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Noah Slee Reaches Back To His Tongan 'Otherland'

Noah Slee's 2017 debut, <em>Otherland</em>,<em> </em>fuses Tongan traditions with beats and R&B riffs he picked up in Berlin.
Courtesy of the artist
Noah Slee's 2017 debut, Otherland, fuses Tongan traditions with beats and R&B riffs he picked up in Berlin.

You probably haven't heard a Tongan R&B singer before. As far as Noah Slee has come from his complicated upbringing in New Zealand, he also pays tribute to his Polynesian roots on his 2017 debut. The album, Otherland, opens with "Kamata'Anga" — a welcoming chant in Tongan, Slee's native language — before delving into the kind of crisp production and progressive beats you might expect to hear coming out of Berlin, where he lives today.

Slee got his start performing in Polynesian floor shows with his eight siblings. While the sounds of his home region can be heard in Otherland, he says never quite felt comfortable in that environment, in large part because of his sexuality.

"Tonga's actually pretty backward in a lot of things: There's this mixture of really strict Christian values, but then they're still practicing old methods, too. Growing up in this environment, it was tough being gay; it was hard to accept myself," he says. "My brothers all played rugby and I was always the last to be picked."

Eventually, he packed his bags for Berlin. He wrote the song "Sunrise" after "too many long nights" there, caught up in the intensity of the city's music and nightlife. "Sunrise" proved an awakening of sorts: Slee says he realized he'd distanced himself from a culture that, in some ways, understood him best. The album that resulted from these experiences is a collection of his stories — "and what I want people to take away from it is, you know, tell your story. "

All Things Considered intern Miguel Perez contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christina Cala is a producer for Code Switch. Before that, she was at the TED Radio Hour where she piloted two new episode formats — the curator chat and the long interview. She's also reported on a movement to preserve African American cultural sites in Birmingham and followed youth climate activists in New York City.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.