"Merseybeat and Motown, Britpop and Hip-hop all made their way to these shores, and my ears, like a series of invasions. But I have also been surrounded throughout my life by New Zealanders producing their own variations on such pop templates."
In his Lilburn Lecture, award-winning writer, musician, and broadcaster Nick Bollinger delves into diverse corners of Aotearoa's musical past and present to investigate what it is that differentiates New Zealand pop music from its overseas cousins, and what that can tell us about our identity.
Nick Bollinger was awarded the Lilburn Research Fellowship for 2023. And for this tenth annual Lilburn Lecture, his research follows on from his books Goneville: A memoir, 100 Essential New Zealand albums, and his Ockham award-winning Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand.
In this talk, Nick weaves through threads of his own personal story, and shares some of the pivotal moments that led to his lifelong fascination with pop, and eventually to a career as pop critic and cultural historian.
The Lilburn Lecture 2023 was recorded by RNZ on 2 November 2023 (the anniversary of Douglas Lilburn’s birth) at the Tiakiwai Conference Centre, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington.
Producer: Ryan Smith / Engineer: Marc Chesterman
2023 Lilburn Lecture: Listening for the Sound of Aotearoa New Zealand
Nick Bollinger - transcript
Tēnā koutou katoa.
It’s an honour to be invited by the Lilburn Trust and the National Library to give this year’s Lilburn lecture.
The name Douglas Lilburn has loomed large for me this year. I’ve spent the past ten months here at the National Library as the 2023 Lilburn Research Fellow, and I’ll talk in a few moments about the project I’ve been working on during this time.
But when I think about it, I’ve been aware of Douglas Lilburn almost ever since I can remember.
Like a lot of Wellingtonians, I knew him by sight. He was one of this city’s great pedestrians. I’m not sure whether he even owned a car, but you would often see him on foot, on Lambton Quay or The Terrace or Tinakori Road, and if you caught his eye you might get a slight nod of the head and that faint suggestion of a smile, which may just have been his natural resting face.
Until I was seven my family lived in Sydney Street West, not far from here, on the other side of Parliament Buildings. Douglas lived just a few doors away from us, around the corner in Ascot Terrace. I remember my parents stopping to talk to him in the street, and explaining to me later that he was a man who wrote music. I gradually became aware that their connection was through my grandmother: my mother’s mother, Maria Dronke.
Born in Germany, Maria had been an actress in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s. She had performed leading roles for the director Max Rheinhart and had read at the memorial for the poet Rilke, before marrying my grandfather, a lawyer and musician, and moving to Cologne where my mother was born.
Maria was Jewish, and as the persecution of Jews intensified it became clear that the Dronke family would have to flee, which they finally did in late 1938. They took temporary refuge in England and came to New Zealand the following year, a country they knew very little about, arriving just before the start of the war with no more than they could carry in their suitcases.
This country must have seemed very strange after the high cultural life of Europe. There were no professional theatres, no national orchestra, no decent coffee, a peculiar obsession with the game of rugby, and a wariness of strangers, especially if they came from a country with which New Zealand was at war.
They did what they could. My grandfather worked in a factory making artificial limbs. And he answered an ad: bass player wanted for dance band. This made my grandmother cry, the thought of her husband, a classically trained musician, playing boogie woogie, but he laughed and said no, he had enjoyed it, and had been impressed by the way the other musicians didn’t need to read from sheet music.
They had frowned, though, when he had introduced himself by his first name: Adolf. ‘Have you got any other names?’ they asked with evident concern. From then on he was known as John.
Maria opened a studio and began to teach speech and drama - in English, her second language.
There was a small community of fellow refugees with whom they had obvious things in common. But some of their closest friends and supporters came from another group: New Zealanders by birth who had been trying, in a climate of indifference if not outright hostility, to establish a professional arts culture in this country. These included the poets Allen Curnow and Denis Glover, painters Colin McCahon and Rita Angus, and the composer Lilburn. Maria and Douglas collaborated on a number of occasions - first in 1950, when Douglas wrote settings for a cycle of poems by Rilke, which Maria read, with the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra; and again, in the year I was born, when Douglas set three poems, chosen by Maria, and sharing a theme of the sea: the Scottish ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spens’; ‘Ariel’s Song’ from The Tempest; and ‘The Changeling’ by New Zealand poet Allen Curnow.
Lilburn would have been thinking about my grandparents, among others, when he told Chris Bourke in 1985, in an interview for the Listener:
“The European people who came out here at the time of the war - what they called the refugees […] I think they were the first people who made me feel that I should be proud of being a composer.”
