actually won a violin scholarship to learn for a year. Unfortunately my father, being a solo father, couldn’t afford it the next year, so I had to give it up,” Barbara says.

That experience has inspired her to give it another go and to learn a string instrument through the orchestra.

“I’ve been following Virtuoso Strings now for about four, five years, because I absolutely believe in what they are doing, which is giving free violin, viola, cello lessons to kids that can’t necessarily afford it,” she says.

MP Barbara Edmonds with Virtuoso Strings. Photo: John Pulu, Tagata Pasifika
MP Barbara Edmonds with Virtuoso Strings. Photo: John Pulu, Tagata Pasifika

Tongan/Sāmoan violinist Madison Setefano acknowledges the hard work they’ve all put in leading up to the show, rehearsing each day to make sure they are ready.

“I think the best part is just getting together with everyone and playing this uncommon genre of music as well as a unique instrument we all have,” she says.

For this particular performance, the group perform classical, traditional folk music and even Pacific tunes. One of their Pacific pieces is ‘Cry of the stolen people’, which relates to the kidnapping or blackbirding of Tokelauans who ended up as slaves in South America in 1863.

“A lot of our Tokelauan people don’t really know when we tell them about blackbirding and about the history of Tokelau; they don’t really know about it,” says Tokelau artist Mose Viliamu.

He says music will help share their story and pass on to the next generation.

“We need to get it out there, because it’s affected us as Tokelauan people quite a lot.”

That is one of the many strengths of the youth orchestra, and parents are proud it helps students who want to go further with music.

Parent and orchestra chairman James Faraimo is all for it.

“We give opportunities for them for our unit standards in music, and they’ve achieved it at the highest level, and it’s a good preparation for them for tertiary education,” James says.

It’s also a proud moment for the bass-baritone singing with the group at this performance. Lemalu is also the patron of Virtuoso Strings.

“What I really like is the pillars of their mission: inclusivity, respect, aroha. I just find these kinds of principles maybe get a little bit lost in the hustle and bustle, and just take these moments to take stock and, I guess, find perspective.”

By John Pulu

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