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Gonzo Report: Tenelle leaves no Pacifica stranded at Island Vibe Fest

“I wasn’t representing me. It’s always us.”

Tenelle: number six on TV, number one in their hearts.
Tenelle: number six on TV, number one in their hearts.

For many attendees, the annual Island Vibe Music Festival at Downtown’s Spanish Landing on August 13 radiated a hearty homeland vibe from the get-go. For others, the evocation of the islands was enough, and by 4 pm, the bayside venue on North Harbor Drive was at least halfway filled with concertgoers who had trekked in from all parts of the country.

As I walked in, I spotted around 50 different food and souvenir booths, selling everything from Polynesian to Micronesian to Melanesian fare. I could hear the artist Kekoa performing up on stage loud and clear, and I almost wandered in that direction. But as tempting as the sound was to my ears, my belly won out. “I gotta cop a few lumpia pieces from Gabina’s Cuisine Filipino Food, and some mochis from Becca’s Treats,” I thought. “They’re gonna sell out.” The snacks brought back fond memories, both of when I grew up in the Philippines and when we vacationed on the Big Island in Hawaii. Once that appetite was sated, I could give proper attention to the music.

Kekoa, who hails from Lemon Grove, was singing “Gimme,” a ‘90s R&B/island/reggae fusion joint. The Maui and Oahu transplant says his music is “something that can cure your mind — music does heal.” He also performed “People Unite” (1 and 2) and “Warrior.” By five, it felt like the waterfront venue was at about 75 percent capacity. Hundreds of people claimed their spots on the grassy field in front of the stage with fold-up chairs, blankets, and sleeping bags. One family laid out a banig, a handwoven sleeping mat imported from the Philippines, made of buri or pandanus.

Tenelle, a Carson-based American-Samoan songstress, was next on the mic, and I found one of her biggest fans standing next to me. Drea, who was posted up below the stage, told me, “I flew in from Lynwood, Washington, to see Tenelle. My favorite song of hers is ‘Island King.’ She’s so down-to-earth and bubbly. I was so proud to be an American-Samoan and so happy to see our people being represented on TV.” Tenelle, also an American-Samoan, competed on NBC’s American Song Contest in May, finishing sixth. And while she didn’t win on the show, she did win the hearts of Pacific Islanders worldwide, including Tiana Matasaua Leomiti, who holds the title Miss Heiva San Diego 2022. Leomiti is a 21 year-old La Mesa resident of Samoan, Tokelau, and Māori descent. When we spoke, she wore a red Tahitian gown adorned with flower designs and a crown and sash. “Tenelle’s singing her song ‘Full Circle’ from the TV show now,” she said. “I wish I could be like her when I grow up.”

After Tenelle’s set, I heard the fast drummy sound of a Tahitian toere. The drum is actually a hollow log, and they hit it with sticks, very fast; the playing is accompanied by hula and fire dancing. And sure enough, the stick-on-log sound is what cued the Hiva Katoa dancers to hit the stage. They’re a Polynesian dance group based out of La Mesa — where Leomiti practices and performs Siva Samoa and Tahitian dancing.

Next on stage was Jordan T, an international island reggae artist, rocking a blue Hawaiian shirt and backward baseball cap. He had that islander-rock star energy, if there is such a thing. Maybe he’s the only one with it. While performing “Find Ya Riddum” with guitar in hand, he yelled, “Put your lights in the air!” The crowd, now seemingly at 100 percent capacity, happily obliged; phone lights flashed all way the way to the back, beyond the food areas. Jordan also performed “I Feel It Could” and his most recent release, “Fire By Your Side.” The toere drumming sound returned, and this time, the Kaliloa o Kaleo’onalani dancers performed a Tongan dance to the “Mate Ma’a Tonga” song. One dancer waved the red Tongan flag, and the packed house below was lit with enthusiasm.

I finally caught up with Tenelle and congratulated her on her sixth-place American Song Contest showing. “In a couple of interviews,” she said, “like these kinds of one-on-ones, they [the hosts] still don’t know who Polynesians are. So I had to name-drop. I’m like, you don’t know who The Rock is? There are Samoan, Fijian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Tongan, and so many cultures. So it’s beautiful to represent all of Pacifica [and inform people]. That was the beauty in it. I wasn’t representing me. It’s always us.”