I’ve been thinking about my grandparents lately, partly because, in the aftermath of the recent election, I’ve been experiencing my own sense of alienation, in realising that many of my fellow voters imagine a very different future for this country than I do.
And partly because my research this year has revolved around the question:
What is this place?
And how might the music we make here, help us answer that?
What is the sound of Aotearoa?
It’s a question that my grandparents’ new friends such as Lilburn thought and spoke about quite a bit. But my thoughts come from a different era, and a different musical direction.
Rather than high art, I was drawn from a young age to what has sometimes been called low culture.
It wasn’t my parents’ fault. Their small record collection consisted mostly of classical music, and I remember listening, at age two or three, to their records of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and being rapt.
Music, I realised very early on, made me feel good. But I was democratic in my tastes.
From the ‘Wanted to Sell’ column in the Evening Post they bought me a wind-up gramophone - old tech going cheap - and a random pile of 78s: some brass bands, yodellers, Debbie Reynolds singing ‘Tammy’s In Love’.
I adored these records. But nothing ever felt as good as when I first heard the Beatles, which was on Christmas Day 1963, a 7-inch EP called ‘Twist and Shout’ that my teenage cousins had. I was five and, I now realise, a lot of my life’s decisions were determined in that single electrifying moment.
My parents didn’t have any records like that one, but I eventually persuaded them to buy me some, while I discovered that I could hear more of this music if I listened to the radio between 5 and 6 o’clock on weeknights when Pete Sinclair presented The Sunset Show.
New Zealanders did not invent this type of music, though like others all over the world we consumed it and created our own versions of it. Nor did we invent any of the other major popular styles that have radiated across the planet over the past few centuries.
And yet music has always been a part of life in Aotearoa.
According to a Ngāi Tahu genealogy, creation began with music: the gods singing the world into existence. Māori would help shape that world with songs of their own. They made instruments, inspired by the voices of birds, trees and the wind; there was percussive music of the poi; the vocal traditions of karanga, haka and waiata.
With colonists came other sounds. Sealers and whalers sung shanties. Missionaries brought religious songs.
Gold and gum diggers came from Europe and Asia. A few brought instruments and the colourful repertoires that went with them.
With large-scale colonisation came virtually the full soundtrack of Victorian England: brass bands, opera, oratorio, orchestral and chamber music, and ten thousand pianos.
The social ritual of singing around the piano would inevitably drop off with the introduction of the gramophone, which was cheaper and required no musical skill on the part of the owner. One could now be serenaded by Scottish vaudevillians, Italian tenors, and other imported sounds, all in the comfort of one’s living room or parlour. By 1925 most homes had one.
And then came the radio.
The effects of mass media on music would be profound, but didn’t stop New Zealanders making music of their own.
In 1946, when the Mobile Unit of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service visited the town of Hawera to record a selection of musicians and groups for a radio programme, they found a rich variety, from brass bands to German lieder, Wesleyan hymns to Māori action songs.
But other than waiata or haka, how much of what was being played in New Zealand could actually be called New Zealand music?
This question was fundamental to Douglas Lilburn.
It was the same year as the Hawera recordings were made that he delivered the first of his manifestos.
At the Cambridge Summer School of Music in January 1946, he spoke about “the necessity of having a music of our own, a living tradition of music created in this country, a music that will satisfy those parts of our being that cannot be satisfied by the music of other nations.”
He would return to this theme thirteen years later in another major lecture, and it was this search for an authentic New Zealand musical language that drove him for most of his career. It led him to make some radical choices, such as abandoning orchestral composition altogether to spend his last active years as a composer in his electronic music studio attempting, in his words, ’to make our paradise articulate through electronic expression’.
But whether composing for orchestras or oscillators, Lilburn always saw the matter of ‘making our paradise articulate’ in terms of his classical training. Ralph Vaughan Williams, the English composer under whom he had studied in Britain in the 1930s, had found a uniquely English voice in the folk songs of his English heritage. But where was the music of this land for Lilburn to draw on? He was aware of Māori musical traditions, yet as a Pākehā composer he felt he had no authentic claim to them, and would ‘disagree’ with the attempts of earlier Pākehā composers such as Alfred Hill to use these for the founding of a national music. Māori, it seemed to Lilburn, had been more successful at absorbing European elements into their music than the reverse.
While Lilburn and his peers wrestled with questions of art and identity, popular music was carving its own crude path, propelled by a combination of commerce, new media, accelerating global communications and the musical preferences of performers and punters.
