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Live to Air

May 13, 2013

Barend Harris cropAs the Second World War began, in New Zealand there was almost a national campaign to come up with a song that expressed the country’s patriotism. There was already a new marching song, ‘March of the Men of New Zealand’, which was receiving “innumerable requests” for airplay on the ZB stations. Colin Scrimgeour had premiered the song on his Sunday night Man in the Street programme.

How the song was recorded – this was almost 10 years before ‘Blue Smoke’ – was extraordinary, and not that different to live-to-air broadcasts now from, say, Roundhead Studios to RNZ National’s Auckland office a few blocks away.

This breakthrough recording was an in-house ZB production that required three Wellington locations being used simultaneously. Radio pianist Reg Morgan wrote the melody, his wife Florence the lyrics. The vocalist was 1ZB studio manager and former professional opera singer Barend Harris, pictured here; accompanying him was an organist and the 2ZB Male Voice Choir. The actual recording was equally ambitious: the organ was played in the De Luxe Theatre, Wellington – now known as the Embassy – and the sound was relayed to the 2ZB studio in the Hope Gibbons Building, at the other end of Courtenay Place (opposite Pigeon Park). There, Harris performed with the choir, and the combination was then relayed to a recording studio. The Radio Record said the final result was “excellent, particularly worthy of mention being the virile singing of Barend Harris.”

Harris had grown up in Wellington, the grandson of Rabbi Herman Van Staveren, a prominent figure in the Wellington Jewish community whose name still graces a lovely but neglected art deco building in lower Taranaki Street, beside the recently demolished Caltex Lounge. As a teenager he was sent to Canada, Australia and England to further his musical  studies. Most of his work appears to have been in Australia, in opera and radio broadcasts. An earlier visit home saw him perform some Maori songs on air. “On his first visit,” the Radio Record reported in 1939, “he was billed as ‘Barend Harris, the famous basso.’ Next time it was ‘the eminent basso,’ then ‘well-known basso,’ then ‘basso’. Now, he says, it’s just ‘Barend Harris’.” Harris is credited by some as discovering Inia te Wiata in 1937 and bringing him to a wider audience.

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