Māori songs have rarely hit the charts in New Zealand. That all changed in 1984, when the hit ‘Poi E’ spent four weeks at no. 1 and 22 weeks in the charts.
Written by linguist Ngoi Pewhairangi with music by Dalvanius Prime, the song was a way to encourage young Māori to be proud of being Māori – in a format that young people were comfortable with. The two got together in 1982 and wrote ‘Poi E’ and two other songs in a single day. ‘I could hum a tune and she could write Māori words and phrases which were exactly the same as the tune,’ Prime recalled.
As record companies weren’t interested in the song. Prime decided to form his own label, Maui Records, and recorded ‘Poi E’ in late 1983. The Pātea Māori Club provided the vocals above a funky rhythm that featured bass, Linn drums and a synthesiser.
Commercial radio barely played the song, but a TV story on Eyewitness news gave it publicity. Still largely unheard on radio, the song hit the top of the charts in March 1984.
Overseas it was big as well. The Pātea Māori Club toured the United Kingdom in 1984, playing at the London Palladium and the Edinburgh Festival and giving a Royal Command Performance. British magazine New Musical Express named ‘Poi E’ its single of the week.
On the streets, young Māori loved the song. The early 1980s was the height of the break-dancing craze, and kids performed to it in Auckland’s Aotea Square and elsewhere. Prime had seen it as a way to market Māori language and culture, especially in the urban context with its emphasis on consumerism.
The song later expanded into a musical that told the story of the effects of the closure of the freezing works on the small town of Pātea.
In 2010 ‘Poi E’ was used in the popular Taika Waititi movie, Boy. Along with a remake of the video using actors from the film and another with the original members, this saw the song back on the New Zealand music charts.