Poi E, the song that motivated a generation and brought pride to a town

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Patricia 'Bib' Ngarewa (left) reflects on the song that took small-town Patea to the world.
Patricia 'Bib' Ngarewa (left) reflects on the song that took small-town Patea to the world.

Maori pop phenomenon Poi E is sung with gusto and abiding love at the close of the Patea Maori Club night every Monday night.

For 34 years now the remarkable song resounds throughout the hall, sung by everyone from original members to energetic youngsters following in their parents' and grandparents' footsteps.

Club chairwoman Bib Ngarewa, now 76, is testimony to this close-knit club, established in 1967.

"Patea was very different in those days. It was a thriving town with a big meatworks and dozens of thriving local businesses."

Ngarewa unashamedly talks about her immense pride in the club, the song Poi E and now the movie.

"I am so very, very proud."

Renowned Maori musician Dalvanius (Dal) Prime is Patea's golden son, she said.

"He wasn't an easy person but he was talented beyond measure. He was a superb musician, a great singer and a beautiful chef."

Ngarewa smiles, remembering Prime returning home from Australia to record Poi E with his own people.

"Even though he had been singing on tour with his band it was a song people loved but it never had that same impact on tour."

When it was recorded in 1984, 29 local businesses donated $100 each to pay for the recording costs.

"There were so many businesses here. Hotels, shops, garages, everything - it was a very busy town in those days."

Patea butcher Grant Hurley still says it was the best $100 he ever spent.

"And all our young ones know the story and the song so this story will never die. Even though the town is very quiet since the closure of the works this song and our story will live on."

The Patea Maori Club was first set up as part of the Methodist church.

"But it didn't take long for all denominations to join us. Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Mormon. Everyone came."

And club membership is as strong as ever, Ngarewa said.

Where some clubs are fighting to keep their membership up, the Patea club always has new blood eager to join, she said.

One of Ngarewa's fondest memories is when 20 members travelled with Dal to give a Royal Command Performance in 1984.

Maori songs had rarely hit the charts in New Zealand but Poi E changed all that in 1984, spending four weeks at number 1 and 22 weeks in the charts.

Ngarewa said Prime was determined the world should know about the song and the club - so he mortgaged his house in Hawera and off they all went.

They toured the United Kingdom playing at the London Palladium and the Edinburgh Festival and delivered the Royal Command Performance at the Albert Hall.

It was the Royal performance that nearly confounded them, she said.

"There was this big orchestra there to accompany us. But we used to perform to a tape. Anyway Dal had to do something and in one day he had written all the orchestral parts - piano, strings, brass, percussion the lot. He really was clever man."

And British magazine New Musical Express named Poi E its single of the week.

The true purpose of the song was to enourage young Maori to be proud of being Maori, she said.

"And so they are. Of course they all loved it. All the kids danced to it. In Auckland, it was all that breakdancing and those kids were incredible."

Ngarewa said she feels it's now time for her to step away from the helm.

But before she goes, she's busy organising a special club group.

"I'm setting up the senior group for those in their 50s, 60s and older. We have enough young people so the club will always be strong."

And what a sense of pride surrounds them all now that film Poi E: The Story of Our Song has been released, she said.

"It was and is the proudest moment in my life."

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