“This is the fusion,” toasts the Mana Poly All-Stars’ Nela Otuafi on the catchy intro track from their sophomore album, Riddim + Blues…
“A collaboration of two cultures- where the West Indies and the South Pacific bring island music to the forefront.”
And a fine collaboration it is. To describe MPA’s music as simply reggae, island, or R&B would do it a disservice.
“It’s fusion reggae,” MPA’s manager, Jillana AhLoe explained to me in the parking lot of Salt Lake City’s Club Vegas two weeks ago. I had called Nela for a follow up to my first piece about him and, he invited me out to meet all the guys and Jillana. They wouldn’t be playing until nearly midnight, so we walked outside for an impromptu interview.
Previously, my only exposure to Nela was his ground-breaking album, Return with Honour, with Pau Hana, a group he started in college. After our first interview, he sent me copy of Riddim + Blues, confident I’d like it just as much. I’m pleased to report that it is exactly as Nela described it—an “instant classic.”
For those of you who loved Pau Hana but may be new to MPA (and there are a few of you, judging by the hits I’ve been getting to my previous post and the search terms bringing you here), let me introduce MPA’s sound and style from the reference frame of Pau Hana.
Common to both groups are Nela’s lead vocals, his mid-song “chatting,” and a certain best-of-all-worlds sound. Both groups also share reggae undertones. But whereas Pau Hana was Jawaian (reggae plus Hawaiian), MPA is reggae plus R&B. The depth and richness of Pau Hana has continued to MPA, but it’s more mature and refined.
It’s also more vocally diverse, thanks to the rest of the ensemble. When Nela and pal Kalani Hafoka started MPA in 1999, they set out to recruit the best of the best—a cast of all-stars, if you will.
“Kalani loves R&B. He’s a soul guy,” Nela said, pointing at each of his fellow band members standing with us. “Tema’s an old school R&B guy. Vaea’s a roots guy. Ese’s a hip-hop guy. James is a rock guy. I’m a dancehall guy. We all have our own styles that we bring to the table.”
The band’s name is a construct that describes exactly who they are.
“We wanted a name that was common in all Polynesian languages and ‘mana’ is that word,” Nela explained. Mana means power or great spirit. “The problem is that there is already a group out there called “Mana”, so to separate ourselves we added the ‘Poly All-Stars’ because we all came from different groups.”
While all of them were born in the U.S., each MPA member has an island heritage, and a few of them have been back to visit their homelands. They credit their island roots with their knack for music. Keyboardist/vocalist Setema Gali laid it out:
“Polynesians, when we go to church, we break out into three or four part harmonies. We definitely have a gift for music. Most Polynesians can pick up any instrument, can harmonize anything. So the islands show through in our music.”
[I might mention here that music isn't Setema's only talent. He was an all-conference defensive end for Brigham Young University and has a Super Bowl ring from his career with the New England Patriots.]
“We sing the melody, everybody picks their part—boom!” added Nela. Those rich harmonies are no better showcased than on Riddim + Blues track “Guarantee,” a tune about solidifying love.
Listen to an impromptu parking lot version of “Guarantee” that I recorded at the interview. The audio quality isn’t great but it’s good stuff.
In fact, whether it’s devotion (Good Love), the practical side of marriage (Give U Love), or romantic pining (One Step Behind), most tracks on Riddim + Blues are odes to love. The sultry vocals of MPA’s only female MPA member, Luisa Hafoka, complement the male harmonies in fine fashion.
“Gunshots”, a story about the tragedy of two gang incidents, is another landmark track. The song won the award for social action song of the year at the IMA’s. The album itself won reggae album of the year at the Hawaiian Music Awards. Their debut album, S. Pacifik Musik has won awards as well.
Overall, Riddim + Blues fuses smooth R&B vocals with prominent reggae rhythms. The Polynesian connection to reggae music, Nela explained, is natural because of its universal vibe. Nela has been adopting elements of reggae since Pau Hana, incorporating intro toasts and chat interludes.
Nela’s “chattin’” is what drew me to Pau Hana originally. It’s like rap, but with partial melody. It’s raw, yet highly structured. Nela does it masterfully in pure island chant style. Some MPA chats incorporate harmony from the others—like a song within a song. I’m going to officially request that their next album include a track that consists entirely of chat.
In short, Riddim + Blues is a rock-solid record and an instant classic. MPA’s unique fusion of island music and old school R&B is full of soul-catching beats and lush harmonies. I’m not a genre guy. I love good music. And trust me, MPA is good music. Will Riddim + Blues replace Return with Honour in my CD changer? No, because I think by now RwH has seared itself onto my turntable. But R+B has the next slot over– and it will probably stay there a good while, too.
The Mana Poly All-Stars are: JAMES RUBI-lead guitar; TANIELA “NELA” OTUAFI-vocals, keyboards; KALANIANAOLE HAFOKA-vocals, guitar, bass; NA’A HAFOKA-rhythm guitar, vocals; SIOSIFA “ESE” TAIESE-drums, vocals; SETEMA GALI, JR.-keyboards, vocals; LUISA HAFOKA-vocals; VAEA TAUTEOLI-Bass.