We chat with JP Foliaki, the star of the upcoming film Red, White & Brass, about how the movie represents Tongan people, community, and pride.

Red, White & Brass is the story of a Tongan community who missed out on tickets to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, so put together a brass band to get into the Tonga games.

It’s based on the movie’s co-writer Halaifonua (Nua) Finau's true story of putting together the Taulanga U Brass Band to do just that.

JP has been catapulted into New Zealand’s limelight in the last few years, playing a character in the TV show Panthers, being a contestant on music talent show Popstars, and now as star of Red, White & Brass.

You were a contestant on Popstars, and are now starring in a movie about music. How did your skills as a musician play into Red, White & Brass?

It was cool that I could resonate with what my character Maka was trying to do and how it tied into what I try to do with my music. Because, you know, funding's limited. Actually, I haven't been funded yet. Like Maka, I’m just trying to make the most out of the limited resources that I have and pulling on friends and family, telling them “We can do that! Why can't we do that?”

Did you have any experience with brass instruments?

Nah, I haven’t played a brass instrument at all. I was quite nervous about it, but I didn't end up having to play an instrument. I was actually the drum major, so I was marching at the front, so I was like “Ah yeah, sweet!” But it was actually harder than I thought it would be.

But mad props to the boys who had to learn brass instruments. They didn't have long and it was crack up. We were practising, learning how to play it so it looks legit on the movie, but then they were actually learning how to play in real life as well.

What role do brass bands and instruments play in Tongan culture?

Brass bands are a huge part of Tongan culture. I mean, the King has his own royal brass band that performs at every royal ceremony. Every village, every church, every youth group, every school in Tonga has a brass band.

I didn't grow up in Tonga, but I know the sound of the brass band and I hear my grandmother playing on the radio all the time. It’s a sound that goes straight to your soul. It reminds you of your culture.

That's why I think it’s cool to tell the story about what it's like to be Tongan, or to be proud to be Tongan, through the medium of a brass band story, I mean it means a lot and I think people will watch it and they'll resonate with it, especially within the Tongan community.

What is it that you wanted this movie to represent about Tongan culture, both in the Pacific but also here in Aotearoa?

I think for me, one of the strongest ones is what it's like to be a New Zealand-born Tongan and  be away from our home country but still be very proud of where we're from. Regardless of whether we are good at speaking the language or whether we know the traditions inside and out, we're very proud to be where we're from and the talents that we have.

The kind of love and support Pacific communities have for their rugby teams is obviously the core of this movie, and something we see happening often - like with the Samoan rugby league team last year. Why do you think these rugby events are such a unifying and celebratory moment for Pacific communities in Aotearoa?

It's one of the few ways I think we can all come together regardless of who we are or where we're from - I'm speaking like villages or family titles and things like that - and we can really just support something that we love. It's not necessarily about if we win or not, it's just the fact that we can get that opportunity regardless of the resources that we have.

You’re wearing your Tongan flag right now; there is a scene in the movie’s trailer where someone has decked their whole house out as a Tongan flag. When these big sports events happen, we see Pacific communities flying their flags wherever they can. Do you see it as a way of saying ‘I’m here, I’m Tongan, I’m proud’?

Yeah, definitely. It's about being unapologetic, I think. 

We feel māfana, which means we’re very proud. It has lots of different meanings, but it’s that feeling of warmth, pride, joy and excitement which motivates you to carry out however you’re feeling. To join whatever is playing out in front of you, whether that’s a dance, a song, a celebration.

People get filled with that feeling on māfana and want to do it in the biggest, loudest way possible. Sometimes that’s waving your flag unapologetically, or beeping your car down Ōtāhuhu.

Red, White & Brass releases in cinemas on March 23.

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