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Tenelle: number six on TV, number one in their hearts.
Tenelle: number six on TV, number one in their hearts.

For many attendees, the annual Island Vibe Music Festival at Downtown’s Spanish Landing on August 13 radiated a hearty homeland vibe from the get-go. For others, the evocation of the islands was enough, and by 4 pm, the bayside venue on North Harbor Drive was at least halfway filled with concertgoers who had trekked in from all parts of the country.

As I walked in, I spotted around 50 different food and souvenir booths, selling everything from Polynesian to Micronesian to Melanesian fare. I could hear the artist Kekoa performing up on stage loud and clear, and I almost wandered in that direction. But as tempting as the sound was to my ears, my belly won out. “I gotta cop a few lumpia pieces from Gabina’s Cuisine Filipino Food, and some mochis from Becca’s Treats,” I thought. “They’re gonna sell out.” The snacks brought back fond memories, both of when I grew up in the Philippines and when we vacationed on the Big Island in Hawaii. Once that appetite was sated, I could give proper attention to the music.

Kekoa, who hails from Lemon Grove, was singing “Gimme,” a ‘90s R&B/island/reggae fusion joint. The Maui and Oahu transplant says his music is “something that can cure your mind — music does heal.” He also performed “People Unite” (1 and 2) and “Warrior.” By five, it felt like the waterfront venue was at about 75 percent capacity. Hundreds of people claimed their spots on the grassy field in front of the stage with fold-up chairs, blankets, and sleeping bags. One family laid out a banig, a handwoven sleeping mat imported from the Philippines, made of buri or pandanus.

Tenelle, a Carson-based American-Samoan songstress, was next on the mic, and I found one of her biggest fans standing next to me. Drea, who was posted up below the stage, told me, “I flew in from Lynwood, Washington, to see Tenelle. My favorite song of hers is ‘Island King.’ She’s so down-to-earth and bubbly. I was so proud to be an American-Samoan and so happy to see our people being represented on TV.” Tenelle, also an American-Samoan, competed on NBC’s American Song Contest in May, finishing sixth. And while she didn’t win on the show, she did win the hearts of Pacific Islanders worldwide, including Tiana Matasaua Leomiti, who holds the title Miss Heiva San Diego 2022. Leomiti is a 21 year-old La Mesa resident of Samoan, Tokelau, and Māori descent. When we spoke, she wore a red Tahitian gown adorned with flower designs and a crown and sash. “Tenelle’s singing her song ‘Full Circle’ from the TV show now,” she said. “I wish I could be like her when I grow up.”

After Tenelle’s set, I heard the fast drummy sound of a Tahitian toere. The drum is actually a hollow log, and they hit it with sticks, very fast; the playing is accompanied by hula and fire dancing. And sure enough, the stick-on-log sound is what cued the Hiva Katoa dancers to hit the stage. They’re a Polynesian dance group based out of La Mesa — where Leomiti practices and performs Siva Samoa and Tahitian dancing.

Next on stage was Jordan T, an international island reggae artist, rocking a blue Hawaiian shirt and backward baseball cap. He had that islander-rock star energy, if there is such a thing. Maybe he’s the only one with it. While performing “Find Ya Riddum” with guitar in hand, he yelled, “Put your lights in the air!” The crowd, now seemingly at 100 percent capacity, happily obliged; phone lights flashed all way the way to the back, beyond the food areas. Jordan also performed “I Feel It Could” and his most recent release, “Fire By Your Side.” The toere drumming sound returned, and this time, the Kaliloa o Kaleo’onalani dancers performed a Tongan dance to the “Mate Ma’a Tonga” song. One dancer waved the red Tongan flag, and the packed house below was lit with enthusiasm.

I finally caught up with Tenelle and congratulated her on her sixth-place American Song Contest showing. “In a couple of interviews,” she said, “like these kinds of one-on-ones, they [the hosts] still don’t know who Polynesians are. So I had to name-drop. I’m like, you don’t know who The Rock is? There are Samoan, Fijian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Tongan, and so many cultures. So it’s beautiful to represent all of Pacifica [and inform people]. That was the beauty in it. I wasn’t representing me. It’s always us.”

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