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No. 13 (December 1955)
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Baroness von TRAPP
tells
Te Ao Hou her ideas on
Maori Art in the Modern World

The visit of Baroness von Trapp to New Zealand has given some healthy encouragement to a number of Maori dance groups. It was most stimulating to see a world-famous musical group such as the Trapp Family Singers take a deep interest in Maori dance and song. For the Trapp singers were not after ordinary musical entertainment; it was something higher they were seeking, and found in Maori music. Their programme in New Zealand were partly folk music and dances from various countries and partly religious and classical music. They only used voices with recorders (a kind of flute) and virginals (an eighteenth century instrument now superseded by the piano). The result was a very pure sound which enhanced the effect of the highly cultured voices.

It seemed unusual that the family singers, who make such a solemn group on the stage, could be a great national success in the land of the Hollywood films. And according to Baroness Trapp's memoirs, published recently, it was not easy to get established. The agents were very impressed with the singing, but they doubted that the Trapp family could ever become very popular, but finally one agent told the Baroness what the trouble was: The group had no sex appeal, could the girls wear shorter frocks, more rouge?

“No, we cannot,” said the Baroness.

The Baroness who at that time knew little English could not explain herself further, could not explain why her singing had nothing to do with short dresses and sex appeal. All she could say was ‘I thought America was a free country’ and walked out.

But this had an electric effect on the agent. The story does not tell whether the Baroness disturbed his American patriotism or impressed him with the firm foundations of her musical and religious convictions, but before she could get into the lift he called her back into his office and so the Trapp Family Singers' success began.

A good deal of their time in New Zealand was spent with Maori dancers. Their interest went much deeper than the conventional tourists' entertainment. In Rotorua, Hastings, Wellington and elsewhere the family developed real friendship with members of Maori dance groups, and when these groups showed their traditional dances, the Trapp family responded by giving a performance of their own as they did in the Ngati Poneke Hall.

They came not only to be entertained but also to learn. Baroness von Trapp thinks that the poi dance is too beautiful to be confined to New Zealand; she intends to introduce it in her summer

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music school in the United States. The Trapp family in a short time absorbed more of the essentials of Maori culture than most New Zealanders have managed in a lifetime. What did Maori culture have to offer people with a background like the Trapps?

Picture icon

Charles Hale

The Modern World Needs Maori Culture

The Baroness explained in an interview to Te Ao Hou that she had been most impressed to see that every Maori she met was an artist. “Hardly any are tone deaf; almost all have a vivid and correct sense of colour,” she said.

The ancient Maori culture was unique not only in its dances but also because of the beauty of the cloaks, the greenstone axes, and the intricate patterns of Maori art. These things are valuable still for behind them is a harmony unknown to modern man. “Everyone participated in the singing and dancing and the making of beautiful objects; it was a part of everyday life; it helped to heal the pains of living and allowed harmony to exist in the soul troubled with chaos. The old Maori had time and could afford to make intricate patterns. The modern idea of time,” said the Baroness, “is a curse to many.”

Te Ao Hou asked whether she thought this spirit could survive in a modern civilisation. Her answer was that, on the contrary, civilisation could not survive without it. A truly civilised life had to return to the harmony of song, and the beauty of handmade objects. The modern world needed these values of Maori culture as much as the Maoris needed other European values. Right through her visit, therefore, the Baroness tried to learn from the Maoris and in her opinion pakeha New Zealanders should do the same. “Everyone in New Zealand should be persuaded to learn Maori and to be proud of knowing it; everyone should know how a korowai is woven and find enchantment in Maori music”.

However, the Baroness thought present-day Maori culture had been ‘defiled’ and should be cleansed from the wrong influences that had been working on it. American jazz was one of these. The piano kills Maori singing, particularly because the pianos used are so often out of tune. The Baroness was very impressed by a few pateres she heard and thought far more time should be given to the ancient songs rather than the modern action song. They were more suited to the Maori style of singing. She was not in favour of accompaniment with modern instruments, but if there had to be accompaniment, she thought the best and purest would be the recorder.

Conscious efforts should be made to improve quality in all the arts and crafts. The spirit could only be recaptured if the young people had more respect and regard for their elders; the old people were still there, but one had to be fast to absorb their knowledge before they were gone.

Records of high quality should always be at the disposal of musical groups and be played and played again.

The Baroness considered the singing at Hukarere and St. Joseph's College among the best she had heard here.

Among Maori art forms, the poi dance was one other countries should study and learn from. As a means to bringing poise and harmony to the personality, the poi was of unique value. Particularly for those who were nervous or depressed the poi would have a powerful healing effect and that alone would merit its introduction abroad. If you dance the poi, said the Baroness, ‘you have no time to think about yourselves.’

The family's visit undoubtedly benefited Maori music and dancing. There were even a few brave men who bought recorders but Te Ao Hou was saddened to see them revert to the trombone after a few attempts. The effect of the recorders was so good as to suggest that a serious attempt to learn to play them (Adult Education has special tutors for this job) might have wonderful results.

Hearing the Trapp family in some of the Maori halls was an unforgettable experience especially as they sang in all simplicity and created a sense of fellowship as both they and their hosts sang in their own way to make life, as the Baroness would put it, more ‘harmonious’.

E.S.