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Book of the Week: A brief history of the power and glory of Māori popular music

One of the stand-out chapters in Chris Bourke’s new best-selling history of New Zealand music in World War One is about the contribution and legacy of Māori music. He expands on the subject for the Spinoff.

Māori popular music is the most crucial gap in the expanding bookshelf of New Zealand music histories. When researching Blue Smoke, my 2010 history of New Zealand pop from 1918 to 1964, it was astonishing how Māori musicians were often the key players, in any genre. It was out of all proportion with their percentage in the population. Let’s remember that only 20 years before the First World War, the population of Māori had declined to worrying levels.

Soon after the war, thanks to the influence of the Mormon music teacher Walter Smith/Mete (Ngati Kahungunu) at the Māori Agricultural College in Hawke’s Bay, Māori had their own jazz bands. Among them were the Moteo Māori Jazz Band in Hawke’s Bay, and Smith’s Click-Clack band, which played in a cabaret above the Rialto cinema in Newmarket in 1927. In Wellington, Parkes Māori Band was in demand for upmarket dances.

And so it continued: Epi Shalfoon left Rotorua in the mid-1930s to lead an extremely popular dance band at Mt Eden’s Crystal Palace ballroom. In 1930, he made New Zealand’s first jazz recording, a dixieland version of Kingi Tahiwi’s timeless “E Puritai Tama”. Epi was half-Māori, half-Lebanese – one of the customers in his father’s grocery store in Opotiki was the prophet Rua Kenana.

Walter Smith’s jazz band (Image: Supplied)

The three Campbell brothers from Paeroa were dominant in the Auckland music scene. Phil, regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest trumpet players, died in Italy in the last days of World War II. He was the only member of the Kiwi Concert Party to be killed, and it devastated his two brothers, who were also in the band. George, a double bassist, was a leading session player well into the 1970s, and Lew – a trumpeter and pianist – went from playing in radio dance bands to the NZSO and then Australia to teach at the Sydney Conservatory of Music.

The mock-Hawaiian pop of the 1940s and 1950s may have had two Tongans as New Zealand’s leading lap-steel players – Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm – but locally the first virtuoso on the lap steel was Eruera “Mati” Hita, a Māori from Taranaki. Mercurial and note-perfect, dancers would stop to watch him play, and he would converse while doing so; if he made a mistake he frowned at his instrument, as if it was at fault. He was even known to play it behind his back.

The influence and participation of Māori in mid-century New Zealand popular music emerged from the research like a photograph in developing fluid. I was aware of the end result: the massive success of the Howard Morrison Quartet led to the modern music industry, with entrepreneurs such as Eldred Stebbing and Benny Levin. Their music included Māori and overseas pop standards, parodies, and a detour through Italian opera learnt from the Māori Battalion. But I had little idea that the Quartet was an early peak in a very long journey, that began well before the historic – and hit – recordings that Ana Hato and Deane Waretini made in Rotorua in 1927.

Officially the coolest photograph ever taken of New Zealanders: Māori volunteers at the Tapawera Military Camp, Nelson district, 1916. Photo with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, C-26005-1/2.

A similar epiphany took place in the research for Good-bye Māoriland, my new book on New Zealand music during the First World War. The title comes from a Pākehā patriotic song that makes reference to the mythical South Seas idyll championed by romantic novelists before the war. It says goodbye to a society that is about to be lost (and never actually existed).

There were almost 200 songs written and published by Pākehā during the war, but as soon as it ended in 1918 they were immediately forgotten. This wasn’t necessarily because of their quality, which was often woeful; more likely it was a reflection that they were topical songs, written for a purpose. They were to support the war effort of New Zealand, the Empire, and the courageous soldiers. Once the war was over – with 10,000 men lost – the songs were unwanted.

The same couldn’t be said for the songs written by Māori during the war. This is where New Zealand music from the period has left a lasting legacy: in particular, the songs by Paraire Tomoana from (again) Hawke’s Bay. His friend Apirana Ngata encouraged songwriting in te reo to support Māori soldiers, to encourage enlistment, and to raise funds for their rehabilitation once it was all over. But Tomoana’s songs are still performed to this day, especially the waiata “E Pari Ra” and “Hoea Ra Te Waka Nei”. Also, it was from Māoridom that a song emerged that was against the war: Princess Te Puea’s “E Noho e Rata” told the men of Waikato to resist conscription and assert their mana against the government.

As the war ended, two songs by Māori emerged: “Pokarekare” (often attributed to Tomoana), and “Po Atarau” (better known as “Now is the Hour”: lyrics by Maewa Kaihau, to an Australian melody). A century later, their grip on New Zealanders’ emotions remains unsurpassed.

Howard Morrison Quartet stand to attention (Image: M Riley)

Despite the success of the Howard Morrison Quartet with te reo songs such as “Hoki Mai”, it took until the early 1980s for pop songs in te reo to reach #1. Coming in quick succession, Dean Waretini’s “The Bridge” (with an Italian melody), Prince Tui Teka’s “E Ipo”, and the Patea Māori Club’s “Poi E” seemed like the start of something, but they were actually just another peak.

Also in the 1980s, acts such as Herbs and Aotearoa had emphatically declared their heritage, and succeeded while doing so. (Neil Finn’s anthem “Don’t Dream It’s Over” relied on a languid “Māori strum” for its rhythm. “Party strum” is how this is sometimes carefully referred to now: I have only seen it as something to be proud of.) At decade’s end, Upper Hutt Posse’s “E Tu” again used an overseas genre – rap – to confront local issues.

Two generations ago, songs such as “Me He Manu Reru” and “E Papa Waiari” were as close as many Pakeha school children got to Māori culture. Ten years after Prince Tui Teka’s “E Ipo”, Moana Maniopoto’s “A E I O U” encouraged the learning of te reo and correct pronunciation, just as iwi radio stations were proliferating.

Just a month ago, teenage Northland band Alien Weaponry’s thrash metal song “Raupatu” was given Apra’s Maioha award for a song in te reo. “Raupatu” translates as “confiscated”. Its creative success suggests that Ngata’s idea of using music – even if it is with an appropriated melody or style – to serve the social and cultural needs of Māori, is still relevant. It also fulfils the goal Dalvanius had with “Poi E”: to emulate the success of the Howard Morrison Quartet, and have a song in te reo capture mainstream, Pākehā, Aotearoa.


Good-bye Māoriland: the Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War by Chris Bourke (Auckland University Press, $60) is available from Unity Books.

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