Foa'i was raised in a thatched-roof Tokelauan community in Alamagoto, Samoa until he moved to Auckland, New Zealand with his uncle at the age of nine. The extended family eventually shared a flat there, and Foa'i picked up English on his own at school without any formal help. His Samoan community had been a musical one, and he took note of the tuning differences on guitar between there and his adopted culture.
Over 20 years later in 1995, Foa'i would found Te Vaka, a group of musicians and dancers from throughout the South Pacific. They won fans with their harmonies and mix of traditional and contemporary instruments and rhythms beginning with 1996's Original Contemporary Pacific Music (also known as Te Vaka). The album soon received wider distribution on various labels, including a 1997 U.S. release on Arc Music. Te Vaka went on to issue albums every two to four years over the next two decades, with 2004's Tutuki winning Best Pacific Music Album at the New Zealand Music Awards -- one of many New Zealand, Polynesian, South Pacific, and world-music accolades over their career. The group's songs are delivered in a variety of regional languages, but most often in Foa'i's native Tokelauan. In November 2016, Foa'i's songwriting came to the attention of international film audiences with the release of Disney's Moana. The animated musical featured a score by Mark Mancina (Disney's Tarzan) and songs co-written by Foa'i, Mancina, and Hamilton: An American Musical auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda. ~ Marcy Donelson, Rovi