Mana Wāhine

Dear Femineast,

I went to your meeting yesterday and was a bit sad that you didn’t know more about the fabulous women who have made music in Aotearoa for decades.  There are lots of them and they have written a lot of songs that mean a lot to me.  I thought I would share a few with you and hopefully you can explore their work more.  I’ve always liked music from this country.  I started buying it in the 80s when music was hard to get and you had to wait and be patient and save your dollars.  Even back then music was good here.

The woman who comes first for me is Shona Laing.  When I was a teenager she had a come back and released a song called Glad I’m Not a Kennedy.  (It was from an album called South.  It’s a good album but sounds dated now I guess.)  Kennedy was the song that introduced me to her.  It’s a good song.  I know it sounds a bit 80s but the lyrics are good and the melody too.  Can I give you a tip when you listen to older music from this country?  It may sound not as cool.  A bit lame.  It’s not.  It’s from here and it’s special for this reason.  Someone from this place made it.  A person like you.  Or more like you than say an American man.

Anyway, my favourite song by Shona was written when she was Hutt Valley High School in the 1970s and it’s called 1905.  I once read an article about her from 1973 when she said her voice was not as good since she started smoking.  She was a prefect at Hutt High at the time.  Things change.  There is no video for the song, but this is a compilation of her career with the song playing across it.  I have her first LP.  Great stuff.

When I was at secondary school I had a cassette of a Headless Chickens’ album.  It was pretty weird and low budget but I liked it.  The Headless Chickens then went quite commercial and released an album that was a big hit (in this country)  called Body Blow.  It’s good.  Cruise Control is a famous song from that album.  After that came this song.  I love the lyrics, dark, but you know, life is not all sunshine and lollipops.

Then there are these two songs which I think go together.  The first one actually sounds like a New Zealander rapping, not like a New Zealander trying to sound like an American rapping.  The second is, well, just a very special song.

Both of these videos were filmed here.  That’s important.  I’m not Māori but I am Pākehā.  I’m proud of that.  Pākehā is a special thing.  Unique.  When I see System Virtue it moves me in a way I don’t think it would move an Aussie or a Canadian European.

Then there’s Bic Runga.  A star really.  Her first single was Sway which is just a perfect song inspired by a piece of graffiti she saw one day on a bridge in New Zealand.  She’s now written four (?) albums and they’re all good.  Her sister Boh is also a talented musician.  You know how you can’t quite hear lyrics sometimes?  For years I just sang “in from the kitch room” for a lyric in this song.  Yeah.  “It’s infinitely true” is the actual lyric.  I’ve seen her in concert twice.  One time with Tiny Ruins.  Another talented woman from Aotearoa.

I could go on and on and on.  I won’t though.  Just one more.  Aldous Harding.  She’s very special and just on the brink – perhaps – of being big internationally.  It’s hard to pick a song because they’re all good.  Go and see her live.  It’s sort of like a religious experience.  This song called Blend is pretty cool and the video is good (she’s being ironic… and referencing the awesome movie Apocalypse Now).  But I’m going to pick this song – Horizon – because it is so powerful and simple.  Only someone with real pure I-don’t-give-a-f&%k talent could pull this off.

Only people who really love music will become musicians in Aotearoa.  There’s no money in it.  Go ask Bic Runga, Shona, or Emma Paki about their riches.  There aren’t any.

While I was sitting in the meeting on Friday I thought: “there’s some easy activism you can do about women in music”.  Go and listen to their music.  Seek it out.  Go to the concerts.  Read about them.  Write them an email.  They need your support, and they are good.  Very good.  The long version of my playlist is below.  Find someone and go and give them your audio love.


A Drive through Patea (1/2)

“I then stated, long after her and I have left our earthly bodies, the language – via our anthem – will live on from generation to generation.”

Dalvanius Prime to Ngoi Pewhairangi

Mostly I remember songs from the 80s because I liked them, but there are a couple of spots in my memory reserved for musical moments of sheer awfulness.  As much as I’d like to forget these songs they are burned into my mind, forever reminding me that the 80s were not a jet plane to the stars of poppy, glossy loveliness, but a roller coaster ride with some plunging, vomit-inducing lows too.  Agadoo by Black Lace is one example of this awfulness.  Maggie by Foster and Allen is another.

