I first heard about the Moteo Jazz Band when my friend Walnut sent me a photocopy of their studio portrait. It came from a book of regional history, he said, but I ran out of time to track it down. Besides, I knew nothing about the band. But the photo spoke volumes: here was an all-Maori band, formally dressed, who took their music seriously and proudly labelled themselves a jazz band. Unlike so many early “jazz” bands in New Zealand, there are no novelty instruments.
Moteo is a blink-and-you-miss-it settlement west of Napier, Hawke’s Bay; its paddocks are now teeming with grapes, but the marae is still there, near Moteo Pa Road. To think of somewhere so isolated producing such a well-presented, aware jazz band so early is just staggering – and wondering how they sounded is just fascinating.
This low-res photo of the Moteo Jazz Band comes from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi (#5692). I presume the woman is the pianist, and that it dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s. Note there is a double-bass player: early jazz bands, such as Epi Shalfoon’s Melody Boys in 1930, used a sousaphone for the bass lines.
The only references to the Moteo band I have found thus far come via PapersPast, in an advertisement from the Auckland Star of 27 March 1928. The band has travelled to Auckland to give three charity concerts, with the proceeds going towards “a proposed hostel for sick Maoris at Ngaruawahia Pa”. Perhaps they were connected with Princess Te Puea; certainly they were well connected enough to play before the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of Duchess of York. Presumably the band entertained Mr and Mrs York – parents of the current Queen – on their 1927 New Zealand tour, when they visited Rotorua and recordings were made of Ana Hato. The Prince of Wales connection is more difficult: later known as Edward VIII, this prince was the Nazi-sympathiser who abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. He visited New Zealand in 1920, which would make the Moteo group New Zealand’s earliest jazz band. I would have to say this is unlikely.
To make matters more intriguing, a friend recently posted on Facebook this image of another impeccably presented Maori band. Is this an earlier version of the Moteo band? As they are using a sousaphone, it is possibly earlier than the photo above. Perhaps there is a connection with the Maori Agricultural College, the Latter Day Saints institution in Hawke’s Bay, which had a strong music programme thanks to their early music master Walter Smith (composer of ‘Beneath the Maori Moon’). Hopefully posting this will provide a few more clues about the Moteo and other Maori jazz bands.
UPDATE: The Moteo Jazz Band did have a connection with Princess Te Puea. The Auckland Star of 1 May 1928 reports that a month after their fundraising stint for the Maori of Ngaruawahia, they travelled to the Waikato town. They took part in a ceremony greeting the Governor-General Sir Charles Ferguson to the “model pa” on the banks of the Waikato River. Stepping from the car, they were greeted by “a phalanx of Maoris, shouting loudly in the native tongue, dancing wildly, waving fronds of greenery and poking out their tongues in true native fashion.” Te Puea – “wearing a mat over her European clothes” – escorted Ferguson and his wife to the front of the Kimi Kimi Hall, where:
a jazz band of Hawke’s Bay Maori men, resplendent in evening clothes, played the National Anthem. Tonga Mahuta, a song of King Rata, spoke a few dignified words of welcome.
After the formal greetings, the festivities began: “A weird Maori chant, in a minor key, was sung by an aged Maor”i … a short programme of dancing and native songs … a solo dance by Te Puea’s husband in a solo dance “full of fire and the lust of combat”, and 11 Maori maidens in a graceful poi dance, singing ‘E Parira’ … the beautiful Niko Kaihau dancing a hula … plus:
a striking haka was performed by the whole assemblage in the body of the hall, one very ancient wahine causing some embarrassment to an immaculate young aide by backing into him in the course of her spirited manifestations of good-will. Six braves, stripped to the waist, performed a terrifying war dance on the electrically lit stage, and with such vigour did they dance in pursuit of an imaginary enemy that the footlights went out!