A Great New Zealander —
INIA TE WIATA
Since his untimely death, many fine tributes have been paid to Inia te Wiata, a New Zealander possessed of great natural gifts, who, by sheer merit, became a leading figure in the world of music. It was my good fortune to see a good deal of Inia during my time in London and the more I saw of him, the more I came to appreciate his many fine qualities. His singing was magnificent but his had been no easy road to the top. When discussing his earlier days in London, from 1948 onwards, he would speak of his considerable efforts to earn enough money
Gradually, engagements in the world of entertainment came his way and then in ‘Most Happy Fella’ at the Garrick Theatre he had a part that really accelerated his progress. There was something appropriate about the name of that show, for if there was ever a ‘happy fella’ it was Inia; his customary cheery greeting and his deep infectious laugh very definitely conveyed the impression of happiness. What a voice he had! I recall in 1958, a small function at the old New Zealand House in the Strand, where some staff member, returning to New Zealand, was being farewelled by twenty or thirty colleagues and, at the right moment, Inia led the singing of ‘Now is the Hour’. It was my first real experience of the quality of Inia's voice and, as I stood next to him while the glorious notes poured forth, I had the feeling that the whole man was vibrating, so great was the power within him. It was very moving and deeply impressive.
When the present New Zealand House
was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1963, Inia took part in the ceremony, singing ‘God Defend New Zealand’ in his usual superlative fashion. From then on I saw more of him for we often used to sit together at lunch in the cafeteria. He was a splendid companion, a good conversationalist, and the talk was usually concerned with New Zealand. He had a great knowledge of Maori lore and customs, also a deep love of the bush-clad hills, the rivers and the beaches of New Zealand. His sense of humour was always near the surface and many of his stories relating to Maori history were pleasantly amusing, as well as informative and stimulating. He used to speak of his eventual return to New Zealand, of his hope to settle somewhere north of Auckland, with the sea, the river and the bush all close to him, allowing him to enjoy the relaxation he had so richly earned. Happy plans that, sadly, were not to be fulfilled.
Another of Inia's talents was displayed when, in the basement of New Zealand House, he started work on the heroic project of carving five very large totara logs, each some ten feet in length by four or five feet in diameter. The careful drawing from which he worked gave an idea of the magnitude of the task and an indication of his desire to blend traditional Maori carving with something a shade more modern. As the chips fell and the design grew, his skill was clearly demonstrated. Several years of work were involved, for he could carve only between professional engagements, but he made use of every opportunity to hasten the completion of the ‘Pouihi’. Here, again unfortunately, the plan was tragically interrupted.
With my time in London drawing to a close, I had several farewell functions to attend. One was a luncheon given by the Worshipful Company of Butchers, one of the very old Livery Companies of London, with records dating back to the year 1100 A.D. The Butchers Company has a magnificant building, with a most impressive Dining Hall, and the sight of the tables set out with splendid crystal and silver for a formal occasion is one to be remembered. The
Master and Members of the Company had been very kind to me during my years in London, so, naturally, I wished to give them some token by way of thanks for all the hospitality I had received. The problem was what to give, for the Company had so much of everything, all of the best quality. As I reached New Zealand House one morning. I looked in to see Inia working in the basement. He was not, however, working as usual on one of his logs, but had a piece of totara some three feet long by ten inches square, at which he was whittling. He said something about ‘a small job’ when I made an inquiry but didn't enlighten me beyond that. A few days later I knew more about it.
Inia had heard of my problem as regards a suitable presentation to the Butchers Company, had conceived the idea and executed the design in less than ten days, making a beautiful feather-box, a ‘wakahuia’, out of the piece of totara that I had seen him handling. It was an outstanding piece of work, with paua-shell eyes in the heads at either end, with a heavy, close-fitting lid, and with the whole exterior carved in symbolic designs, some Raukawa and some East Coast. Suitably stained it was a very handsome and unique piece of work, a credit to the artist who gave it form. A small silver plate was added, indicating that it was presented to the Butchers Company by me on my departure from London, as a token of appreciation and goodwill. In handing it over at the luncheon, I explained just what it was, how the chiefs used to keep prized possessions in such boxes and just how it came about that Inia had made it. The Members of the Butchers Company were so impressed that they later added another silver plate, on which was engraved, ‘Carved by Inia te Wiata, New Zealand Opera Singer’. They also invited Inia and his wife along to their next Ladies' Night, when they were able to tell him how greatly they admired his work.
It was with a gloomy sense of foreboding that I heard of Inia's final illness. He was so vital a person that it was hard to imagine him being stricken, but no one is immortal and, at last, the call came. I feel the world is a little better for having had Inia in it during his all-too-short span; he has gone but his memory and influence will live on. A man of great gifts, who radiated happiness, he brought credit, not only to himself, but to New Zealand and its people, Maori and Pakeha alike. It was a privilege to have been accepted by him as a friend.
Sir Thomas Macdonald, now living at Waikanae was New Zealand's High Commissioner in London from 1961 to 1968.
Shining CuckooIt comes the
On tired wing,
Calls out across
Whio, it sings,
Come come come come
Haere haere haere haere
I sing for the planting
Of the kumara.
Dig and hoe, Whio,
Haere haere haere haere