And it was sometimes shaped by dreams.
It is hard to imagine how differently we might tell Aotearoa’s musical story had the first locally produced commercial record not been Pixie Williams’ recording of Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’. Imagine if that record had been a cover version of an overseas composition, or a local song that just failed to move listeners.
Instead, that landmark recording was made of a song that has remained embedded in the country’s consciousness for 75 years and counting. Chris Bourke has called it “the first complete New Zealand pop song”.
Karaitiana, a dance band musician from Danniverke, had composed it in the early 1940s en route to the Middle East as a soldier with the Māori Battalion. Its air of dreamy melancholy evokes the uncertainty and forced bravery of a young man sailing off to war. And yet the theme of separation is universal, as is the image of smoke: a perfect symbol for the intangible, to which Karaitiana specifically assigns the colour blue - the colour of sadness; the colour of the blues.
Bourke cites accounts of Karaitiana performing ‘Blue Smoke’ at concerts on board ship, and of the song being sung by informal groups of musicians from the Battalion in the Middle East. Back in New Zealand, it ‘took on a life of its own’. It was among the material recorded during those NZBS sessions in Hawera in 1946 (in a performance by Jean Ngeru.) And recently, an even earlier recording has come to light, from a 1945 capping concert at Otago University.
Who knows how many times it was played by dance bands or at sing-songs over the next few years, but what is certain is that it was a popular song before it was ever recorded.
No one can say definitively who chose ‘Blue Smoke’ to be the first release of Tanza, New Zealand’s first independent record label.
But it seems likely the green light was given by a man named Bart Fortune.
Bart Fortune had been employed by the Radio Corporation to build and sell Columbus radios and radiograms, the company’s core business, and had risen to the role of National Marketing Manager. But Fortune was less interested in the appliances than in the sounds that came out of them. He was a passionate music fan, partial to the pop music of his day: swing jazz and American crooners.
He was also what you might call a progressive thinker. As an arts student at Victoria University in the early 1930s, he had been secretary of The Free Discussions Club, the rallying point for the campus’s small but vocal radical left, who would gather to debate such subjects as war, religion, the Empire, and British ideals. But the club was disaffiliated from the Students Association, after its magazine, of which Fortune had been one of two editors, brought a public attack on the college by the New Zealand Welfare League for allowing teaching against what it called 'nearly everything our civilisation is based upon’.
By 1933, disillusioned with the prospects of a university career, he had dropped out, and with some money gifted to him by his brother Reo and the American anthropologist Margaret Mead to whom Reo was married at the time, he founded a left-wing book shop In Wellington, specialising in Marxist literature. But by 1935 the shop was bankrupt, and Fortune, whose name did not reflect his financial standing, went to work for Radio Corp.
He continued to move in a free-thinking milieu. He became a member of the Communist Party. His friends included Colin Scrimgeour the influential socialist and broadcaster, and the left-wing economist and public intellectual Bill Sutch. The idea of a local industry based on homegrown music presaged ideas Sutch would later develop about diversification and the need for an export trade that relied not solely on farm products but also included arts and crafts. So when the Radio Corporation began to look into manufacturing their own records, Fortune became enthusiastically involved in setting up the company’s recording studio and what would become the first locally-based record label.
He awoke one night with a word in his head: danza, the Spanish word for a courtly dance, which in his hypnagogic state he had twisted into Tanza: an acronym for To Assist New Zealand Artists.
The record of ‘Blue Smoke’ - ‘the first record wholly processed in New Zealand’ as the label proudly proclaimed - is a gentle waltz with an unmistakably Pasifika flavour.
The track is led off by Jim Carter playing a lap steel guitar: an electrified version of the Hawaiian steel guitar.
Then comes the singer Pixie Williams, with a voice that sounds untutored in the best possible way. There is nothing dramatic in her unadorned reading. In a way the performance is not about her. She is simply a vessel for the song. In fact, as Chris Bourke details in his book, the nineteen-year old Pixie was not a professional singer but shared a room in a hostel with Karaitiana’s girlfriend, who had sometimes heard her singing in the shower or at sing-songs around the piano, and it took months of persuasion for her to agree to make the recording.
In 1951 the American crooner Dean Martin would record a cover version, replacing the steel guitar with lush orchestration, cancelling out any trace of the song’s Polynesian roots. But in the original recording those roots are entwined with elements borrowed and absorbed to create a New Zealand music for a modern era; the product of a series of choices that could only have been made in this place, at a particular moment in time.
