Saturday, September 10, 2016
Poi E: The Story of our Song: a theological film review
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 100 plus films later, here is the review for September 2016.
Poi E: The Story of our Song
If Poi E – the song – is waiata poi, Poi E – the movie – is waiata haka, a challenge to how New Zealand sees itself. In 1984, New Zealand music was dominated by imports. In that year, of the seventeen number one songs, all but one was offshore in origin. On 18 March, Poi E a song by Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club, became number one. Without mainstream radio play or television promotion, Poi E would top the charts for four consecutive weeks, becoming 1984’s number-one single of the year. The song reentered the charts in 2009, and again in 2010, making it the only New Zealand song to chart over three decades.
Behind the genius of Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club lay a strong supporting cast that included a linguist and a local church.
Ngoi Pewhairangi was the linguist, a native Maori speaker committed to advancing her culture in order to ensure a genuinely bicultural nation. Ngoi Pewhairangi had already penned the 1982 hit song, E Ipo, for Prince Tui Teka. Dalvanius mixed E Ipo for Tui, turning his live performance into a recording that became New Zealand’s first ever number one song in Te Reo. In exchange, Dalvanius learnt from Tui of the lyrical gifts of Ngoi Pewhairangi. He took a tune to her home in Tokomaru Bay. Poi E – the movie – includes the playing of the first recording of Poi E. Dalvanius strums a ukulele and sings the lyrics gifted to him by Ngoi Pewhairangi.
The Patea Maori Club began as an initiative by a local Methodist church to encourage young people. Methodist Minister, Reverend Napi Waka poured his energy into the Club. As Jim Ngarewa said in a 2006 Touchstone interview, “Both the marae and the performance are important elements of Maori Methodism in Patea.” It is reminder of the influence that a local church, when it seeks to support art, culture and young people.
In producing Poi E, director Tearepa Kahi cleverly uses two techniques to ensure momentum. First, a set of scenes as Taika Waititi remembers and Stan Walker learns. Spliced throughout the movie, these scenes provide a narrative thread. Second, the clever way in which repeatedly the musical score runs on, despite the visuals changing. The result is an underlying musical continuity, consistent with the movie’s focus on song.
A few weeks before watching Poi E – the movie – I read the story of Flying Nun Records (In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, 2016). Author Roger Shepherd offers a David-and-Goliath-like tale, of local music struggling to be heard amid offshore imports. In 1984 – the year of Poi E’s release – this local record company achieved sales of $90,000, through promoting Pakeha bands like The Chills, The Clean and Shayne Carter.
In contrast Poi E – the movie – tells the story of Dalvanius borrowing money from local business to fund Poi E – the song. This is the waiata haka of Poi E: the reminder that local in New Zealand is much more than white boy bands and a Dunedin sound.
Today the Patea freezing works remain closed. Yet each week in a local church (now a cooperating parish), the Patea Maori Club still gather. May Pakeha accept the waiata haka of which their song speaks.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
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