The “Poi E” effect

Yes, “Poi E” is back in the news, back in our ears, back in the charts, and back on screen in more creative and innovative ways than ever before – this time in the cinema and on You-tube. Dalvanius Prime & Ngoingoi Pewhairangi created a legacy whose message is proving to be both timeless and universal.

Timeless, because after more than a generation we’re still excited about hearing it, we’re obviously excited about buying it, and so we keep playing it. “Poi E” is clearly responding positively to the process of natural selection. And universal, because there’s a critical element within the “Poi E” message which extends well beyond Maori culture.

Regardless of who we are, where we come from, what language we speak, our level of education, financial status or occupation, we all belong in greater or lesser degree to a family.  Every last one of us has a set of kinship connections through which we inherit or adopt a family culture.  Granted, some family cultures are better expressed than others; some are well documented, others hardly at all; some are richly endowed in anecdote, others remain devoid of oral culture. If Dalvanius & Ngoingoi could achieve what they have with “Poi E”, by packaging the message in such a way that it commands our attention, then surely there’s a lesson in it for the rest of us.

Frequently, I meet people who tell me they’d like to ‘tell their stories’: of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on; of their emigration from the old country; of those who went to war and never came back; of districts and communities no longer visible; of organisations no longer functioning; of buildings still standing but now put to different uses; of schools and churches, of farms and businesses whose daily routines have been modernised beyond recognition; and means of transport only visible as ‘vintage demonstrations’ or static displays in a museum …  and so the strands of story become multi-layered, densely interwoven, and intensely complex.

Often, the next thing these same people say begins with “But … “

“… my family weren’t important people, they were just ordinary folk. Nobody would be interested in anything about them.”

“… I wish I had talked to or recorded ‘so-and-so’ before they died – they knew so much and now it’s all gone.”

“… I don’t know where to begin.”

“… my children don’t seem very interested. They never knew these people.”

“… how could I put together all the information I’ve already got, so that it makes sense?”

There is a growing realisation that the stories are important; that they must be passed down to the next generations. If the current ‘Gen Y’ and their children – the techno kids – are to connect with the stories that are their inheritance, the information must be presented in a format that is at once enticing and accessible. This means, we need to get creative and do it differently: same message, different packaging.

So, you might reasonably ask, “What does this different packaging look like?”

The answer to that question is less straight forward. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula – it isn’t that simple. As with “Poi E”, the packaging must be enticing and the contents accessible. Gen X and Gen Y are utterly deserving of information about who they are as well as an understanding of what it is that they have inherited. However, they are discriminating, discerning and highly selective. How to make the material accessible is up to you; how they go about applying it is up to them. That’s the “Poi E” effect.

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The Meaning of ‘Boy’

In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect: the story line, the location, the actors, the director, the theme and its subplots were all total unknowns; no preconceptions, save the fact that “Boy” is a New Zealand film.  And of that I was abruptly reminded by the opening shot’s unique, quirky, and unmistakeable sound: the Patea Maori Club’s ‘Poi E’. It fairly jolted me upright and to attention.   Ah huh; got it – 1984. Then a road sign comes into focus: welcome to the Whanau-a-Apanui region of eastern Bay of Plenty.  Whoa!  Instantly an iwi kaleidoscope swirls. I think Dalvanius Prime, Patea, South Taranaki – Ngati Ruanui, composer of the ‘Poi E’ music; and his collaborator-cum-mentor, Ngoingoi Pewhairangi, Hick’s Bay, East Coast – Ngati Porou, composer of the ‘Poi E’ lyrics.

So I’m happily transported back to a 1984 New Zealand which, as it happens, I didn’t actually live in. Predictably, I was on my OE doing rather less than predictable things which included, amongst other unpredictables, postgraduate study. It just so happened that the Patea Maori Club were in town – London, that is – on their own kind of OE, a World Tour. We met up, as kiwis do when they’re away from home, and they took me on the ultimate in unpredictable journeys. They embraced my academic enquiries, quietly, with dignity and respect; they shared and instructed so that I couldn’t escape learning and understanding. They and their song, the ground-breaking, history-making, 1984 Number 1 New Zealand hit single, ‘Poi E’, became the subject of my London University Masters degree dissertation.  Neither of us saw it coming – it just happened.

Amongst the enormous amount of learning and understanding I digested was the pervasive influence on Maori youth of the time by the likes of Michael Jackson and breakdance. And sure enough, this same fellow features largely in ‘Boy’ – well, in the film’s dialogue, to be more precise.  He’s ever present, at a multitude of levels. And it’s here that things begin to synchronise …

Just as the ‘Poi E’ music video  – shot in Patea – includes street scenes, so too does Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ vid; the difference being that the former is shot in the reality of daylight, straight up, no tricks or quirks save breakdancer Joe Moana, from Tainui, in the concrete Aotea waka, whereas Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ is dark, menacing, macabre, with all manner of mutating trickery. Just as the ‘Poi E’ music video ends with a full cast on stage performing their poi-cum-action song, so too does ‘Boy’ – but with a difference of course. Yes, it’s still 1984, but ‘Boy’ is here more like ‘Thriller’; breakdance, costuming, lighting – Michael Jackson really has come to town, as promised so many times in the dialogue.

I’m not a film critic, so my reflections on ‘Boy’ are no more than reflections. That said, however, this latest expression of New Zealand film making, directed by Taika Waititi who also takes the lead adult role, must surely invite some lofty accolades. If you’re hell-bent on spoiling the delights of surprise and simply must read a review of ‘Boy’, then here’s where to find one.

Despite my lack of familiarity with the location and setting of ‘Boy’, every scene brims with the familiar. Waititi cleverly offers us a comfortable framework on which we must then hang the less comfortable. Yes, there’s violence, but it’s not ‘Once were Warriors’ graphic. We don’t have the gruesome, gory stuff visually imposed, but we know it’s taken place, nevertheless. Nor are social issues ignored; they’re dealt to as well, often with the subtlety of idiosyncratic humour. Arguably, the film’s greatest strength lies in the script, delicately poised between what needs to be said and what is best said in the silence of well-directed, utterly credible acting.

Almost every possible dramatic contrast drives this film: pathos and humour; fantasy and reality; tragedy and triumph –the latter often expressed in an unexpected twist; surprise and predictability, although even that takes on an unanticipated direction; boy trying to impress girl who’s invariably older, wiser, more knowing and more responsible, across all ages.

Here, ‘Poi E’ meets ‘Thriller’, with just a hint of Billy T’s ‘Came a Hot Friday’ and Jane Campion’s ‘Whale Rider’, although ‘Boy’ has dolphins rather than whales.  For this interdisciplinary academic ‘Boy’ served an entirely unanticipated purpose – to reflect on what we’ve done,  how we’ve done it, why we’ve done it and, most importantly, for whom we’ve done it.

Coda: or should that be a reprise of the opening scene? The Whanau-a-Apanui welcome sign brought to mind another research paper I submitted “…in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the London University masters degree …”. A young, inspiring, talented and enterprising musician by the name of Ngahiwi Apanui graciously gifted his time to share with me the cultural and musical bases of his pop group “Aotearoa”. During the interviews I recorded with him at Victoria University, Wellington in 1985, the voice of a then undergraduate in law added support – these days his proper title is the Honourable Justice Joe Williams.

If you haven’t seen the film, then the word ‘potential’ hasn’t yet acquired its proper meaning.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

7 April 2010