Story: Popular music

Drawing on a rich mix of cultural influences – including Māori and Pasifika culture – Aotearoa New Zealand’s popular music has evolved into a distinctive sound.

Story by Chris Bourke
Main image: Pauly Fuemana of Ōtara Millionaires Club

Story summary

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When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, they found that Māori had a rich musical tradition. The first musical encounter between Māori and Pākehā was in Golden Bay in 1642, when Māori in waka blew shell trumpets and Abel Tasman’s crew replied with their own trumpets. After Pākehā arrived, Māori also played European instruments.

Sealers and whalers wrote songs about their experiences, and visiting Australian traders, bushmen and shearers also brought their music.

European settlement

Settlers brought musical instruments, popular songs and dance styles with them. From the 1860s overseas performers toured, and many towns built opera houses. People sang in choirs, and set up brass bands (often based in military regiments) and pipe bands.

1900s to 1940s

Recorded music became widely available from 1901, and by the mid-1920s most homes had a record player. At first New Zealand artists had to record overseas. In 1927 an Australian mobile recording unit touring New Zealand recorded soprano Ana Hato singing popular Māori songs. Radio began in 1921, and featured live broadcasts of singers and dance music.

During the Second World War, bands played dance music in cabarets and halls – especially after US troops arrived in 1942. The Kiwi Concert Parties entertained servicemen overseas.

From 1946 the radio programme Lifebuoy hit parade broadcast popular songs. The local recording industry began in 1948, when the record label TANZA (‘To assist New Zealand artists’) was set up. Its first release was ‘Blue smoke’, written by Ruru Karaitiana and sung by Pixie Williams. It sold over 50,000 copies.

1950s and 1960s

A series of New Zealand pop recordings were made in the 1950s by several record labels. Rock ‘n’ roll arrived in the mid-1950s. Johnny Cooper recorded a local version of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’, and Johnny Devlin was a popular rock ‘n’ roll singer. Also popular was the Howard Morrison Quartet, a music and comedy act.

In the 1960s musicians performed in nightclubs, cabarets and coffee bars in the main centres. Folk music flourished, and beat bands took off after the Beatles visited in 1964. Pop shows appeared on television.

1970s and 1980s

From the early 1970s the art-rock band Split Ends (later Split Enz) produced albums and hit songs. Influenced by punk rock, many new bands were formed, and recorded for independent labels. New Zealand music was mostly absent from mainstream radio.

Māori music

Māori have always contributed to pop music, but from the 1960s there was little that celebrated Māori culture. With the Māori cultural renaissance of the 1980s, Māori musicians used music (sometimes reggae) to assert Māori identity. In 1984 ‘Poi e’ was a hit for the Pātea Māori Club.

1990s and 2000s

In 2002 radio stations agreed on a voluntary quota of 20% New Zealand music. Government initiatives also supported local music. The internet and music-sharing sites were a challenge to record labels, but allowed musicians to market their work independently. Some artists pursued international success, and in 2013 Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor) topped the American charts with her song ‘Royals’.

How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 October 2014