Was Tanza’s first record a statement of national identity? Discussing this with Chris Bourke not long ago, he used a phrase that for me seemed to sum it up even better: it was 'a romantic invention that became real'.
Lilburn had singled out the environment as an inspirational source for a national musical identity, reflecting his contemporaries in literature and painting. As the literary historian (and musician) John Newton says: ‘Equating identity with physical locality, nationalism favoured the pastoral and authenticated itself from Nature’.
Tanza, by contrast, was essentially modernist: an urban, commercial and technological enterprise. Its use of the fern on its record label - a symbol long associated with both rugby and the military - may have been drawn from nature but also projected a crude and easily recognised nationalism. In contrast to the high art aspirations of Lilburn, Curnow and their peers, this was a pop idea of national identity, one unashamedly aimed at the broad masses, bringing together Māori, Pākehā and Pasifika composers, musicians and traditions.
Tanza would go on to produce an impressive amount of music in the mere eight years it existed, though not all of its catalogue telegraphed its local identity as elegantly as that first release.
It’s catalogue stretched from Pipe Major James Patterson playing ‘The Highland Fling’ to yodeller Jack Christie, whose recordings included cover versions of ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor’ and ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’, while by far the label’s biggest-seller (reputedly 80,000 copies) was a rusticated rendering of the American standard ‘Maple on the Hill’ by Southland country and western group Cole Wilson and the Tumbleweeds who, in the absence of any local retailers of western stage-wear, would fashion their own outfits, getting a bootmaker to add cowboy heels to their rubber gumboots, which they then painted white. From a distance they almost looked like the real thing.
This hodgepodge of New Zealand artists suggested that a national identity would necessarily be a rough mix of the professional and the do-it-yourself; of local and imported energies; neither fixed nor finite but reflecting something of the way people in this country actually lived their lives; certainly the way music functioned in their lives.
The historian Miles Fairburn has said that what makes New Zealand culture distinct is “the abnormal degree to which its people have borrowed from other cultures and the particular combination of cultures they have borrowed from.”
Much of our pop music - like pop everywhere - would be hugely derivative. Most of it wouldn’t last long, or even catch on at all. The most distinctive examples would be a hybrid; a mongrel music that would disregard notions of high culture; would snatch and grab whatever it needed from wherever it could be found.
Pop music, and pop culture in general, had an uneasy relationship with the high-cultural trailblazers of the post-war period. Though these latterly labelled ‘cultural nationalists’ tended to resist the idea of anything as formal as a movement, and didn’t always share the same views, a few of them did voice some startling prejudices. One was Miles Fairburn’s uncle, A.R.D. Fairburn. Ideologically left-wing and a lyrical poet with a strong satirical wit, he nevertheless had his deaf spots.
In a 1945 edition of the magazine Music Ho, under the heading ‘Music For Morons’, he described the popularity of swing - the American pop style sweeping the world at the time - as ‘a dreadful comment on the progress of civilisation’ and ‘evidence of … the spread of barbarism.’ Noting that swing originated with black Americans, whose culture he called ‘not merely primitive’ [but] ‘the culture of an enslaved and defeated race’, he asserted that the music’s acceptance indicated ‘a regression from the civilisation built up in Europe over a period of a thousand years’.
The irony that it was this same vaunted ‘civilisation’ that had enslaved those black Americans in the first place seemed to escape him.
And I wonder if he also misread the motto that appeared on the masthead of every issue of Music Ho: ‘To miss the joy is to miss all.’
Fairburn’s views in many ways echoed those of Theodore Adorno, the German philosopher and musicologist, who similarly dismissed pop, swing and African-American forms such a jazz, fearing that its mass production and mass popularity would mean people would lose the ability to appreciate classical music.
Pop music, as far as he was concerned, was essentially a capitalist plot, and in New Zealand there were thinkers who shared this view, extending their alarm to popular culture in general.
The great activist and writer Elsie Locke suggested in a 1952 article called ‘Some Thoughts on a People’s Culture’ that ‘public taste is constantly debased by cheap-and-nasty films, music and - radio serials’.
That said, Elsie herself was censured around this time by the district secretary of the Communist Party for having an abstract painting hanging in her home, which didn’t meet the party’s principles of proletarian realism.
Yet it’s worth remembering that Tanza, with its broad popular ethos, had sprung from the dream of an erstwhile Communist.
As for the poet Fairburn, I know my grandmother admired him very much. Delving around for materials for this talk, I found the programme for a memorial reading, held in Wellington soon after his death in 1957, at which she read alongside Denis Glover, James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt.