Regardless of what you may (or, far more likely, may not) think of the song Maggie, you will have to concede that it is the kind of music, and the kind of duo, that was unlikely to appeal to an 11 year old boy in 1984.  These days, when there are so many ways to get access to music, it doesn’t really matter if the number one is crap, but in 1984 it was a dire situation.  Let’s list our options in New Zealand in 1984 for getting access to pop videos:

  1. Use the internet (What’s the “internet”?)
  2. Go on a music TV channel (We had two channels in New Zealand.  Channel One and – wait for it – Channel… Two.  Neither of them were music channels)
  3. Watch Radio With Pictures (On at 9.25pm on a Sunday, which was controversially regarded as “too late” for 11 year olds “with school the next day” in my household)
  4. Watch Shazam (Not much music and too much Philip Schofield)
  5. Watch Ready to Roll (bingo!)

There was nothing flash about Ready to Roll and that was its beauty.  It was on once a week on Saturday from 6.00 to 6.30.  It counted down the top twenty for the week, and played a handful of videos in full on the way.  The key was that they always played the number one.  This was great when it was Let’s Dance by David Bowie, but unbearably disappointing when it was week after sodding week of two old codgers from Ireland rabbiting on about some bint called Maggie.

The Listener describes the situation well enough: “The video consists largely of two portly persons standing in a paddock, their lip movements unhappily out of sync with the song.”  As far as I can make out, New Zealand was the only country in the world where Foster and Allen have ever had a number one, and so by June of 1984, Foster and Allen were touring here.  “This affable middle-of-the-road duo chose a freezing night for their first New Zealand performance at the Auckland Town Hall….  Allen sings and Foster accompanies him on his newly-acquired electric piano accordion.  His nimble fingers have won many All Ireland accordion playing titles.”

I can tell you what I would have liked to do to Foster’s nimble fingers, and it wasn’t hand him an electric piano accordion.


So when Poi E replaced Maggie in the number one position there was then the double delight of knowing that you never in your life again would have to hear Maggie, and the sheer awesomeness of one of New Zealand’s greatest songs.

Poi E became the biggest selling single in New Zealand in 1984.  I loved it then, and love it still.  If you were sitting next to me on the couch in my living room in March 1984 at around 6.25pm one Saturday I would have pointed out these bits to you:


Snort! A dog with a poi?  Come one!  Who doesn’t find a dog with a poi funny?


The boy in the crowd who is fully into it.  What a cool kid.


Dalvanius. Except I didn’t know it was Dalvanius then, I just thought it was a funny as guy driving by waving his tongue around.


The Maori Poi George (thanks Robyn), and a white chick who has been sniffing hair products

And, of course, New Zealand’s most famous breakdancer performing New Zealand’s most famous breakdance sequence of all time.


While Poi E was number one Michael Jackson’s Thriller was slowly slipping out of the top twenty; another reason Taika Waititi’s re-imagining of Poi E as a kapa haka Thriller tribute in 2010 was spot on.

So, in New Zealand we had Thriller and Poi E at the same time.  I loved both.  Both for their fabulous music, and both for their dance.  In Thriller it was MJ and his posse of zombies, in Poi E it was Joe the breakdancer and his posse of poi.

Kids of the 80s remember Joe the breakdancer more than any other part of the Poi E video.  He wasn’t that awesome when he got down on the floor in the school hall later in the video, but he did a mean robot, and his gloves put him in touch with the coolest man on the planet: MJ.  Everything about Joe’s look and his moves suggested a dude who had spent thousands of hours in his Patea bedroom with a Grandmaster Flash tape and a full length mirror honing a talent.  Respect.  For me, seeing Joe demonstrate his craft was a moment of pride and recognition.  Pride because there at number one was a New Zealander doing the unspeakably cool act of “breakdancing”, and recognition that a part of what made it quintessentially kiwi was  that it was a little bit shit.