Back in the day, when “floor shows” were king, the pub crowds of South Auckland were ruthless. I remember thinking that if a muso could cut it there, they could cut it anywhere.
One night, I watched Maui Dalvanius Prime hit the stage at the Hunters Inn in Papatoetoe. Local resident band The Radars kicked into the opening bars. Dalvanius, resplendent in a purple, sequined number with a fedora nattily adorning his braided hair, proved surprisingly nimble-footed as he flew on to the stage.
Over a smattering of applause after the first song, a loud voice rang out from the back of the room: “Get off the stage, you stupid, fat bastard!”
The crowd fell silent.
“I may be fat,” Dal snapped back, without missing a beat. “But did you pay to get in?” The big-mouth at the back shuffled in embarrassment. “Well, I didn’t,” huffed Dalvanius, raising one eyebrow. “Who’s the stupid one then?”
The crowd roared with laughter. From then on, Dalvanius held the audience in the palm of his hand. I had just witnessed a master at work.
Dalvanius was my mentor in the music industry and became a longtime friend.
My ex (Willie) approached him after we watched him perform.
“My missus can sing better than your backing vocalists,” Willie announced to Dal. The big man’s eyebrow shot up again.
“Really?” he replied, doubt written right across his face.
“Her name’s Moana,” said Willie as he pushed me forward. Dal looked me up and down while I cringed. “Don’t forget her when you need a singer.”
He didn’t. A year later, the phone rang. “Dalvanius here,” he said. “I’ve decided we need more Māori women singers. There’s far too many men. I want you to record this next song.” He’d hustled some money out of the Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council to build a campaign around Māori and moderation, and written a song for it (with Ngamaru Raerino). And that’s how I ended up recording Kua Makona.
Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of Tearepa Kahi’s brilliant new film Poi E. What a dance down memory lane. It was touching. Entertaining. Hilarious. The nannies in the marae dining room were my favourites. But the heart of the story was how one very talented man wrapped his gifts around a community that learned to trust him and let him create the most unlikely of stars. It reminded me of the bobsledders of Jamaica — the underdogs taking it to the world.
“They all laughed at me,” Dalvanius was fond of saying. “No one thought that I could turn a pack of overweight, unemployed Māori from nowhere into pop stars, and then put them on to the global stage.”
But the world stage was not an unfamiliar place to Dal. As Dalvanius and the Fascinations, he’d released a number of records in Australia. Dal’s epiphany happened when bigwig promoter Roger Davies suggested Dal lose the black soul covers and start exploring music from his own culture. While he would carry on with his cabaret shows — it paid the bills — Dalvanius began experimenting with the sounds all of us took for granted, including te reo Māori, and started a lifelong mentoring programme that continued well after Poi E.
Before the hit song, he produced the garage party guitar medley Māori’s on 45 by the Consorts (featuring Jay Laga’aia) while simultaneously working on Prince Tui Teka’s album E Ipo.
“You know what the secret to writing a hit is, Mo-flo?” he’d whisper. “Come up with a melody that any old Māori can play on the guitar in a garage.”
Just as the master waka-builder Hec Busby can see the finished craft in a log, Dal could hear the finished song before he hit the recording button. He would instruct me exactly how to sing any song he wrote. But the thing that made him stand out from other musicians and producers was his hustling abilities offstage. Dal understood the power of a brand. He knew how to work the media.
I trailed behind the Purple One, clutching an ever-present chihuahua (or three), as he hustled me into the offices of the hip fashion magazines of the day to harass the editors. I nearly died with embarrassment, as Dal demanded in front of me that Ngila Dickson put me on the cover of Cha-cha. “It’s time for a Māori star,” Dal would declare. He matched me with fashion designers, make-up artists and hairdressers, then organised photo shoots. Coiffed, primped and pampered to within an inch of my life, he transformed me into the Māori Cher — all in the build up to releasing Kua Makona.
And, as his media creation started to gain a profile, Dal would remind me: “Don’t believe your own publicity. Remember who wrote the story and fed it to the media.” Dal got really annoyed with musicians who were full of themselves.
Dal and I became great mates. His dogs? Not so much. He would often park up at our place and drive us nuts by hogging the house phone (this is before cellphones). He was always plotting. We’d be watching television, he’d see an image of New York, and then his mind would start ticking.
“Mo-flo,” he’d whisper, “I have a brilliant idea. Māori music. We need to take it to New York. You. Patea Club. Hang on. We need some Pākehā stars too. Dave Dobbyn, he’d be good. Neil Finn. Topp Twins.” There was no need to reply when Dal was on a roll. You couldn’t get a word in, anyway. “Where’s the phone,” he’d say excitedly as he’d launch himself out of the two-seater — always an entertaining exercise in itself.
“Kia ora!” he’d announce to God knows who was on the end of the line. “We’re off to America. Moana. Dave Dobbyn. Topp Twins.”
Eventually Dal did take the Poi E musical to the US.
Dal knew all the stars and was a big star himself. When he wandered around the Otara or Avondale flea markets, it was to a cacophony of “Kia ora.” Kids. Adults. Māori. With those pink and purple tracksuits, he was hard to miss.
He wasn’t the healthiest, and I worried about that. I made it my mission to get Dal to address his weight issues, but it was a losing battle.
Dal was a wonderful host. He’d sit at his kitchen table, which would be laden with kai, and cook a whole meal without standing up, reaching across from the table to the microwave. And he had an eye for interior decorating. I adored his beautiful living room full of photographs, awards and memorabilia, and eclectic furnishings in rich colours. A huge fan of Egypt, his bedroom was adorned with gorgeous fabrics and, above his bed, a giant image of Tutankhamun.