But if she ever shared Fairburn’s prejudices about popular music, she certainly did nothing to discourage my enthusiasm for it. By the time I was growing up, in the 60s and 70s, I could rely on her to produce gifts at birthdays or Christmas time that only invigorated my obsession. When I was eleven or twelve she gave me a book called The Age of Rock which contained the first pop music criticism I ever read.
Though I struggled through an essay that discussed the use of Aeolian cadences in ‘She Loves You’, I was excited by one about whether or not rock lyrics were poetry, by the American critic Robert Christgau.
Christgau defends pop against high art prejudices in this way:
‘One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture’, he writes, ‘is that there’s way more good popular culture … because there’s so damn much of it. Since there’s so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety - democracy.’
Becoming a pop connoisseur seemed as serious and as pleasurable a pursuit as any I could imagine. And when it came to quantity and variety, there would be plenty of that, and I wouldn’t have to search far: Merseybeat and Motown, Britpop and Hip-hop all made their way to these shores, and my ears, like a series of invasions.
But I have also been surrounded throughout my life by New Zealanders producing their own variations on such pop templates.
Tanza had already lit the way, back in the late 40s, and the vibrations from that first New Zealand pop imprint have continued to resonate, down though the decades.
Just the other day I was watching Frances Carter’s video for Auckland group The Beths’ recent pop masterpiece ‘Expert In A Dying Field’.
At one point in the video you see someone placing a record on a turntable. (In fact that person is Larry Killip, a veteran New Zealand musician, recording engineer, song and jingle writer, with a career stretching back to the 1960s, and very much an expert in his own field.)
The disc he is holding is clearly marked with the name The Beths and the title of their song. But if you look closely you’ll see, just for a brief moment, a familiar insignia:
It’s the Tanza label - which hasn’t actually existed since 1956 - but it’s referenced here as a very deliberate salute to the origins of our local pop tradition.
With ringing guitars and real live drums, the song is, in many respects, a conventional piece of power-pop, in a style that can be traced back to the Beatles. Written by the group’s singer-guitarist Liz Stokes, it is about the way love turns you into a kind of expert, a specialist in one particular relationship. And it asks - with some poignancy - what does one do with all that expertise, an expertise that can take up entire roomfuls of memory, when that love comes to an end?
Though imbued with Liz Stokes’ unique wit and charm, the sentiment is universal. And yet there’s something about her delivery - beyond even her distinct New Zealand accent - that is not quite the way an American or an English singer would approach this type of song. It’s not that she doesn’t commit, or believe what she is singing, or sound the notes with bell-like clarity. She sings as though it hasn’t occurred to her how far those notes might travel, or if they are even going to be heard at all. It is as if the record has granted us access to a song that is playing only inside the singer’s head. It’s a rare quality, a particular intimacy, yet it feels familiar and I wondered what it reminds me of. Then I realised. It reminds me of Pixie Williams.
Pop may be inherently urban; and yet, in an echo of the cultural nationalists, one of this country’s most enduring pop songs did take its inspiration from the land.
In 2001, members of APRA, the copyright association representing New Zealand songwriters, were polled to see what they thought was the best song in the organisation’s 75-year history. The songwriters chose ‘Nature’, originally recorded by Hutt Valley group The Fourmyula.
It was written one sunny morning in the late Sixties by the group’s nineteen-year-old keyboard player Wayne Mason, as he sat on the front porch of his mother’s house strumming an acoustic guitar.
By the time of the APRA poll, the song had enjoyed a long and celebrated life. First recorded in 1969, just before the Fourmyula left New Zealand for a crack at the British pop market, it had been picked up by local radio and, in the group’s absence, reached number one on the national record chart. That year it won Wayne Mason the Silver Scroll, APRA’s annual songwriter’s award (which this year was deservedly won by The Beths for ‘Expert In A Dying Field’.)
Twelve years later it was a hit all over again in a super-charged electric version by the Mutton Birds. In 2002 the Fourmyula version became the opening track on Nature’s Best, a best-selling compilation based on the APRA poll. Mason then re-recorded the song for his solo album Same Boy, while Margaret Urlich made it the title track of her album, Second Nature. And people have continued to perform and record the song in all manner of versions.
If there is a reason for ‘Nature’’s half-century status as a national musical treasure - beyond its evergreen melody - it might be in the way it seems to amplify certain stories we tell about ourselves: stories about the land and our relationship to it.
The start of the song finds the singer distractedly picking his way through fallen leaves. The bass line descending under a minor chord conveys something of his unsettled mood. Thoughts circle repetitively, making his head feel like it is bursting.
