Page 1: Biography
Shalfoon, Gareeb Stephen
Te Whakatohea; dance band musician, storekeeper, music shop proprietor
This biography, written by Reo Shalfoon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Gareeb Stephen Shalfoon was born on 13 August 1904 at Opotiki, the son of Raria (Mary) Hopa and her husband, George Shalfoon, a storekeeper. His mother was descended from the six major hapu of Te Whakatohea, in particular Ngai Tamahaua; his father was born in Damascus. The name Gareeb was rendered as Karepi in Maori, and this was subsequently shortened to Epi. The Shalfoon family was prominent in the local Maori community. Brought up in the Catholic faith, Epi was educated at the local convent school, then at Woodlands School on the outskirts of Opotiki, and at Auckland Grammar School.
He showed an early interest in music, learning the piano for many years under Charles Anderson in Opotiki, and continuing his studies at Auckland Grammar. His interest in jazz arose from listening to shortwave radio from America. He started playing the piano at local dances in the early 1920s. In 1924 he organised his first band, the Melody Boys, a name he gave to successive bands in Rotorua and Auckland. He taught himself to play clarinet and saxophone as pianists were easier to find. Two of his younger brothers played with him in Opotiki; one, Tony, stayed with him for many years.
On 15 March 1926, in Gisborne, Epi Shalfoon married Yvonne Eleanor Hawkins. The couple lived in Opotiki, where Epi worked in the family's general store. In addition to his musical interests, he was an enthusiastic athlete, representing the Opotiki district at hockey and rugby and as a sprinter. A motor-cycle rallying accident put an end to his athletic pursuits, but he later became a competent golfer.
In 1929, to further his musical career, Shalfoon moved with his wife and daughter, Reo, to Rotorua, where his parents-in-law managed the Lake House Hotel at Ohinemutu. In early 1930 he opened a music shop in Arawa Street opposite the old Rotorua Post Office. Later that year, with Deane Waretini and Ana Hato, he made three film shorts for the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts and Publicity. Several copies were made available in Sydney for theatre distribution. Shalfoon also commissioned a short film of his band for promotional purposes. However, the quality was so poor he refused to pay the processors, Filmcraft Limited. The firm sued for non-payment, but the magistrate, after hearing evidence and viewing the film, gave judgement in Shalfoon's favour. The soundtrack was played as late as 1995 at the annual meeting of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors in Memphis, Tennessee. It is believed to be the first recording of jazz in New Zealand.
From Rotorua, Epi Shalfoon travelled extensively with his band, playing in 40 or more towns as far afield as Wellington and Auckland. These forays frequently gave rise to protests from local musicians in the form of letters to the editor. In 1933, while playing at the Gisborne town hall, his Melody Boys were broadcast over station 2ZJ.
By the mid 1930s the depression was affecting the musical and tourist business in Rotorua and Epi and his family moved to Auckland. A second daughter, Glyn, was born in 1935 just before their departure. In Auckland Shalfoon obtained a position with Atwaters Piano Company in Queen Street. He also established his band and arranged performance contracts at several venues, especially at the Crystal Palace Theatre in Mount Eden, where he played on Saturday nights for 18 years.
From 1939 to 1948 Shalfoon was an executive member of the Auckland Musicians' Union. He was a delegate at national conferences and remained an active member of the union after retiring from the executive. During the Second World War he played frequently for servicemen's events as well as at the Auckland Hospital for people convalescing from war injuries. He played at dances for New Zealand and American servicemen and with his band played for Rod Talbot's 'Diggers' Session' on the 1ZB radio station. His daughter Reo joined the band as a vocalist in these years.
When the war ended and petrol became more available, Epi and his band resumed travelling around country districts, particularly in the Bay of Plenty. On one occasion they flew north to play in Whangarei. For many years over the Christmas and New Year periods they played nightly at Mount Maunganui and Waihi Beach. About this time, at TANZA Studios, Epi's band made its only commercial recording. Reo was the vocalist and Glyn sang in the backing group.
In the early 1950s Epi Shalfoon suffered from ill health. He died, aged only 48, on 23 May 1953 while dancing with Reo at his much-favoured Crystal Palace. He was survived by his wife and their two daughters.
Epi was known for helping young players eager to break into the musical world, and he encouraged them to play an 'extra' or join with the band for a number where possible. He was above all a showman. He had a good band that played music popular with the people, but the band's supreme asset was Epi's personality.