Loss of Popular Musician
by Bert Petersen
The death of Epi Shalfoon last May was certainly a great blow to dance music throughout the country, and especially in Auckland. His funeral saw the largest gathering of musicians I have ever attended.
His life, remarkable in many ways, ended in the midst of the music to which it had been dedicated. He collapsed while dancing with his daughter, Reo.
How did Epi Shalfoon, born in Opotiki in 1904 of a Maori mother and a Syrian father, became the most popular figure in the history of dance music in Auckland?
Epi's full name was Gareeb Stephen Shalfoon. Gareeb was given the Maori pronounciation of Karepi, later abbreviated to Epi. His mother, whose maiden name was Mary Hopa. is still alive in Opotiki to-day.
Epi had his early education at the Opotiki Convent School, and later went on to Auckland Grammar School for three years' secondary education.
He started his first dance band, “The Melody Boys,” in Opotiki, in 1924. The band, in which Epi played the piano, ‘clicked’ immediately with the dancing public.
He later changed to saxophone, and this was to be his principal instrument in the years to follow.
In 1928 he moved to Rotorua, opening a music store there called ‘Melody House’, and it was typical of Epi that instead of advertising that his store was opposite the Post Office, he announced that the Post Office was opposite Melody House.
His band, still the ‘Melody Boys’, was an instantaneous success in Rotorua, being regularly featured at the Majestic Ballroom. The band played at all the biggest functions in the surrounding districts, even travelling as far north as Hamilton and Te Aroha, and in 1930 they received their first Auckland engagement.
Around this time Epi made three movie shorts, accompanying vocalists Ano Hato and Dean Wharetini.
It was with this same band that Epi Shalfoon broke into the musical life of Auckland, where he settled in 1934. Here his band played regularly every Saturday night at the Crystal Palace ballroom to packed houses, until his death earlier this year. Such a nineteen-year term is an all-time record for Auckland.
On his arrival, Epi accepted a post with Atwater's Music House, where he served successfully until, some years later, he joined the Mutual Life and Citizens Insurance Co., where his engaging personality eventually made him a most successful salesman.
In the meantime he expanded his musical activities. His band was featured from IZB, at the ‘Musicians' Ball’; and he made recordings—in fact did everything and played everywhere with what was probably the most popular band in the country.
An innovation that Epi introduced to Auckland was his dance band bureau (eight bands available) providing orchestras for all manner of functions, a service successfully maintained for many years.
He was a great battler for the musicians' union, serving on the executive committee for many years, and being appointed on several occasions as delegate to the national conference.
Epi's daughter Reo sings with his band. His brother Tony, who plays alto-saxophone and
was associated with Epi in many of his early successes, has for many years led his own band, which has also proved a popular one.
Epi made his friends in the musical world not only with his unequalled personality, but with his generosity and kindness to all, notably to young musicians.
He would permit young players keen to break into the music game to play a number or an extra with his band, and later would come the time when he would say: ‘Do you think you could play through a whole night's programme now?’ The youngster's excited ‘Yes!’ would produce a kindly ‘Okay, young fellow, Saturday night at eight’. Many Auckland players had their first ‘break’ in this way; a list of those who played in Epi's band at one time or another would fill a book.
A more unobtrusive role was Epi's when some musician was ‘up against it’. He would find or make jobs in some such cases, or put his hand in his pocket to help them through.
Another side of his nature is revealed in his loyalty to his players. On one occasion, when an employer and one of his players quarrelled, the employer demanded instant dismissal. It was an important job on regular contract, but Epi replied without hesitation: ‘If he goes, we all go with him’. They stayed.
I find it difficult to say why Epi was so amazingly popular. He had a very pleasing appearance and was a great showman, although not a ‘show-off’. A very modest man, he claimed no special talent or ability. He was extremely amusing company. It was impossible not to enjoy every minute of the time spent with him, although it is hard to say why.
As to the success of his band, this has been explained by one reason or another, but my opinion is that it was all Epi.
Some years ago, a writer in the Auckland ‘Observer’ put it down to the fact that no music was used, the musicians playing by ear, or ‘lugging’, as it is professionally called. He suggested that the players, having no scores to absorb or distract them, were left free to concentrate on the rhythm of the music.
Quite a reasonable theory, but many other bands do the same without comparable success, and as Epi said himself to me: ‘My band is not the best band in town by a long way, but it's the most popular band.’
There I think is the answer. It was a good band, played popular music, and had its supreme asset in Epi's personality.
Some young readers would no doubt like to follow in Epi's footsteps and achieve fame and fortune in the same way.
So would I, and if I knew how to do it, I would try it myself.
MARAE IMPROVEMENTS SUBSIDISED
Subsidies to tribal committees, under the M.S.E.A. Act, totalled £23,861 over the twelve months ended last March, according to the annual report of the Department of Maori Affairs. Among the projects subsidized were: a dining-hall at Waiohau (Mahurehure Tribal Committee, Waiariki, £1,130); rebuilding of a community centre and memorial dining-hall at Otuwhare, erection of a dining-hall at Maraenui and a memorial meeting-house at Omaio (Apanui Mutu Tribal Committee, Waiariki, altogether £2,575); new meeting-house at Waihi Pa, Tokaanu (Turamakina Tribal Committee, Aotea, £3,488); water supply and drainage scheme at Ratana (Ratana Trust Board, Aotea, £1,282); various marae improvements at Kaiwhaiki, Wanganui River (Kaiwhaiki Tribal Committee, Aotea, £1,064); meeting-house at Waiwhetu (Hutt Valley Tribal Committee, Ikaroa, £3,000); the Pare Hauraki meeting-house at Turangawaewae (Turangawaewae Tribal Committee, Waikato-Maniapoto, £1,500); art work in Hukarere chapel (Hikurangi North Tribal Committee, Tairawhiti, £1,595); completion of hall and dining-room at Rangiahua (Rangiahua Tribal Committee, Tokerau, £652). Some other subsidies for amounts under £1,000 were also paid out.
Allocations to the Land Court Districts were: Waiariki, £7,421; Aotea, £6,330; Ikaroa, £4,500; Waikato-Maniapoto, £2,047; Tokerau, £1,968; Tairawhiti, £1,595. Subsidy funds were largely devoted to the improvement of maraes.
According to the Annual Report of the Maori Affairs Department, Maori housing construction last year was an all-time record, 456 houses being constructed, while loans totalling £1,125,636 were granted. This is the first time the million mark has been exceeded.
Mr J. H. Barber, Director of Maori Housing, when interviewed by Te Ao Hau, said everything was being done to keep up the present rate of construction. He gave a warning, however, that the future of the housing scheme may ultimately depend on people's promptitude in repaying their housing loans. Those lagging behind in their repayments are endangering the chances of others, he said. Let us suppose that arrears for one year should amount to £30,000. This would mean fifteen houses could not be built in that year. Besides, the whole scheme could be endangered by people not honouring their obligations.