Poi E: 'It brought a community together'

Poi E: 'It brought a community together'

The catchy refrain of 'Poi E' has been a staple of the New Zealand music repertoire for nearly 35 years.

Even so, few people are aware of the song's origins or the meaning of its Te Reo Māori lyrics.

With Māori Language Week kicking off on Monday and a new documentary soon to be released about the song, we asked the Pātea Māori Club how their hit came about.

According to club member and trustee Miri Snee, the lyrics held a deep meaning for songwriter Dalvanius Prime, illustrating what he saw happening in Māori culture in the 1980s.

'Poi E' was one of three songs written in the space of one day in 1982 by Prime and linguist  Ngoi Pēwhairangi.

Prime wrote the music and the English lyrics, then Pēwhairangi helped by translating them into Māori.

Poi E: 'It brought a community together'

The poi and the fantail were metaphors for young Māori in the early 1980s, whom Prime saw as abandoning tradition and becoming ungrounded as they migrated to the big cities from rural areas.

"He used the fantail [and poi] to portrait how he thought our kids were in the city," Ms Snee said.

"Like; going in and up and down, round and about, not really sure where they were going."

Prime wanted to unite his people, for the youth to be proud of who they were and where they came from. He wanted to connect with them in a way they could relate to - through music.

"A lot of them had no direction, had no jobs. He wanted to do something."

The south Taranaki town was dealt a devastating blow in September 1982 when Pātea freezing works closed.

Ms Snee said the town had a population of around 11,000 at the time, and the factory employed 8000 of them.

The release of 'Poi E' was coincidentally good timing. Prime had returned home to look after his sick mother; he was reconnecting with his roots and his people by making music.

It just so happened that 'Poi E' was able to bring Pātea out of its depression too.

"'Poi E' came at a time where we as a community needed something to uplift us. Pātea Māori Club didn't give financial help but we were able to bring people together and provide solidarity," Ms Snee said.

"The freezing works was devastating, but getting 'Poi E' on the road at the same time was something that we were achieving that was great. It didn't just bring one or two people together, it brought a community together."

Poi E: 'It brought a community together'

But getting traction for the song wasn't without challenges.

"A lot of the older generation thought that we were bastardising the language by using modern equipment and modern music to get our language out there," Ms Snee said.

Nonetheless, in 1984 'Poi E' hit number one and spent 22 weeks on the New Zealand music charts.

As the song's popularity continued, it came to be accepted by elders as a way to help promote culture in different way.

"Dalvanius kept saying 'this is future music and if you let your grandkids listen to this music, I bet you they'll get it' and that's exactly what happened."

Ms Snee said the Pātea Māori Club, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, isn't as strong in numbers as it once was.

However, she thinks the release of the documentary Poi E: The Story Behind Our Song will do a lot towards "lighting that spark again".

Around 15 of the club's members will be attending its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland this month.