Dal mentored many others, including Cara Pewhairangi, with whom he recorded Haere mai, the title track to Ngāti. Cara and I ended up onstage with Dal, Annie Crummer and the Patea Club at a concert in the Auckland Town Hall to welcome home the exhibition Te Māori.
In 1987, thanks to Dalvanius and his song Kua Makona, I was a finalist in two categories at the New Zealand Music Awards, taking out “Most Promising Female Vocalist.”
I recorded other songs with Dalvanius, including Ecstasy. But we ended up having a massive argument in the studio. I wasn’t happy with my vocals but Dal kept saying: “It’ll be all right in the mix.” I wasn’t convinced and kept insisting on redoing it.
He lost it. “You’re such a feminist, Moana,” he snapped. “Just like my sister Barletta.” He packed up and stalked off in a huff. The engineer went quiet while I tearfully tried to pull myself together. Dal had taught me that a true professional soldiers on, so I did.
Dal and I didn’t speak for two years. One day, we banged into each other.
“Mo-flo,” he said, raising that eyebrow. “Hmmmmm.” And then he giggled, I laughed, we wrapped our arms around each other, and the years just fell away.
When he began winding up Maui Records in 1990, Dalvanius introduced me to Murray Cammick, legendary editor of Rip It Up and owner of Southside Records. Like Dal, Murray was a soul fanatic and suggested I record Black Pearl as my debut on his label. It went gold. Dalvanius took the credit for the name of my new band, the Moahunters, and on the back of Black Pearl and AEIOU, Murray released my first album, Tahi.
Dal remained incredibly proud of his legacy with Patea. I’d like to think he knew how much he shaped me, teaching by example how to be professional and disciplined, how important it was to understand the business side of the industry — and, more than anything, to write your own songs. And he gave me mantras that I have passed on to rangatahi: “Be nice to people on the way up. You’ll meet the same ones on the way down.”
Dalvanius was a great singer with an epic vocal range, and an amazing stage performer. He was a songwriter and producer in a musical career that spanned more than 30 years. He was certainly no one-hit wonder. But it was Poi E in 1984 that changed the face of New Zealand music. It was an inspired fusion capturing the passion of kapa haka and the sound of the day. And while it pushed creative boundaries, its success was due to the considerable skill with which its chief architect wheeled and dealed in the background. The hustler worked with key record shops and virtually forced Poi E into the charts.
In the concept album Poi E , which came out in 1988, Dal experimented with poi and piupiu sounds, chants, haka — all elements I would later pull into my own fusion dance music on Tahi and subsequent albums.
After that, he focused on writing Poi E – The Musical, a stage show inspired by the single, which he launched in 1994 and then took to Hawai’i. He’d turned his hand to acting, meanwhile, starring in the Barry Barclay feature film Te Rua alongside Wi Kuki Kaa and my husband Toby. And he was one half (with Paora Ropata) of the hilarious Big, Big Breakfast Show on Aotearoa Radio.
Years later, Dal led the way in the repatriation of Māori human remains from foreign museums. He would ring me up and tell me he was heading off to London. I’d never heard of mokomokai and was horrified at the thought that he was transporting them himself. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he’d scold. “I don’t put them in my cabin baggage.”
What a legacy Dalvanius left New Zealand.
Yes, there were tears and tantrums, but so many laughs along the way.
When the credits rolled on the movie last week, the stories about Dal continued at the after-party. Dalvanius was a man on a mission, a warrior for te reo. He was living proof that being pretty hopeless on the language front didn’t mean he was any less Māori than the most eloquent. He used his talents as a songwriter and producer to showcase te reo through contemporary music.
He led the way, then passed the poi to me, Hinewehi, Leon Wharekura, Maree Sheehan, Ruia and Ranea, and so many others. We swung that poi out to Horomona Horo, Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha, Ria Hall. And now that taonga is being passed out to a whole new line of composers for whom writing in Māori is entirely natural.
Dal would love that. “You are not the star,” he’d say. “The reo is the star.” Some of the reo fundamentalists today could learn from that.
In September 2002, Te Waka Toi honoured Maui Dalvanius Prime with a special one-off award. Te Tohu Motuhake recognised his leadership and outstanding contribution to Māori arts. My new band, Moana & the Tribe, had just completed its first major tour of Europe. Dalvanius was proud as punch and asked me to sing a duet with him at the ceremony. He chose Pupurutia, the song he wrote with Sonny Kauika-Stevens (Ngā Rauru) about holding fast to the language.
I looked across at Dalvanius in his wheelchair, wearing a purple tracksuit and playing keyboards. My big, cheerful mate and sparring partner, the larger than life drama queen with a heart of gold. The feminist who loved to gossip. The self-confessed try-sexual. (“I’ll try anything once,” he’d giggle.) Doting dad to Alishiba, and the most famous Māori Santa Claus around. The mentor and mischievous music maker.
He was a shadow of his former self. As he stared up at me, his face was beaming with pure joy. I could barely hold it together. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget.
A month later, Maui Dalvanius Prime (son of Ngāti Rauru, Ngāti Ruanui, Pakakohi, Tainui, Ngāpuhi, Tūwharetoa and Ngāi Tahu), icon of New Zealand music passed away.
As Hinewehi and I sat watching the brilliant Poi E movie, this celebration of being Māori, we turned to each other and laughed: “Dal would loooove this.”
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.