Review: Poi E: The Story of Our Song
A shot of pure nostalgic joy, Tearepa Kahi’s Poi E: The Story of Our Song unearths the vision and struggle that drove a te reo Māori song into 1980s New Zealand pop culture.
I was a skinny ten-year-old Māori boy when Poi E first arrived on our television screens in March, 1984. Six months earlier, I’d moved from my birthplace, Gisborne, to the ‘cultural wasteland’ (as I viewed it at the time) of Invercargill — going from a sea of brown faces to being stared at for having a brown face, all in the space of a three day drive. This unique, catchy song, with its accompanying video mashing kapa haka and hip-hop, came as a blast of fresh air. Especially for someone who, if not completely connected to their heritage, was at least used to hearing frequent bursts of te reo Māori mixed into everyday conversation.
In his loving tribute to the song and its creators, Poi E: The Story of Our Song, indigenous filmmaker and long-time NZIFF Trustee Tearepa Kahi (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Hine) collects a number of recollections like these, from both Māori and pākehā New Zealanders, highlighting just how entrenched this song has become in the nation’s memory, as well as in the personal histories of local luminaries like musicians Moana Maniapoto and Don McGlashan and filmmaker Taika Waititi (who helped bring Poi E back to prominence in 2010 as the memorable outro song to Boy, performed as a parody of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video).
But Kahi isn’t merely interested in a pop-cultural phenomenon. With a great deal of warmth and respect, Kahi documents the genesis of Poi E through the combined personal renaissance of Pātea musician Dalvanius Prime and the pragmatic activism of Ngāti Porou linguist and composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi (co-founder of the Te Ataarangi Māori language teaching method). At a time when Māori language was not often heard on television or radio (or if it was, then only in the strict confines of a formal medium such as powhiri for international dignitaries), to have a song completely in te reo Māori on the mainstream music charts seemed all but impossible.
To get a better context for how unusual the popularity of Poi E was, we need only look a generation prior, when use of Māori language was actively discouraged. My mother shares stories of being caned for speaking Māori in the playground at school. Little wonder, then, that te reo Māori was greatly marginalised by the 1980s. Dalvanius and Ngoi’s song emerged a mere two years after the inauguration of the Kōhanga reo movement in 1982 as a desperate effort to rescue a dying language. As intimated in the documentary, having our language and traditional practices used in such a way, in a pop song, was — in retrospect — like tacit permission to integrate these into our everyday lives; an affirmation of the relevance and vitality of our core identity. It’s a sentiment ingeniously illustrated with ‘brofessor’ Taika Waititi, who educates an irreverent Stan Walker (born well after Poi E’s 1984 chart dominance) about ‘the way things were’ before the song. As well as decent comic relief, this duo embody the marked change in climate for the place of Māori in pop-culture in the decades following the song’s release.
Poi E spotlights Dalvanius Prime’s forward thinking in this area: despite being a Māori man not fluent in his own language, he had a vision that went beyond seeing Māori children simply speaking Māori. His desire was for Māori youth to be able to integrate their Māoritanga into their everyday lives, rather than having it consigned to the marae, or other overtly ‘Māori’ spaces; a vision we have slowly seen coming to pass. This less obvious activist role that Prime played was not something that I had really considered before. Poi E makes plain the link between Prime’s drive to get this song, not only made, but played, at home and abroad, and increasing acceptance of Māori language and culture in the mainstream context.
In one of his last pieces of writing as the Herald’s Entertainment editor, Russell Baillie outlined a lengthy delay in the film’s release as Kahi revisited the film’s ‘voice’. The director’s soul-searching about his narration getting in the film’s way led to the wise decision of having Dalvanius posthumously narrate the bulk of his own story, via a lengthy Radio New Zealand interview with Chris Bourke from 2000. And so we get the history and creative struggle to bring the song into the public realm in the very words of the charismatic figure who stood at the centre of it all, supported by a wealth of archival footage and audio recordings — including a 30 year old cassette recording of the original writing sessions for Poi E at Ngoi’s house, unearthed from a relative’s clothing drawer — and interviews of present day Pātea Māori Club members (mostly friends and family of Dalvanius) and key Pēwhairangi descendants. Kahi and his team have produced a truly engaging documentary that revels in its subjects’ passion and creativity and also mourns the passing of these two bright lights. Though built around serious ideas of identity and cultural renewal, Poi E maintains a joyous, celebratory tone as it lovingly details a story relatively few New Zealanders will be familiar with, but one to which many will share a sense of connection.
Poi E has its world premiere
with the New Zealand International Film Festival