NZIFF must-see: Poi E: The Story of Our Song
It was the song that stirred feelings of pride in Maori hearts and still gets the toes tapping and hips swinging 30 years on.
Above: Patea Maori club.
Six months or a year after the purple Kingswood tried to run him down, Tearepa Kahi was in the lounge. It was 1984. “I was six. Six? Nah, I was seven.” He was just mucking around. “I remember I heard it before I saw it. Maori, on TV? A song, in Maori, on TV? The thing I really remember is the young bare-chested boy in the piupiu, and the breakdancer on top of the waka.” He was that boy. He wanted to be that dancer.
After that, every Saturday, he’d be sitting there at 6.30pm, waiting for Poi E on RTR Countdown. “No YouTube back then. You had to sit through that whole half-hour, just for that three-minute glimpse. We all did, all of us.”
The year’s number-one hit, in Maori, in 1984. World-changing? Actually, yeah. There had been that purple Kingswood.
“This does not exemplify my Christchurch life; it was an awesome, warm environment. Sports, Christchurch School of Music every Saturday after rugby…awesome. But this one time in Papanui. Purple Kingswood. Crossing the road, this purple Kingswood comes right at me. And then, ‘Get off the road, ni**er.’ Big megaphone with speakers, this big audio sound from under the car. If I see a Kingswood today my radar still goes off. I’d never heard that word before. I didn’t know what it meant. But when I went home I was shaking, and I didn’t know why I was shaking.”
“I remember how we used to walk down the street. It changed after Poi E. We were walking higher.”
Imagine Poi E climbing the charts, not long after. Pakeha kids dancing to a Maori song. “Not too many brown faces in Christchurch. Felt like we knew all of them,” Kahi says. “I remember how we used to walk down the street… it changed after Poi E. We were walking higher. Steps were longer, back was straight, everything was a bit more funky.”
Not quite three decades later, in a Te Atatu cafe with a couple of friends. One of them mentions that Poi E’s 30th anniversary is coming up. The lights go on. Kahi had just come off directing the music-centred drama Mt Zion, the biggest local hit of 2013. “My Dad was a muso. Music and stories, that’s always been me.” He left that cafe knowing the story of Poi E was next up.
Or maybe not. “It was immediately clear to me that this was a living story with many parts. Not the sort you can just write up, propose to the film commission and then act as if you have a right to tell it.”
View the official trailer:
He went down to Taranaki looking for the blessing of songwriter Dalvanius Prime’s whanau in Hawera, and of the Patea Maori Club, who sing in the video. “Lot of tikanga aspects to that. It was its own process; they had to get to know me. You know. Who are you to tell this story? And where are you from? And why do you want to tell this story? And what makes you think you can?”
When he found out the film was the opening-night selection of the New Zealand International Film Festival, Kahi “probably did a couple of cartwheels and a breakdance. Rung up the wife. It was a good moment.”
“Dalvanius always said we need to tell the stories of our heroes. So I made the story of my heroes. This is a film for the whole wide New Zealand community about a bunch of heroes who did something amazing, back in the day.”