As the singer walks on his mood begins to change. With each step his senses sharpen and he become more aware of the natural world that surrounds him. He hears the voices of the trees, wind and birds - Aotearoa’s first singers; the same sounds that inspired the pre-colonial makers of taonga puoro - and there he starts to find solace. He might be imitating those natural voices when he departs from known language to deliver the song’s central hook, a bright major key chorus of ‘doo doo doo, dee dee dee’s, at the end of which he offers the incantation: ‘nature, enter me’. It is as though he is willing himself to become one with nature, or rather calling on nature to become one with him.
Nature was very much in the public mind the year ‘Nature’ was first released. For Mason’s generation, ’getting back to nature’ was one of the proposed solutions to a social and spiritual malaise. This was the era of The Generation Gap, The Vietnam War, The Bomb. Groups of young people were starting to dream of a simpler, rural life, living in harmony with the environment, far from the war, the capitalist system, the rat race. Foundations were being laid for the first hippie commune.
But this renewed appreciation of nature was not confined to the counterculture. The Save Manapouri campaign had just been launched to protest the proposed damming of the beautiful southern lake and flooding of thousands of hectares of rainforest to produce hydro electricity; the first time an environmental issue had become the focus of public protest and national debate.
Another song would come to be far more closely associated with the campaign, in spite of being written for an entirely different purpose. John Hanlon was working as an advertising copywriter when he composed ‘Damn the Dam’ to promote a campaign sponsored by the New Zealand Fibreglass company, manufacturers of Pink Batts, to make insulation compulsory in new homes.
In an unusually soft-sell approach, the two-minute jingle didn’t push the product but rather planted the idea, almost subliminally, that home insulation went hand in hand with environmental awareness. The song became popular in its own right, was released as a single, and with its chorus of ‘Damn the dam said the fantail…’ultimately became the de facto anthem of the Manapouri dam opponents.
‘Nature’ was never used in any advertising campaign, but in a sense it became its own campaign. It helped popularise an idea of oneness with the natural world that has become part of a perceived national identity, even if that identity has equally been constructed through commercial slogans like ‘Clean Green New Zealand’ and ‘100 % Pure’, and continues to be made a mockery of by greenhouse gas emissions, polluted waterways and endless roading projects.
Still, the song marked a turning point - certainly in terms of Pākehā relationships with the land, which historically had been very different from those of Maori.
19th century Pākehā ballads, celebrating the lives of gold and gum diggers, typically depicted the relationship between man and nature as a battleground. There is certainly no sense in a folk ballad like ‘The Digger’s Farewell’ of nature’s beauty or spiritual worth. With its ‘trackless lands of wet and cold’, the land is portrayed only as an adversary, to be fought and endured until it gives up its precious resources.
Listening for the sound of Aotearoa, songs can tell us something about the people, their different relationships to this place, and to each other.
But the way we, as listeners, respond to those songs, and the people who sing them, can tell us something too.
In their song ‘Melting Pot’, the English songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway propose a simple solution to racial conflict. Take a giant industrial vat, fill it with body parts of assorted ethnic origin, simmer for a century, and presto, ‘you’ve got a recipe for a get-along scene … coffee-coloured people by the score!’
The utopian idea of a homogenous monoculture, crudely characterised in the lyric, had been around for a while by the time the multi-racial British band Blue Mink made the first recording of ‘Melting Pot’ in 1969.
The record was a big hit in half a dozen countries, and nowhere was it bigger than in New Zealand where it reached number two in early 1970.
For a long time it hadn’t been too hard for Pākehā to convince themselves that such a monoculture was inevitable and that everyone was happy about it. Before World War Two, Māori society had been mostly rural and somewhat separate from that of the urban Pākehā. The mantra that New Zealand had the ‘best race relations in the world’ was regularly intoned by politicians and recycled in national media. But by the early 60s almost three-quarters of the Māori population were living in urban areas, and disparities between the economic status of Māori and Pākehā were now staring government in the face.
Over the next two decades the widening gap in employment and income, the rise of activist groups such as Ngā Tamatoa; the Māori Land March of 1975, the Bastion Point occupation and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal all indicated that ‘a great big melting pot’ was going to be neither the reality nor the answer.
Still the song didn’t go away.
Nearly twenty years after Blue Mink’s original hit, ‘Melting Pot’ was a hit in New Zealand once again, this time in a local cover version by When the Cat’s Away.
