A new series looks back at an era when Maori music was heard from Vietnam to Vegas. Scott Kara reports.

Tiki Village in the heart of Sydney's Kings Cross was the place to be seen in the swinging 60s - and Maori showband the Quin-Tikis were the late-night star attraction.

"That was the start of something that went around the world," says Freddie Summers, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the band in the mid-60s.

"Tiki Village was a phenomenal place. It was in the basement of this hotel. You could fit about 200 in there. The stage was at the end of the room with dressing rooms out the back. It sure was the place to be."

Summers - who is now 71, still playing music, and has lived in the United States for more than 35 years ("it's hard to leave but I'm still a Kiwi. I'm still a New Zealander") - was in a group playing the early, 10pm show at Tiki Village before he joined the Quin-Tikis. When he found out the venue's main band was heading overseas, and that multi-instrumentalist Anzac Teoka was staying in Australia, "I worked twice as hard on my show when the Quins walked in."

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He was offered the job, which was a dream come true for a 24-year-old lad from the Far North who had left home to pursue his dream of playing music.

The Quins are just one of 13 acts profiled in Maori TV's second series of Unsung Heroes of Maori Music, which starts with an episode about jazz singing great Ricky May on Friday at 9.30pm. Also featured in later episodes are blind, golden-voiced singer Eddie Low, Frankie Stevens (before he became a household name through TV), and a number of little-known but influential Maori jazz players such as the Campbell Brothers from Paeroa, who were top dogs on the Auckland jazz scene in the 30s and 40s.

The Quin-Tikis, led by "Weasel" Taiaroa, formed in Rotorua in 1961, moved to Auckland and then relocated to Sydney in 1964 before taking on the world with shows from Vietnam to Vegas.

The band's first musical tour of duty in Vietnam was in 1966, then every year from 1968-1970 during the peak of the US involvement in the Vietnam War.

Summers admits that initially they did it for for the money. "But it ended up being very rewarding," he remembers. "They [the troops] just appreciated the entertainment so much in light of what they were doing over there. And we were flown in to all the dangerous places and they were all coming out of the bush to get entertainment."

And what was it that made the Maori showbands so universally appealing?

"It's something inherent in our wonderful Maori and Polynesian way - the fact that we are there to help people enjoy themselves," he says.

Another star of the second series, who, like Summers has also made his home in the US, is Wes Epae, a member of the Maori Hi Five, who were profiled in the first series of Unsung Heroes.

When the Hi Fives split up in 1972 Epae went solo. The 72-year-old has been performing ever since. As well as his vast vocal range, Epae is a showman with his beaming smile and a knack for impressions of everyone from a moonwalking Michael Jackson to his hilarious Pavarotti rendition.

"It's been a good life, I would have loved to have done better, but that's the way it goes. I just love it," he says of why he continues to perform.

Born in Normanby, and having spent his early years growing up in Manaia, both of them small towns near Hawera in south Taranaki, he moved to Wellington with his father and after finishing school got a job at the Mexicali coffee shop.

"I was a waiter. But the owner had a little stage and every now and then I'd get up and do some songs and then a few other boys started singing too."

Epae and two other chaps - Freddy and Eddie - formed a group called the Three Dukes and with their versions of songs like Love Is A Many-Splendoured Thing they started making a name for themselves.

Around this time Epae also frequented the Cuba Cabana in Cuba St where he saw "the Hi Five" for the first time. It turned out they were looking for a singer and impersonator to add to their lineup to make their show more diverse. Epae got the job and soon after they left for Australia.

"I left for the adventure," he says. "It's not every day you get to go to Australia, because I'd never been there and it was like, 'wow, Australia'. And at the time it was more adventure than anything else - adventure and girls," he laughs.

From Australia they went to Britain, travelling through other parts of Europe, and ending up in the US doing the tour circuit of clubs around Las Vegas. In 2009 the band was honoured with a star on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars.

"We were different. We did the Maori show, you know, coming out in the grass skirt, and then the drummer would do a solo and then we'd change into tuxedos," he remembers with a laugh.

Series producer and co-director Phil Crown (35) jokes that Unsung Heroes has been in the making since he was a kid because he grew up listening to this music and his father, Armand (who narrates the series), played with many of the singers and players who are profiled.

"The first series had a lot to do with Maori history, as far as our early influences and prominent musicians who inspired others, and it showed that push on from one person to the next - and so we learn't all these new stories from the first series that turn up this time round."

The strong jazz strain running through series two was one result of this with prolific jazz man and light entertainment star Bernie Allan tipping Crown off to the Campbell Brothers - Phil, George and Lew. After leaving their hometown of Paeroa, the Campbells dominated the Auckland jazz scene in the 1930s and 40s with their "near-genius playing", reckons Crown.

"To go straight to the top of the Auckland jazz scene at a time when jazz was pop music was incredible."

Though all three have passed away - Phil during World War II, George in the late 80s, and Lew in 2008 - their story is told through re-enactments, interviews with those who were influenced by them, and photos and accounts from their family.

"As a musician - and I'm not a jazz player at all - I feel these jazz players are the masters of our trade, they understand the language of music, they converse in it, they speak through their instruments, and I just thought, 'well, if anyone's unsung, it's these guys'."

Lowdown

What: Unsung Heroes of Maori Music 2, starts Friday, 9.30pm, Maori Television

Who: The Quin-Tikis, the Maori Hi Five, 30s and 40s jazz players the Campbell Brothers, Frankie Stevens, and more

-TimeOut