The History of Poi E
2022 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most popular songs of the 80s.
Ella takes readers on a historical overview of the infamous Māori track 'Poi E'.
This feature was originally published by Craccum magazine, the student magazine of The University of Auckland
Over the past 50 years, many te reo Māori songs in New Zealand have topped the charts—but none have experienced success as meteoric, and left a legacy as iconic, as Pātea Māori Club and their signature song, ‘Poi E’. It was an unexpected success story—the sort that almost sounds like it could have only happened in a movie. But the success and cultural impact of ‘Poi E’ is something that is very real.
In 1982, the Pātea Freezing Works would close down, throwing the future of the small Southern Taranaki town into turmoil. Success came in the form of an unlikely saviour—Dalvanius Prime, who was born in Pātea and had found success producing for artists such as Prince Tui Teka, and renowned academic and activist Ngoi Pewhairangi who was also involved in the writing of ‘E Ipo’. The two would work together after Dalvanius had taken a sabbatical to learn about his culture and himself, driven by the experience of losing his mother and hearing her talk in te reo, and realising that he couldn’t understand her. Along with taking immersion courses, Dalvanius entered into a mentorship with Ngoi as a mentor, and she encouraged him to write songs that inspired pride in young Māori. One of their songwriting sessions would end with him writing a barebones version of ‘Poi E’, amongst other waiata that would make the Pātea Māori Club’s sole album.
This rudimentary version of ‘Poi E’ was presented to the Pātea Māori Club, who would perform it in national competitions, where they did well with the song. However, Dalvanius believed in the power of the song to reach the youth, and discussed adding synthesizers and other modern instrumentation to the song and formally recording it to Ngoi.
Ngoi was concerned that older Māori might find the use of 80s instruments in a traditional waiata offensive, but she eventually came around and the single was released in 1983. It was released on Prime’s record label, Maui Record, which Prime hoped would become the Māori Motown.
The Pātea Māori Club would use incredibly grassroots methods of promoting by performing at non-traditional venues (such as gyms) over the rest of the year. Commercial radio showed very little interest in the song, but it did catch the eye of someone at Eyewitness News.
Eyewitness News would run a news programme featuring the 'Poi E', and that’s when the song exploded. It would go from relatively unknown, to the biggest song of the year in New Zealand, having a four-week run at number one. 'Poi E' would be the only New Zealand song to chart on the 1984 year-end charts, beating out international legends such as Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and Bruce Springsteen (#2, #3, and #4 respectively). It would become the most iconic song in te reo Māori from the 1980s, and arguably of all time. While Māori songs had reached number one before, none of them had ever experienced the success that ‘Poi E’ did.
Meanwhile, in wider New Zealand, things were changing for Māori. The Māori renaissance movement, dedicated to the revival of Māoritanga and te reo Māori, had taken root in the 1970s and would reach its peak in the 1980s. Being beaten in school for speaking te reo Māori was still something that was in recent memory, as had happened to my own grandmother in the 1960s. The effects of intergenerational trauma and culture loss were still acutely felt by most. However, younger Māori had grown tired of this treatment and were anxious to take action and to inspire pride in being Māori and participating in Māoritanga. It can be argued that this was one of the major contributing factors to why ‘Poi E’ became so popular.
But now onto the song itself. ‘Poi E’ did have synths, but it brought in something from an international genre that had proven to be incredibly popular with Māori youth. This was a funky, relatively new genre called… hip-hop!
Māori who were living in the cities were often victims of culture loss and systemic racism. What Māori saw in hip-hop was music that they could relate to their own experiences as a minority even if the contexts were different.
In the 80s (and arguably even now), Māori who were living in the cities were often victims of culture loss and systemic racism. What Māori saw in hip-hop was music that they could relate to their own experiences as a minority even if the contexts were different. Life could be rough for quite a few Māori kids, with poverty, organised crime, and family unrest being themes in many children’s lives. In hip-hop, these children found people who had been through the same thing, and who spoke about it in a way that spoke to them. It’s also very important to note that the representation of Māori in popular culture in the 80s was generally not great, and thus young Māori looked elsewhere for people to relate to and aspire to be like. The genre was also popular with Pākehā kids, but it was biggest with Māori kids, who really related to the genre and the imagining of the outsider person of colour.
‘Poi E’ is a song that tells their poi to find their way home, which Ngoi intended as a metaphor for being Māori in the city, cautioning them against losing themself and their culture, and to remember where they came from. It is meant to be uplifting, in that it tells you to find pride in what you have and who you are and not to lose sight of that. It’s also incredibly catchy—just listen to it and you’ll have “E rere ra e taku poi porotiti” stuck in your head for a whole week. Despite the unfamiliarity of waiata to a Pākehā audience, it was easily accessible while still being distinctly Māori. The song may seem simple on the surface, but it somehow catches lightning in a bottle by being both one of a kind, and by weaponising the pop formula to create a song that you’ll hear once and have stuck in your head for weeks, while appealing to the Māori identity that would spout up after the end of the original Māori Renaissance Movement—one that took pride and sought to retain their identity and culture in the face of a modern, eurocentric world.
‘Poi E’’s meteoric success blazed the way for a new generation of Māori musicians and musicians singing in te reo, and therefore, I would argue that many are indebted to Ngoi Pēwhairangi, Dalvanius Prime, and the Pātea Māori Club as it showed that you can be proudly and unashamedly Māori and be successful in a Pākehā world.
‘Poi E’’s meteoric success blazed the way for a new generation of Māori musicians and musicians singing in te reo, and therefore, I would argue that many are indebted to Ngoi Pēwhairangi, Dalvanius Prime, and the Pātea Māori Club as it showed that you can be proudly and unashamedly Māori and be successful in a Pākehā world. It’s so iconic that any generation of kiwi will probably know it, no matter what demographic, being a symbol of both the 80s and Māori identity (as shown by its use in the movie Boy). And, this is purely anecdotal, but my Canterbury-born-and-raised Dad, who pronounces Māori as “Murry” can easily recognise the song through me humming it to him, then you know that’s when you can count this song as one of the most iconic songs in New Zealand.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.