The first person I met on Makomako station was the manager. He seemed rather surprised to hear that to-day's leading Maori song-writer was at that moment working in his shearing shed, but at the name Tuini Ngawai he showed recognition. Yes, she was there. But, he added, to see her in the shed, you wouldn't believe she had composed any songs.
Miss Ngawai was just finishing her midday nap on top of one of the wool bales. She looked up when I came in and fixed her very penetrating eyes upon me.
The station manager had been only partly right. The black and blue shearing gang uniform evidently was not his idea of the apparel of a literary lady, but the face looking at me was at once very amused, very serious and remarkably shrewd; it betrayed a consciousness of the hidden depths of the mind that is in general more typical of writers than shearers.
With unusual intensity she set about discovering who this pakeha was who wanted to translate her songs.
We had a long talk about songs and about the way the Maoris to-day are singing them. Like many poets, Miss Ngawai has had words dictated to her by something outside her consciousness, ‘in a dream,’ she says. Arohaina Mai which she regards as her best song, took only a few minutes to compose. She never writes but always dictates the words to a helper.
The Maori people are still wonderful singers, they sing as an entertainment; but actions to-day are often poor due to the words not being understood fully or even at all. Miss Ngawai thinks that teaching action songs in schools will be unrewarding unless the language is also taught.
Miss Ngawai likes the shearing routine; she likes to live for a while with the young people and keep touch with the way they feel.
She had an offer last year to train a party for a film on Maori dancing, but the producer wanted the party to consist of glamorous people. Tuini Ngawai turned it down. She doubted whether these glamorous people could do her action songs properly. Would they lift their eyebrows right up in certain passages?
Composed and Taught
Miss Ngawai belongs to Te Whanauarua Tauperi, a sub-tribe of Ngati Porou.
She wrote her first song—He Nawe Kei Roto—in 1933. It was a conversation piece between two lovers. It was performed informally as an entertainment action song at the opening of To o te Tonga meeting house at Tokomaru Bay. It was for this occasion that she organised one of her earliest haka parties.
Her well-known Hokowhitu-a-Tu party was organised in 1939 to give a final leave farewell to C (Ngati Porou) Co boys at Tokomaru Bay. Her song for that occasion was Arohaina Mai, a melodious composition in which despair is calmed by the peace of God.
Her song, ‘E te Hokowhitu a Tu kia kaha ra’ was written over a two year period. She started it, ran out of inspiration, shelved it and finally completed it in a 3-minute burst. This number was first performed at the hui to honour 2nd Lieut Ngarimu, V.C.
Miss Ngawai was closely associated with Sir Apirana who used her party a great deal for fund raising. But one of the greatest tributes he paid her was when he arranged for her to teach Maori action songs in the East Coast schools. That was soon after the war. He told her that he was getting old and was in a hurry to get the job done. He wanted to stimulate the school children's interest in action songs and therefore the Maori language. For two and a half years Tuini taught action songs, songs and hakas in schools from Hick's Bay to Gisborne. This has left its imprint in the fact that the young adults of to-day throughout that area have almost a uniform style.
Not being able to read music embarrassed Miss Ngawai on one occasion in Auckland just before the war when she was in Walter Smith's Maori choir which used to broadcast over IZB. When she first joined the choir she was given a big music book. Miss Ngawai sat firmly behind
After that she learned by listening.
Miss Ngawai is often asked by other tribes to teach them action songs. She will teach them her songs that are appropriate, but she will not teach them their own songs concerning their histories as she feels this would be quite wrong. She notices though that these groups usually revert to their own styles after her teaching has finished and this disappoints her.
Although Miss Ngawai has a knowledge of paos and pateres she does not teach them. She believes that because of their tapu nature they cannot be taught along with action songs, but need to be taught in specially consecrated practices.
Her musical gifts are extensive and varied. She has a dance band and has taught herself a band-load of instruments; starting off on the mouth organ and ukulele and following these up with jews harp, koauau, saxophone, piano, drums, violin and others.
Words, Music and Action
Tuini Ngawai's complete works comprise over two hundred songs. Many have a subject matter that occurs in most poetry—love, death, war, the peace of God. Others are songs of everyday life. Particularly in her shearing songs Miss Ngawai has given lively and accomplished pictures of New Zealand. Many songs again are on subjects peculiarly Maori such as the numerous welcome songs.
In the main, she bases her style of action songs on the tradition made by Sir Apirana Ngata, Paraire Tomoana and others who developed the
modern action song in the beginning of this century. With so few of these songs published it is hard to study just what Tuini Ngawai's own contribution was.
Sir Apirana greatly admired her work. Her language is always pure, economical, forceful and precise. The haunting reminiscences of ancient words and ideas often provide a peculiar depth. They are, in Tuini Ngawai's work, never mere repetitions of older chants, but are given a new life in her muscular modern language.
She also excells in the blending of words, music and action. As she composes she has all the three elements in mind. Miss Ngawai sometimes composes her own music (as in Karangatia Ra and E Nga Rangatahi, printed in this issue) but more often uses existing melodies. She rarely changes these melodies and ingeniously fits her words to the existing music. Very often the words are incomplete without the actions. This is not because the poet could not find more expressive words, but because the actions adequately convey the feeling.
A strong individual character runs through all the songs and it is no accident that her party was called ‘Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu’. A war-like strength is evident everywhere; the attitude to pain and misfortune is perhaps peculiarly Maori, certainly different from most European poetry—pain is not described, analysed or escaped from but fought like an enemy.
Does the use of popular hits show lack of originality? If one compares the original song ‘Love Walked In’ with ‘Arohaina Mai,’ the spirit is entirely changed although the tune is still about the same. Obviously, Tuini Ngawai only uses the popular hit because it suits her purpose, not because she is forced to lean on it.
The people love musical hits and what the people already love is made the basis for an artistic production. Miss Ngawai does not compose for the chosen few but for her own people in Tokomaru Bay, as she finds them.
After my visit to Makomako we travelled back together on the shearer's truck. In the middle sat Tuini singing. Twenty voices joined in with gusto. Someone offered her a guitar but she turned it down. She just continued singing. With the next song she had changed her mind, she now wanted the guitar and took it. Strumming this guitar, she was completely part of her people; as they were singing her songs she could see how they experienced them, what feelings were stirred.
After thousands of years of civilisation European poets are still dreaming of rediscovering this lost unity with the people.