Maori songs have rarely hit the charts in New Zealand. That all changed in 1984 when the hit ‘Poi E’ blitzed the charts for 22 weeks, including four weeks at number one.
Written by linguist Ngoi Pewhairangi with music by Dalvanius Prime, the song was a way to teach young Maori to be proud of being Maori – in a format that young people were comfortable with. The two got together in 1982 and wrote ‘Poi E’, as well as two other numbers, in a single day. ‘I could hum a tune and she could write Maori words and phrases which were exactly the same as the tune,' Prime recalled.
Record companies weren’t interested in the song. Prime decided to form his own label, Maui Records, and he recorded 'Poi E' in late 1983. The Patea Maori Club provided the vocals above a funky rhythm that featured bass, Linn drums and a synthesiser.
Commercial radio barely gave the number an airing. It was thanks to a TV story from the Eye witness news team that the song got any publicity. Without radio time, the song hit the top of the charts in March 1984.
Overseas it was big as well. The Patea Maori Club toured the United Kingdom in 1984 and played at the London Palladium and the Edinburgh Festival and gave a Royal Command Performance. British magazine New Musical Express named ‘Poi E’ its single of the week at one point.
On the streets, young Maori 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 other places. Prime had seen the song as a way of marketing Maori 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 township of Patea.
In 2010 'Poi E' was used in the popular Taika Waititi movie, Boy. This, along with a remake of the video using actors from the film and another with the original members, saw the song returning to the New Zealand music charts.