Formed and fronted by five powerful women singers as a riposte to a male-dominated and sexist music industry, the Cats’ repertoire comprised mostly of cover songs that audiences recognised. ‘Melting Pot’ was one of these old favourites and, when they released it as a single, it rapidly rose to number one.
What did New Zealanders like about it so much that the song was even more successful on this second orbit, when its recipe for social reform was so clearly out of date?
For some, familiarity was enough. It pushed the nostalgia button, which in most humans is wired to override normal critical functions.
But for others, including those who might not have heard the song first time around, its doubtful prescription was overridden by the performance itself: five New Zealand women of Pākehā Māori, and Cook Island descent, all vocal virtuosi, demonstrating their musical unity in a blend that was more powerful than the song’s generalised plea for racial harmony. The song itself might be silly, but there was some ideal represented in the performance that a lot of New Zealanders responded to. Whatever the conflicts and upheavals of the previous two decades it at least sounded as if things were going to be alright.
But there have been homegrown hits that speak more eloquently and ultimately make more sense.
Dave Dobbyn was inspired to write ‘Welcome Home’ by several incidents that had drawn attention to racial prejudice in New Zealand society. One was the case of Ahmed Zaoui, a refugee from Algeria who was imprisoned as a suspected terrorist.
The song doesn’t make specific mention of the Zaoui case but rather universalises the sentiment, hence its suitability for any number of occasions. In 2006 Dobbyn sang it at the funeral of former Prime Minister David Lange, and again in 2019 at the Aroha Nui concert in Christchurch in the wake of the mosque terror attacks.
It does have its ‘Melting Pot’ moments. There are the lines ‘it’s black and it’s white and it’s wild / all the colours are one’. Yet the particularity of Aotearoa is recognised in the picture of a land ‘out here on the edge’ and ‘a cloud the full length of these isles’ - while images like the ‘woman with her hands trembling’ singing 'with a mountain's memory', and the refrain ‘Haere Mai’, clearly evoke the powhiri, the Māori welcome.
It’s a song I’d have loved my grandmother to have heard. It’s not Rilke, or Lilburn, but I would not have needed to explain to her what makes it great.
These days Dave Dobbyn is a pillar of the establishment, complete with knighthood. And yet he started out as a textbook outsider. Diminutive, shy, freckly, ginger-haired and Catholic, he was the kid who was the target for school bullies, his guitar and a sense of humour his only defence against a hostile world. In more recent years, as a teetotal born-again Christian in a secular society with a high tolerance for alcohol, you could say he remains in a minority, albeit of a different kind.
But there are other songwriters, and songs, that I suspect are never going to be co-opted into any kind of patriotic pageantry.
Amy Renata, released her first album Venus is Home in 2022 under the alias Erny Belle. If you wanted to put her in a genre you might file her under Māori Country Gothic, but she would be pretty much the sole artist in the category.
She locates the album’s title song in a small town in the far north which she shows us around, almost as a prose writer would. In the first verse we see the creek, the Four Square, the milk, bread and packet of Rothmans that the singer goes out barefoot to buy. But the song isn’t really about those physical things. It’s about shame, and the feeling that a whole town is watching and judging. And in the end it’s a love song to the grandmother, the nana, who helps her through a tough emotional time.
Some of her songs are more urban. Soon after the album came out I had the opportunity to interview Erny (or Aimee) at an event in the Tamaki Makaurau Writers Festival. Our session was in a top-floor studio overlooking Karangahape Road, in the heart of Auckland’s red light district. Sex and drugs were no doubt on sale a literal stone’s throw from where we sat. I asked her about her songs, including one called ‘Hell Hole’, and about what I heard as their particular New Zealand-ness.
‘It feels like here’, I said, meaning contemporary New Zealand. ‘It is here,’ she replied, gesturing towards the street outside. That song ‘Hell Hole’ is about K Road.’
And then there’s Sven Olsen’s Brutal Canadian Love Saga.
That’s the misleading name of the Wellington-based band - actually more like a small orchestra, encompassing choir and strings along with the usual rock’n’roll artillery - led by singer and songwriter Nigel Beckford. There’s no one in the band named Sven Olsen, and nor are any of them Canadian.
And love saga?
Their music documents Beckford’s lifelong fascination - actually, what the hell, let’s call it love - for what takes place on the margins of this society; the misadventures, romantic and otherwise, of the kind of New Zealanders whose names are unlikely to appear in the newspapers unless there has been an accident, or a crime. Shoplifters, stair dancers, rogue arborists, fake building inspectors… he pays tribute to them all with wistful, tuneful melodies.
