Poi Story 2

By Scott Kara

Taika Waititi mashes up Maori and Michael Jackson in Boy. Photo / Supplied
Taika Waititi mashes up Maori and Michael Jackson in Boy. Photo / Supplied

Scott Kara traces the history of a Kiwi classic which, after 26 years, has made it back into the top 20.

When he left the navy in 1980 John Nyman got a job at the Patea Freezing Works. Two years later it closed down leaving him, and most of those who lived in the small south Taranaki town, out of a job. But then, in 1984, the seemingly dying town was singing and breakdancing its way back to life with hit single Poi E.

"We went from earning quite big money to nothing - and then hello, we're back," laughs Nyman, who was a member of the Patea Maori Club in the Poi E-era and is the current club chairman."

"It lifted the whole community out of the doldrums. It just gave pride back to a lot of us and we felt we were someone again rather than nobody - and that our town was something rather than nothing," he says.

In 1984 the song spent four weeks at No. 1, and 22 weeks in total on the charts; it re-entered the charts last year following a Vodafone promotion; and last month, thanks to its use in Taika Waititi's film Boy, it reappeared in the top 40 singles chart and last week jumped into the top 20.

It was written by one of Patea's favourite sons, the late Dalvanius Prime, and Ngati Porou songwriter Ngoi Pewhairangi of Tokomaru Bay on the East Coast.

You see, around the time many of Patea's unemployed had left town to take up spots on government work schemes around the country - doing everything from growing kumara to arts programmes - Prime was touring New Zealand with his band The Fascinations. While on tour on the East Coast with Prince Tui Teka he went to meet Pewhairangi. Or, as Prime, who died in October 2002, put it in a February 1988 interview with the Herald, "she sent a message to me saying if I went past her house [without calling in] she'd kill me."

Although Pewhairangi had written E Ipo with Prince Tui Teka - a No. 1 song in 1982 which Prime produced - Prime had never met her. But when he did, they hit it off and he ended up staying with her for five or six weeks.

"We just kept writing songs together and comparing politics," he said.

"I got ostracised by a lot of [my] people for working with someone from Ngati Porou. However, we had formed such a strong bond it was water off a duck's back to us."

He said she converted him from a "textbook Maori" into committing himself to learning the ways of his culture and reviving the use of Te Reo in his people.

Some of the main messages in the songs they wrote were about pride, self-esteem, and teaching young people good values, with the tiwaiwaka (fantail) imagery of Poi E symbolic of the erratic lives of young people.

Nyman also says Prime and Pewhairangi knew that to inspire young people to speak Maori they would have to offer it to them in a format they could relate to.

"So the influence of the time was Black American music and that breakdancing stuff," he laughs of Poi E's fusion of kapa haka, hip-hop, electro, and pop to make something unique, catchy, and timeless.

"Bringing the styles together was all pretty new, and we had backing tapes too, which was very new back then. But once you get all the harmonies going with the music so it sounds like its got a big orchestra behind it, you've got a winning combination. And that's what sold Poi E."

And it was just the hit Patea needed. The shopkeepers and business people of the town helped Prime raise the money to record the song.

"We would travel up to Auckland by van in the weekends," remembers Nyman. "We'd go up Friday, bash the thing out all Saturday and damn near stay up all night because it costs so much to hire one of those studios, and then come back on Sunday. It was on a shoestring because we had no extra money."

And the club went on the road to promote the song, playing everywhere from high schools and woolsheds to lifestyle shows and shopping malls.

Poi E was a sleeper hit, taking more than 18 months to hit the top of the charts.

"Self-promotion was how we sold it and it just grew and grew. We were doing it on a budget. We would get changed behind hedges. We lived on sausages - boiled sausages, grilled sausages, curried sausages..."

The other key promotional element was the video. The Patea Maori Club were the main characters in the video, but there were other stars including Prime driving by in the main street, a staunch little Maori fella (Nicky Old) pulling some fearsome faces in the crowd, and Jo the breakdancer.

"It was a bit of a laugh," says Nyman. "We invited everyone in the town and they wanted to see everyone walking up the street; we acted as we normally do, but with a bit of showmanship. It was a buzz."

The video's director, Paul Carvell, who shot it for free over one day in Patea and another in Wellington, knew the song was going to be a hit.

"The opening bars with the Maori woman singing just grabs you eh? And it still does, and it's 26 years old."

But, he says, because the song had not been released at the time of filming, he captured the club members and people of Patea "just doing their thing".

"There was no pretence to the video at all - it's underplayed if anything."

Taika Waititi, who kick-started a campaign on Twitter to get the song to No. 1 during NZ Music Month, is also keen to shoot a new video.

And for Poi E 2010 he's particularly keen to team up with Jo the breakdancer - who he looks very similar to.

"A lot of people are asking if it is me," he says from the US where he's filming superhero movie Green Lantern.

"It's funny, because as a kid I always wished I could be him. Maybe I could remake the video and do a duo with him. I just need to work on my beard."

Waititi always had Poi E in mind for Boy. And for the finale, where he pays homage to Michael Jackson by combining Thriller with Poi E, he was inspired by Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's film Zatoichi which has a tap dancing ending.

"They were all in traditional costume but it's a Japanese tap dance. I'm attracted to that mix of two cultures and it was the same with the Thriller thing because Michael Jackson was a huge influence on Maori culture, especially in the 80s. At parties all my friends and I used to try to mash up the Thriller dance with Maori moves, and I thought it would just be funny to stick those two together in the movie."

He says he first heard Poi E while growing up in Waihau Bay, where Boy is set.

"I probably heard about it long before I heard it. But when I did I was hooked. Seeing Maori on TV was pretty rare so it wasn't until I saw the music video that I realised how huge and amazing it was.

"It's the quintessential New Zealand song. I think it defines us and I'm so happy to see this true classic return through popular demand. Dalvanius would be very proud and, who knows, if this continues then The Patea Maori Club could get a new round of royalties."

"We're pretty proud back home that it's still out there," says Nyman. "It's become iconic - they play it on the plane, and every time it's played at the rugby everyone gets a buzz off that."

LOWDOWN

What: Poi E by the Patea Maori Club

Written by: Dalvanius Prime and Ngoi Pewhairangi

Vital statistics: No. 1 for four weeks in 1984; re-entered the top 40 on March 19, 2010; this week no. 19

Where to get it: Download from iTunes, Amplifier, Telecom, or Vodafone websites; Buy Poi E the album at jayrem.co.nz.

Watch the video here.

Poi E lyrics

E rere ra e taku poi porotiti
Titahataha ra, whakararuraru e
Porotakataka ra, poro hurihuri mai
Rite tonu ki te tiwaiwaka e
Ka parepare ra, pioioi a
Whakahekeheke, e kia korikori e
Piki whakarunga ra, ma muinga mai a
Taku poi porotiti, taku poi e
Poi E, whakatata mai
Poi E, kaua he rereke
Poi E, kia piri mai ki au
Poi E, e awhi mai ra
Poi E, tapekatia mai.
Poi E, o taua aroha
Poi E, paiheretia ra.
Poi ... taku poi e.

The translation

Swing out rhythmically, my feelings
lean out beside me, so deceptively.
Swing round and down, spin towards me
just like a fantail.
Swing to the side: swing to and fro
zoom down, wriggle,
climb up above, swarm around me
my whirling emotions, my poi, Yeah.
Oh my feelings, draw near,
Oh my poi, don't go astray
Oh my affections, stick to me
Oh my instincts, take care of me
Oh my emotions, be entwined around me.
Oh poi, our love...
Oh poi ...binds.
Poi.... my poi, yeah.

Source: folksong.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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