Jazz singer returns for visit

By merania.karauria@wanganuichronicle.co.nz, Merania Karauria

Makuini Menehira was 10 when she dreamed of going into musical theatre.

But that dream was tinged with the reality that being the eldest of 14 children from Jerusalem, it might not be possible.

Now, aged 60 and visiting home for just the third time in 34 years, the jazz and blues singer says if you have a good foundation, dreams can be realised.

"I owe where I am to Nana Emma [Menehira] who took me from when I was four to 10, to live with her."

She laughs the deep melodic "Menehira laugh", and her manager and husband, musician David Wright, said she was the one who led the whanau to the signature sound.

It was Ms Menehira's grandmother who insisted her mokopuna go to St Mary's in Auckland as a boarder and learn from Dame Sister Mary Leo.

Growing up, Ms Menehira was surrounded by a talented whanau who were instrumental in developing her lifelong love of jazz, blues and theatre.

And the jazz greats of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday and New Zealand's legendary jazz singer Mavis Rivers were the women she listened to.

While back in New Zealand for the longest stay since she left, Ms Menehira has been cutting an album with a blues band.

She records under "Makuini".

Maori Television is also filming her story for its Unsung Heroes.

Ms Menehira's sister, Heeni, accompanied her on guitar in the early years and they entered national festival competitions.

She won a Maori Educational Foundation Grant and studied with Dame Sister Mary Leo for eight years.

In the 1970s Ms Menehira was the voice-over narrator for Maori Myths and Legends for New Zealand Talking Books, a child character in radio for Children's Tales broadcast to schools; the lead girl in Racial Intolerance on TV1 and Ruiha in Governor Grey on TV2.

She was also a singer/dancer in Top of the World on TV1 with Tom Parkinson.

Ms Menehira's singing and dancing established her as a multi-talented performer and she went on to become a cabaret entertainer.

In 1978, with a broad musical, dancing and acting talent as her foundation, she departed for the UK.

Mr Wright suggested she audition for the Lady Thiang understudy part opposite Yul Brynner in the King and I; Brynner was the biggest star in London at the time.

There were 1000 hopefuls from around the world, and five auditions later, Ms Menehira won the part.

"We played to packed houses for 18 months in the London Palladium," she recalled.

Ms Menehira was also a swing dancer and lead in the choir during the performances.

Five Royal Command performances followed and a Royal Variety Show for the Queen.

Ms Menehira has also performed with a diverse list of stars.

They include Boney M, The Drifters, Elaine Stritch, James Galway, Virginia McKenna, Bill Haley and the Comets, Carol Channing and Sir Cliff Richard.

Rick Astley co-engineered her first UK recording.

She has a teaching diploma from the Victoria College of Music in London and is a sought-after vocal coach with performers and singers.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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