This is the land of Fairhall River claret, in a cask. An eternal 1980s, haunted by the ghosts of teenage hoodlums and young boy racers, and grown men who live with their mothers and find themselves, on a Friday morning, shopping for lawnmowers while recovering from an adventure the previous night that had begun with the fateful words ‘Try this Nige, you’re only 26 once’. (The title of that particular song is ‘Lawn Mower Shopping on Drugs’).
It’s not that Beckford sets out to glamorise these figures, nor does he put up any moral arguments on their behalf. He doesn’t even dignify them as such. It’s enough that he sees them, where others surveying this country’s landscape might not even notice that they exist. To Beckford they are the real New Zealand.
My favourite of all his songs is ‘Kron of Hastings’ - based on the true story of graffiti artist Blair Kitchin, who left his tag name Kron in almost 500 places in the Bay of Plenty township, before being hunted down and brought to justice by a local environmental enhancement officer. In real life Kron was sentenced to fourteen months in jail and fined $15,000. But in the song Beckford reverses the outcome and, after several choruses that celebrate his achievements in the manner of a stadium rock anthem, Kron is finally praised as a local hero, hugged by the magistrate, and the town has a giant spray erected in his honour.
The question of who we are is one singers and songwriters have been addressing, consciously and unconsciously, for as long as anyone has lived on these islands.
In Georgi Gospodinov’s brilliant recent novel Time Shelter, there’s the description of a nation as ‘a group of people who have agreed to jointly remember and forget the same things’.
But in this country, how much are our memories in agreement?
The tiny selection of pop records I’ve focussed on today offers just a handful of possible answers.
Some, like Sven Olsen’s, dress those answers in irony and black humour.
Others are deadly serious - like the first-generation Somali-New Zealand rapper Mo Muse, who released this track in 2019.
Mo Muse is a son of Somalian refugees, who came to New Zealand in 1995 at two years old, and wrote ‘Friday’ in the immediate wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks. And not only are some of the people he points a finger at in his lyric still sadly relevant to discussions about racism in this country, but the fears and aspirations he gives voice to already existed long before the horror that inspired his song.
At the end of the Second World War, my grandparents, Maria and John, who came here to escape persecution in Germany, were distressed to read an editorial in their local newspaper The Dominion, expressing a view that was pervasive at the time. The editor wrote: ‘If a man is given shelter during a storm it is surely not vindictive - nor is it unreasonable - to expect him to go home when the storm is over.”
Maria was moved to put her response to a parliamentary committee. She said: ‘We have not come to ask for petty advantages and small conveniences. We are asking - and we know it well - for the greatest privilege you have to bestow: that of equality. It happens to be the one privilege that makes life worth living … [She went on]: ‘We do not ask for charity. We ask for understanding, generosity, and kindness’.
It’s a long speech and is reproduced in its entirety in Monica Tempian’s book about Maria Dronke, Glimpses of an Acting Life.
But I fear I have pivoted away from pop music.
So I’ll leave you with just one more current pop artist whose work is quintessentially of this place and has been a source of joy and hope for me lately, when these things have seemed in short supply.
Em-Haley Walker is an Ōtautahi-born, Tamaki Makaurau-based musician, who a few years ago began releasing blistering, feminist, electro-pop records under the name of Theia. Here’s a sample from a recent EP.
I hear several layers of subversion going on there, with the kind of brightly functional dance beat commonly associated with boy bands and girl groups, as she sings - almost in the voice of a Barbie character but with clear political intent - ‘let me out of this dollhouse’.
But Em-Haley Walker has another identity as well, and makes quite a different kind of music under the name Te Kaahu.
The way she explains it, she wanted to create something her aunties could enjoy, without the politics and the curse-words; something reminiscent of the music they listened to, and that she heard when she was around them, growing up. So she created a beautiful collection of waiata, all in te reo, that celebrate the land, the elements, Māori prophecy, and family. ‘Rangirara’ is the name of Walker’s kui, her grandmother, and the song is dedicated to her, but also draws on the meaning of the word ‘rangirara’: ‘beyond the heavens’.
In a way, her music seems to embody the whakatauki ‘Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua: ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past’.
It’s a beautiful record, one that could only come from here and now. She worked on it with the multi-instrumentalist and producer Jol Mulholland. And yet, while the multilayering of voices and atmospheric soundscape is unmistakably of today, the feel of the performance - not to mention the touches of steel guitar, played by Mulholland - can’t help but conjure for me the image of a spinning Tanza label.