Post researched and written by Amanda Mills – Liaison Librarian Audio-Visual and Music
August was inaugural Māori music month, a celebration of Māori music around the country of all genres. The first music recorded in New Zealand was indeed Māori, when Ana Hato and Deane Waretini were recorded singing a number of songs, including Hine e Hine, and Waiata Poi. This was in February 1927 at Tūnohopu meeting house, in Ohinemutu, Rotorua, and their accompanists included the nascent Rotorua Māori Choir. While their story is the stuff of musical history, less has been written about the Rotorua Māori Choir, and their seminal recordings of 1930.
The Rotorua Māori Choir had been in existence for at least two decades, having been formed in the early 1900s by Frederick Bennett, an Anglican Clergyman. Before making their famous recordings, the choir had been part of New Zealand’s first feature film, George Tarr’s Hinemoa, from 1914. In 1929, the choir’s lawyer (a Mr. Simpson) suggested to Arthur Eady (of Arthur A. Eady Publishing) that the choir be recorded. This suggestion was taken to Columbia Gramophone Company, who agreed, and a contract was signed by three choir members – Geoffrey Rogers, Tame Petane, and Rotohiko Haupapa. In 1930, a group from the label (including musical director Gil Dech, managing director W.A. Donner, and engineer Reg Southey) came to New Zealand to record the choir, and this took three months – a significant commitment of finances and resources. Dech, who had been to New Zealand before, became closely acquainted with the music by listening to the songs sung to him repeatedly by the choir before the recording started, though his introduction to the some of the music originally occurred when he accompanied and conducted the recording sessions of Scottish tenor Ernest McKinlay, who recorded Māori songs in Sydney in 1928.
By all accounts, the recording sessions with the Rotorua Māori Choir were long and often hard, as choir members had day jobs, and the recording sessions often lasted until the early hours of the morning. Dech was keen to have the choir harmonise naturally, but often wrote harmony parts and taught them to the group – Reg Southey confirming “he trained them to sing as a group – most of them were used to singing solo.” There were soloists, however: bass baritone Rotohiko Haupapa, soprano Te Mauri Meihana, contralto Mere Amohau, and tenor Tiawhi Ratete.
As with Ana Hato and Deane Waretini before them, the Rotorua Māori Choir recorded at the Tūnohopu meeting house at Ohinemutu, Rotorua. To create a better environment to record in, shawls and carpets were hung from the roof to dampen the echo, and a production/control room was assembled in the porch. Southey recalled that the recording sessions were to record Māori singing and song, which they “felt was unique and should be put on record for all time. So many visitors… came to New Zealand, heard these singers and asked where they could buy recordings. They weren’t available… we wanted to correct that.” The recordings were cut directly to fragile wax discs (two recordings were cut, and the best one chosen for use), and sent to Australia, where copper master records were cut. Over thirty songs were recorded (in what Mervyn Mclean called “the European melodic idiom”): folk songs, love songs, and farewell and welcome songs, as well as two English hymns in Te Reo: Au e Iho, and Karaunatia. Originally issued on 10” shellac 78rpm discs, in 1961, all but three of the songs were taped from the master discs and pressed to LP, bringing the Rotorua Māori Choir to further recognition.
Digitised recording of Warutia Putiputi Pai
To illustrate the talents of the Rotorua Māori Choir, we have digitised some of our original 78rpm discs. One of the best examples of their vocal abilities is Warutia Putiputi Pai, a Māori love ditty, where the range of the choir members, and the style of the musical director is evident. The disc is in remarkably good condition for being 86 years old, though there are ‘pops’ due to the nature and slight deterioration of the format.
Armstrong, A. (1961). Records: Still popular after thirty years. Te Ao Hou, 36 (September), p. 63-64.
Mclean, M. (1996). Maori Music. Auckland: University of Auckland Press.
[Unknown author]. (1964). Pioneer returns. New Zealand Listener, 20 March. p.10.
I have also recently published an article on the Rotorua Maori Choir which you can view through this link: http://www.78rpmcommunity.com/beta/documents/1/78/the-discographer-june-2016-volume-3-no-6
I have also uploaded 33 out of the 48 issued recordings of the Choir onto youtube:
I have also sent you an email.
Thanks for sharing your article, and the recordings. Brilliant! I have forwarded your email to Amanda Mills our Liaison Librarian for Music and AV for reply,
Hi there, we live in Southland and have a pristine original record from this collection of waiata poi which also has karo (poi song) on it.
Would you be able to direct us to someone who could value this for us please
Glenn and Bernadette
Dear Glenn and Bernadette
Thank you very much for your message. Because the market for recorded music (especially on 78rpm disc) can often vary, I’d recommend you talk to someone in the collecting market, such as an auctioneer. Maybe try Haywards auction house in Dunedin? I hope this information is useful.
I live in Australia and am looking for a copy of “All the Best From New Zealand” Maori songs.
Can you help me please?
Thank you very much for your message. I haven’t been able to locate an album of Maori songs called “All the best from New Zealand,” but there is an album called “The very best of New Zealand” with material by Maori artists sung in English and Te Reo. This was released by Mastersong in Australia in 2007, so is still relatively recent. Maybe try a local record store to see if they have it in stock? If this is not the correct disc, please contact me directly, and I’m happy to talk further with you about it. My direct email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve just discovered that our family has the full set of these recordings, in their original box, all stamped and numbered. Would love to find out more about these.
Thank you for your message. What an amazing find – that will be a wonderful collection to have. The first place to start is an article on Audioculture.co.nz about the Rotorua Maori Choir here https://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/rotorua-maori-choir. if you are wishing to examine the history of the musical landscape in New Zealand at the time those recordings were made, the book ‘Blue Smoke’ by Chris Bourke, is an invaluable history of NZ Music up until 1964, while ethnomusicologist Mervyn McLean’s book ‘Maori Music’ examines the histories and traditions of Maori music. I hope this helps, and I hope you enjoy those wonderful recordings.