Māori musicians have always made a significant contribution to the popular music industry, but apart from the Howard Morrison Quartet’s occasional recordings of Māori popular standards, there was very little that celebrated Māori culture between the 1960s and 1980s. The Māori show bands of the 1960s were skilled musical comedy acts that mostly worked overseas, though they did spawn important figures such as John Rowles and Prince Tui Teka.
In 1979 Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley visited New Zealand. His politically conscious songs struck a chord with Māori and Pacific people, as well as left-leaning Pākehā concerned with social justice. While reggae music had been heard in New Zealand before 1979, Marley’s visit raised the genre’s profile and encouraged the establishment of local reggae bands – many of them focusing on Māori issues.
In the early 1980s, a Māori cultural renaissance – which emphasised issues such as sovereignty, tikanga and the survival of te reo Māori – also stimulated an awareness of identity among Māori musicians. Bands such as Herbs, Aotearoa and Dread Beat and Blood borrowed the reggae rhythms of Jamaica, but their music reflected life in the South Pacific. Singer-songwriter Hirini Melbourne composed a suite of songs in Māori inspired by bird calls that became very influential on the kōhanga reo (preschool language-learning nest) generation.
In 1982 Dalvanius Prime, a Taranaki-born singer who had worked for years on the Australian club circuit, wrote a song with East Cape writer Ngoi Pēwhairangi. He recorded ‘Poi e’ with the Pātea Māori Club, a Taranaki kapa haka group whose town had recently been deeply affected by the closure of its main employer, a meat-freezing works.
Back in the charts
‘Poi e’ made it back into the upper echelons of the New Zealand music charts in the 21st century. In 2009 it was used on a Vodafone website, which temporarily raised the song’s profile. Its biggest boost came in 2010 with the release of Taika Waititi’s film Boy, which featured the song. It climbed to the third spot on the singles chart that year.
By combining the breakdance rhythms then current in the US with a traditional Māori action song, ‘Poi e’ saw the Māori language reach the top of the pop charts, the biggest hit in te reo since ‘Hoki mai’, 25 years earlier. But whereas ‘Hoki mai’ was a party song, ‘Poi e’ was political, emphasising the relevance of Māori culture.
In 1988 Upper Hutt Posse was the first New Zealand group to record in the rap genre. Their single ‘E tu’ was a bilingual rap with chorus suggestive of a haka, continuing the tradition of Māori musicians converting an American pop style into something indigenous.
In 1994 Proud, a compilation album of acts from South Auckland, showed there was a new generation of Māori and Polynesian musicians who wanted to assert their identity, albeit often within an American template.
Proud launched two prominent acts. Sisters Underground’s song ‘In the neighbourhood’ showed a more cordial side to South Auckland than the mean streets of the film Once were warriors, while OMC (Ōtara Millionaires’ Club) was the vehicle for Pauly Fuemana’s song ‘How bizarre’ to top charts around the world in 1996. It mixed Māori and Polynesian elements with rap music, a combination present in other prominent rappers of the late 1990s, such as King Kapisi and Che Fu.