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I, George Nepia

December 13, 2010

Blue Smoke, the four-part radio series using material gathered for the book, came to an end last night. It’s likely to get another broadcast some time, but meanwhile you can see the list of music featured at the inviting website assembled by Helena Nimmo at Radio NZ. While looking for public domain images to go on the site, I came across this photo of George Nepia and Kingi Tahiwi. As they say in The Castle, it’s one going straight to the pool room.

George_Nepia_and_Kingi_Te_Ahoaho_Tahiwi_bGeorge Nepia, the Jonah Lomu of his day, was also a recording artist. In 1935 – 14 years before the release of ‘Blue Smoke’ – he recorded ‘Beneath the Maori Moon’ by his cousin, the music teacher and songwriter Walter Smith. He made the disc in Britain, and it was released on Decca. The caption accompanying the photo at the National Library website heralds a new era: it says that it can be used on websites, with the proper attribution and reference. So, for the record:

George Nepia and Kingi Te Ahoaho Tahiwi, ca 1935. Photograph taken probably in 1935 at the Sydney Cricket Ground showing George Nepia and Kingi Te Ahoaho Tahiwi just before a Maori v New South Wales match. Photo courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference Number: 1/2-C-22477-F.

Kingi Tahiwi was the patriarch of the Tahiwi music clan from Otaki. He was a stalwart of the Ngati Poneke club and wrote many songs. Among them was ‘E Puritai Tama’, which I remember singing in primary school. It has its own pivotal connection with New Zealand popular music, which I’ll mention in the next post. 

By the way, the portentous headline of this post comes from the title of Nepia’s autobiography, which was co-written by the master of purple prose, Terry McLean. Te Ao Hou’s 1963 review of the book gives an explanation: “The choice of the title, a most unusual one, was Terry’s. While walking along Lambton Quay one evening, he noticed in a bookstall the title of a book on Roman times entitled ‘I, Claudius’. Why not ‘I, George Nepia’? For even as was Claudius on the fields of battle, so was George on the playing fields of Rugby.” (The last sentence could be a verbatim quote, but it’s a good parody of McLean’s style. I once met him, in Waiouru, and asked him about his writing influences. The New Yorker’s A J Liebling, perhaps? No, he growled affectionately. “I was more of a Red Smith fan.”)

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