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FEATURE | The Unique Classical Music Journey Of Rapa Nui Pianist, Environmentalist & Educator Mahani Teave

By Anya Wassenberg on September 20, 2023

Mahani Teave in a recording session (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Mahani Teave in a recording session (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Mahani Teave is often described as the only classical pianist on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, but that’s something she’d like to change. Rapa Nui comes from the indigenous Polynesian language.

She’s on an international tour that will bring her to Toronto’s Koerner Hall for a recital on October 1.

Mahani first came to serious international attention in 2018, and her debut recording Rapa Nui Odyssey; A Mahani Teave Piano Recital, released January of 2021 on the Rubicon Classics label, has been showered with accolades. It reached the number one position on the Classical Billboard charts.

Today, Mahani lives on Easter Island, while juggling a concert tour schedule along with responsibilities for the island’s only Music School, and as a mother.

Mahani Teave plays a short clip from Rapa Nui Odyssey (Track 17 — Rachmaninov’s Moment Musical Op.16, No.4 in E minor):

Mahani Teave: Rapa Nui and classical music

The remote volcanic island is Chilean territory today, with a population of only 7,750 or so. Easter Island become famous because of the nearly 900 enormous stone statues crafted hundreds of years ago. But, there is more to Rapa Nui culture and people.

Brought up on Rapa Nui, there was a Polynesian and an American side to Mahani’s family. It created the blend of influences that led her to classical music. “There’s several things. On one hand, my father is a singer and songwriter. He’s Polynesian, and he was always singing and composing songs,” she explains.

On the American side, visits to her grandfather in Colorado Springs introduced her to his Steinway (a company that she represents today). “I got to play this wonderful instrument, and it really drew my attention,” she recalls. “Occasionally, I’d have access to ballet and ballet music.” She recalls seeing the Nutcracker, among others.

From time to time, music educators would reach the island for a stint. “It brought me close to music,” she says. “And then when the first piano came to the island, I was so excited.”

That first piano, an old upright, came to the Island along with a retired violinist, a former musician. “She wanted to spend her last decades in peace and quiet,” Mahani recalls. She was reluctant to take the young islander who didn’t even have a keyboard to practice on as a student, but Mahani was persistent. “Finally, she agreed.”

When she saw Mahani’s attitude and dedication, she also let the young student practice on her own piano.

Mahani Teave (Photo: Pilar Castro)
Mahani Teave (Photo: Pilar Castro)

Island culture

Easter Island is considered the world’s most remote community. “Back then, in the early 90s, we had a flight once a week, a ship once a year,” Mahani recalls. “We got electricity a decade earlier.”

Pianos, in other words, weren’t high on anyone’s list. “I was into all kinds of anything that would be a learning experience.” That included classes in drawing and dancing along with music. “I think it has to do with the culture there,” she says of her home.

Mahani describes a vibrant culture where art and music are an everyday part of life. “Music is for us the most important feature in any important event.” Ancestral chants are still part of public events today, along with weddings, funerals, and other occasions. “It’s in the blood.”

She strongly believes in the healing and unifying powers of music, and looks to combine her love of music, the environment of the Easter island, and belief in music education for children throughout her practice.

At the age of 30, she abandoned a busy performing career to return to Rapa Nui and co-found the Toki Rapa Nui with collaborator Enrique Icka. The non-profit offers free music education, among other things.

Together, she and Icka created the School of Music and the Arts of Easter Island, the very first institution of its kind in the remote region. “We started the music school on the island,” she says. “There’s so much enthusiasm for it.”

The curriculum blends both Western classical and traditional Polynesian music training on various instruments. More than 100 students are enrolled. Mahani says many are already multi-instrumentalists, and emphasizes the importance of music on brain development in children.

Along with music, the school has become a cultural institution, and was built using the principles of self-sustaining technology. The infrastructure was recognized with a Recyclápolis Environmental National Award, and was constructed using Earthship Biotecture and 100% recycled materials with the assistance of American architect Michael Reynolds, known as a proponent of what he calls “radically sustainable living”.

The non-profit organization has also developed an organic agro-ecological project to promote food sovereignty, crucial for an island nation.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Forsen created a documentary called Song of Rapa Nui based on her story. She’s also the subject of a children’s book The Girl Who Heard the Music, written by Mahani and Marni Fogelson and released in spring 2023.

The Toronto programme

The programme for her Toronto concert leans heavily on Chopin for the fist half, including Nocturnes, Mazurkas, a Barcarolle and Scherzo, “I love his music. I think there’s a reason everybody loves Chopin,” she says. She describes it as music that’s straight from the heart.

Other material showcases Rapa Nui roots. That includes the Canadian premiere of Ancestral Rapa Nui: I hē a Hotu Matu’a (arranged by José Miguel Tobar). “This music, in particular, they’re arrangements,” she explains. “It’s one of the most important chants in our culture. It’s quite a literal transcription of the chant,” she adds. “If I have Island people [in the audience], I get them to sing along.”

Alejandro Arevalo’s Suite Rapa Nui is based on the Island’s ancient chants without being a literal transcription, particularly one that was performed to coax the rain during times of drought. One tells the story of the first king of the island, Hoto-Matua, who arrived after a long journey over the seas.

“He was an extremely wise and generous king,” she says. She points out that the culture of Easter Island incorporated intellectual life, with written records, a calendar, in short, a stable and prosperous society.

The programme ends with Liszt and Rachmaninov. Naturally, the material comes from her release. “We hadn’t had the chance of doing the post-CD tour,” she explains. COVID put an end to international travel.

L: Mahani Teave (Photo: Gentileza Grupa Copesa); R: QR code for more information on Toki Rapa Nui, the non-profit she's co-founded
L: Mahani Teave (Photo: Gentileza Grupa Copesa); R: QR code for more information on Toki Rapa Nui, the non-profit she’s co-founded

The environment

Environmental activism has become an important part of her life and her musical practice. She aims to inform and educate, “to help them realize that we’re in such a critical moment in our life as a species,” she says. “We can’t wait for the government to take actions. They should have done this years ago.”

Despite the dire state of the planet, she remains optimistic. “Little by little by little, it actually adds up to a lot.”

The school’s construction used up six years’ worth of recyclables from the island. It’s part of her philosophy of finding practical solutions to environmental issues. “What happens on the island, even though there are only 7,000 people, and we’re the most remote place in the world,” she says, “we are in a vortex in the ocean.”

The vortex draws plastic waste to the coast of Rapa Nui, and the waste comes from all directions — the United States, China, Chile. While others may be able to throw such garbage away without another thought, those who live close to the ocean see the toll it takes.

“Today, it’s critical,” she says. “We can actually do something.” While some damage may be irreparable, she believes we can reach a moment where we halt the downhill slide of the natural world. “That’s what we should aim at. We just have to talk about it.”

She cites the over-use of air conditioning and heating as one of the issues that can be solved by better planning and usage. “We have to think as a whole human race, thinking about it as a family.”

As she notes, the most vulnerable people in the world are the hardest hit.

Tickets for the October 1 concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall are on sale [HERE].

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