Ghosts of WWII given voice again

But for the crackle of gunfire in the background, it could be a party at any marae in the 1940s.

But, in fact, the singers who created these full-throated, typically Maori harmonies were thousands of miles from home and many of them would never see New Zealand again.

The voices of the Maori Battalion live again in a new two-CD compilation, Ake, ake, kia kaha e! Songs of the New Zealand 28th (Maori) Battalion, produced by veteran broadcaster Henare te Ua, which will be launched on Friday at the Maori Battalion Reunion in Omapere, Northland.

A collaborative effort between the National Library of New Zealand and Atoll, the CDs feature hymns, haka, situation reports, concert medleys, and spoken messages, including a recently discovered message by inspirational leader Princess Te Puea Herangi.

During his long career with Radio New Zealand, Te Ua was always aware of the existence of the Maori Audio Archive and the treasures it contained.

"While the recordings have been accessed for different programmes over the years, it's always been in the back of my mind that the material deserved a wider audience."

Recordings were taken "live" on location in different war zones, from Egypt to Italy, by the Middle East Recording Unit of New Zealand's National Broadcasting Service.

The recordings have been "tidied up", but they have not been stripped of "ambience", Te Ua says.

"In some recordings you can actually hear the artillery in the background and hear this guy describing what he's seeing. It's amazing."

The two-CD boxed compilation is accompanied by a 40-page booklet, which places each song in the context of the war.

Recordings were produced under appalling conditions, using antiquated equipment.

It is miraculous that so many of them survived at all, Te Ua says.

When the shipping containers were opened up in New Zealand, they found that heat had buckled some of the acetate disks.

"Instead of throwing them away, they devised a way of subjecting them to heat again until they could flatten them.

"But when they did that, they found all the grooves of the disks were impacted with desert sand, which had to be carefully cleaned out!"

By the time some of the records arrived back in New Zealand, many of the singers had already been killed.

Bereaved families were granted private audiences before the recordings were publicly broadcast.

Around 17,000 Maori served in World War II, about 4000 of them with the Maori Battalion, which had one of the highest casualty rates.

Te Ua said it was "particularly poignant" to be able to launch the compilation at the battalion's reunion.

"I believe that fewer than 40 old diggers are still alive so this may very well be the last reunion."

The president of the Maori Battalion Association, Tamati Paraone, said the CDs were "a tribute to those who worked so hard" to get the recordings in the first place, as well as those who had put together the compilation.

"To hear the voices of individuals and the collective as they attempted to comfort themselves, amuse themselves and to motivate themselves, as well as those at home, is truly a blessing," he said.

"War is a vast landscape, and the lives, tragedies, humour, savagery and outstanding bravery of the 28th Maori Battalion can be felt in the voices that you will hear from these recordings taken all those years ago."

Te Ua says although many of the melodies were adopted from popular songs of the day, they are not translations of the English lyrics.

Maori composers, many of whom were writing especially for the Maori Battalion, replaced the syrupy pop lyrics with their own words.

"Some of these songs became almost like hymns."

He said the Radio New Zealand Sound Archives/Nga Taonga Korero deserved full credit for preserving the taonga. Also, the National Library was to be commended for its work to make them accessible to a wider audience.

"It breaks my heart when I think of what has been lost over the years because people didn't save things, just threw them down a black hole,"d.

"But thank God for what we've still got through the good work of the archivists."

The project

* Ake, ake, kia kaha e! is the latest issue in the series He Puiaki Puoru (Treasures in Sound), a joint venture by the Alexander Turnbull Library and Atoll Ltd to reissue music of historical significance.
* The CD set will be available in record stores fromApril 20.
* The CDs can also be ordered online from Atoll  and from Sounz (for both links see below).


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