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In bringing the Song of Rapa Nui to the world, pianist brings music education home


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, a pianist who found a way to bring her music to the world and music education to her remote island home.

Jeffrey Brown tells the story of her unusual journey and her new album, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Called Rapa Nui in the Polynesian language, Easter Island sits in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.

It's home to about 7,000 residents and some of the world's most stunning scenery, including about 1,000 giant statues known as moai. It's also home to 38 year-old Mahani Teave.

Teave recorded this version of Chopin's Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor for her debut album, "Rapa Nui Odyssey." And in March, the album climbed to the top of Billboard's classical charts, a remarkable development for a woman who grew up on one of the most remote spots on the globe.

Mahani Teave: As a child, I never felt isolated. In fact, in the beginning, I thought this was the whole planet.

Jeffrey Brown: But she told me from near her home on Rapa Nui there was a big problem.

Mahani Teave: It was difficult to have dreams of some kind and want to pursue some artistic talent, for example, and not have the possibilities. Like, people would come for a year and teach something, ballet or theater or something else. And then they would leave.

Jeffrey Brown: Pianos were almost nonexistent on the island.

Teave's introduction came from a visiting teacher. She fell in love with the sound, and her talent was soon recognized, but then another barrier. To really advance she'd have to leave her island home. A Chilean music conservatory came first, then top-flight training in Cleveland, followed by Berlin.

By her 20s, Teave had earned a spot on the international concert stage and was on the cusp of a promising career.

Mahani Teave: I never imagined myself going -- performing every other day in a different place. That was never my goal. My goal always was -- when I was with these amazing teachers, was to find the maximum beauty I could find in these pieces.

Jeffrey Brown: But nearly 10 years ago, she walked away and returned home to create something she never had growing up, a music school on Easter Island.

Did you feel a -- almost a responsibility, like you're the only one who could do this?

Mahani Teave: Everybody who's here loves being here, and everybody who's far away dreams of someday coming back and will someday come back.

And I felt that nobody else would understand maybe or would be able to do this, because I had been the one that had had the chance to study the music. I had had the chance to go abroad and be with amazing teachers and listen to incredible musicians. I felt in a way then it's just what I had to do.

Jeffrey Brown: We first met Teave in 2018 at the school she helped create called the Toki School of Music. We were on the island as part of our reporting on the rise of plastic pollution around the globe.

The school represents another of her concerns, for the environment. It was partially constructed out of thousands of cans and bottles and other waste left behind from the more than 100,000 tourists who normally visit the island every year. There's also been an influx of garbage steadily washing ashore in recent years.

Mahani Teave: All the currents in the Pacific come to this vortex in which Rapa Nui is in the middle. So, we receive the garbage from China, from New Zealand, from Chile, from the United States, from everywhere.

So, at least, in Toki, we feel that, if we can contribute to offering solutions to the different problems that we're facing as a civilization, then maybe we can inspire other places as well.

Jeffrey Brown: More than 100 students train at the school, receiving lessons in both classical and traditional Rapa Nui music.

Mahani Teave: Here on the island, we have a very, very strong identity. And that's what's beautiful of the island. And in our school, we want to preserve that as well, that our children learn as much as they can of our culture.

Jeffrey Brown: I will never forget visiting your school, and even just how hard it was for you -- you wanted to play for us, but how hard it was for you to find an instrument you felt was good enough for our cameras, right?

Mahani Teave: Oh, Jeff, you have no idea the difficulties we have faced.

I mean, somehow, our goal was, the music has to continue and we found a way to make it continue.

Jeffrey Brown: That includes during the pandemic, which has hurt Rapa Nui's economy through the loss of tourism. By chance, though, this became the moment Teave reintroduced herself to the outside world.

On a visit to the island three years ago, Seattle-based arts patron David Fulton heard Teave play and convinced her to come to the U.S. to record. Now the album is out. In addition, a new documentary on Amazon tells the story of her life and home. It's called "Song of Rapa Nui."

Mahani Teave: Here on the island, there's an artistic blood in everybody. It just -- I mean, everybody somehow sings and dances and carves and -- or plays an instrument. And there's nothing more natural and more true to the human being than art and music.

Jeffrey Brown: All of it adding new wonder and beauty to one of the world's most remarkable places.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Such beautiful music and such a beautiful place.

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