January 5, 2009
I’ve been planning to upload a track by the Rotorua Maori Choir since April of 2008, when I posted a song by a Lithuanian choir. Besides the fact that I truly enjoy today’s piece, it brings up a number of issues which, while I can claim no expertise in discussing, I feel obliged to address nonetheless. So, the ruminations in this post are sort of a continuation of April’s thoughts.
There was very little so-called “ethnic” music recorded in either Australia or New Zealand during the 78rpm era. I know of a set of ethnographic recordings of Australian Aboriginal music made by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, but I’ve not once seen a copy. It may have been pressed as a limited edition. As for commercial releases, there were several sessions of Maori music from New Zealand dating from the late 1920s/early 1930s, on Parlophone and Columbia. The first recordings were by the singer Ms. Ana Hato and her cousin Deane Waretini. While ostensibly traditional Maori songs, they had a distinct Western bent. Both were trained as singers by westerners, and the songs they recorded were accompanied by piano – some were written by non-Maori songwriters. Despite this, Ana Hato had said that they sang “as Maori, not pakeha” – the latter being the Maori term for New Zealanders of European ancestry. Their recordings brought Maori culture and music to a larger audience, making the duo legendary and their music beloved.
The same can be said of the Rotorua Maori Choir, who formed in the early 20th century and recorded at least 30 songs for Columbia in April of 1930. The recordings were engineered by Reg Southey, and the music was conducted and directed by Gil Dech, a music director for Columbia. It’s been documented that it took an entire three months on the Columbia docket for Dech to learn the Maori songs, rehearse the choir of about 30 members, record the wax masters, and wrap up the sessions. Nearly all the tracks are solely choir, without piano. The group rehearsed in the Tamatekapua meeting house at Ohinemutu, often until 2AM, when they would make a recording. According to an article in Te Ao Hou, a magazine published by the Maori Affairs Department in New Zealand, Dech would let the choir harmonize naturally…except when he felt the need to step in, as when the group were singing in unison. The recordings remained in print for years, eventually making it onto LP almost three decades letter. None are in print now.
I must admit that it’s a little difficult to read accounts of a white man dutifully instructing a group of Maori on the finer points of western harmony, or the accounts of Dech becoming frustrated that he had to drag “choir members out of mud pools” in order to get them to rehearsal. But at the same time, when it comes to early Maori music on 78, this is what we have and little else. Further, these recordings are proudly held as an important part of Maori history and as examples of outstanding Maori music – yes, with the exception of two English hymns, it is their songs, their music, their lyrics, their poetry. And, to offer a comparison, what about the African-American “jubilee quartets” as we had here in the States, who sang a formal gospel style based on European/Western harmonies? As difficult as it is for me to reconcile direct interference such as this on a recording – whether from missionaries or simply hired guns from a record company – it’s just as difficult for me to judge these fine recordings as being simply “inauthentic.” Collectors of old music have the reputation for searching out only the raw, the plaintive, the music that stems from rural, poor cultures cut off from urban civilization or industrialization – and believe me, all of that makes me salivate too, with this website being living proof. But again, who am I to judge? In 1931, even the Rotorua Maori Choir’s hymns were strange to western ears, as a review in the April 1931 issue of Music & Letters states: “The singing is harsh, though that may be a national characteristic.”
So, I give you the Rotorua Maori Choir with E Hara Te Waea, or “Love Never Dies” – as good a sentiment as any to kick off 2009.
Issue Number: DO.57
Matrix Number: T.910