Drummer's journey from Otara to festival with Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars

A young south Auckland drummer never believed he would make a living playing music, let alone play on the same stage as some of the world's leading artists.

But as Joe Malafu wandered backstage at Chicago's Lollapolooza in August, he cast his eyes between Bruno Mars and Kendrick Lamar, immediately feeling humbled and inspired.

"Growing up in New Zealand as a brown kid, my father said 'You're either going to study when you finish school' or 'You're going to get a 9-to-5," Malafu told Newshub.

"It's not normal for a Polynesian boy to be making money off a pair of drumsticks. I'm really grateful and blessed to do what I do," he said.     

The 27-year-old's adoration for drumming wasn't always so plain to see.

Music was a big part of Malafu's childhood. Growing up, his father - a church pastor - pushed his children to develop an interest in playing an instrument.

Malafu's love for drumming wasn't always clear to him while being pushed to do lessons as a kid.
Malafu's love for drumming wasn't always clear to him while being pushed to do lessons as a kid. Photo credit: Joe Malafu

"My old man used to throw us on these instruments," he said.

"It was forced upon us as young kids and I didn't know what passion was growing up," Malafu said.

"I was like 'Okay I'll just do what my parents tell me to do'." 

The youngest of six siblings began playing the drums at eight years old and would practise nearly every day, until he was 17.      

He didn't realise the drumming was forming a foundation for his future career path.

Malafu worked a security job until he took a chance to move to Brisbane when his parents moved back to Tonga.

After neglecting the skills he had learned growing up, it wasn't until one night a few years later that Malafu's friend invited him to a jam night.

"It's not normal for a Polynesian boy to be making money off a pair of drumsticks."
"It's not normal for a Polynesian boy to be making money off a pair of drumsticks." Photo credit: Joe Malafu

He jumped up on stage, delivering an energetic set as the patterns came flooding back to him. He was overwhelmed with the praise after the set.

Malafu was shocked to learn that everyone around him who had been impressed, were full time musicians.

He felt an immediate rush, before understanding the skills he had attained as a kid could be put to better use. After taking time away from the kit, Malafu set his heart on pursuing a career in music.

While gigging around Brisbane, he worked two jobs, one cleaning and another as a security officer, juggling between them to get by while looking for work as a session musician.

Malafu is now proudly representing his Tongan heritage as he tours the world with singer and songwriter Amy Shark. He had a chance meeting with the Gold Coast lyricist two years ago who took him on as part of her band.

He is hoping he can show other Pacific Island natives to go after their dreams.

Aligning with Shark has given Malafu a stream of opportunities including starring on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where the ARIA award winner showcased her smash I Said Hi.

"I'd never think in a million years like a young boy from Ōtara could be amongst a lot of these big names and big artists and just a platform in general," he said.

Getting out and seeing the world has been a huge eye-opener, meeting people who didn't know where New Zealand is on the map or anything about Polynesian culture.

He says that attitude pushes him to want to be better and adds to the appeal of others wanting to work with him.

"It makes me just want to like lock myself in the room and just practice so I can be a role model to encourage other kids from New Zealand that it is possible to pursue whatever. It could be small to them, but big to others," he said.

"I can stand proud and say I haven't had a day job in the last two years and I've just been living off drumsticks.

"It's so important to be a person from New Zealand who is a role model to young kids.

Malafu hopes he can show other Pacific Island natives to go after their dreams.
Malafu hopes he can show other Pacific Island natives to go after their dreams. Photo credit: Joe Malafu

"I can only talk on behalf of Polynesians because obviously I am a Polynesian and there are a lot of morals in our culture.

"It's like 'You can't do this, you can't do that' and it's just handed down from generation to generation.

"Comes down to me, I'm just like 'Damn, that is what has stopped a lot of young Polynesian boys pursuing anything in general.

"The dads are like okay go grab a rugby ball if you fail at that, go work in a factory.

"It was hard for my family to accept the fact that I was living this musician's lifestyle because it was new to them."

Today he is accepting of his upbringing and thankful for his dad's persistence.

As well as the talent he worked hard to strengthen, there are a number of traits that Malafu recognises have supported his success - one is being aware that there is always room for improvement.

Malafu played with Shark on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon filmed out of New York
Malafu played with Shark on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon filmed out of New York Photo credit: Joe Malafu

He implores others to learn as much as possible from any age group, whether they're older or younger.

Malafu is also adamant that having the right attitude can take a person as far as they want to go, even if their talents aren't as strong as their competitors.

"You can be the baddest musician, you can be the baddest camera guy, you can be the baddest singer, you can be the best at what you do, no one wants to work with a dickhead," he said.

He believes being non-judgemental of others, giving 100 percent and building a genuine rapport with people has allowed him to be noticed not just as a good musician, but a good person.

"That would be my thing, if anyone wants to pursue music or anything in general in life; attitude takes you a long way." 

Newshub.

 

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz