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Ten Riffs on the Māori Strum


What is the most popular and enduring guitar style to have yet emerged from Aotearoa-New Zealand? The best contender has to be the “Māori strum”.

The strum’s roots go back at least as far as the Māori concert parties of the 1930s. Today, it can be heard in numerous tributaries of New Zealand musical life, from kapa haka strumming through to the “jingajiks” of the guitar party singalong. It has also percolated into our popular recording heritage, including on several high profile tracks. With its full-bodied sound and percussive pulse, the strumming style is nothing if not versatile.

The basic strum technique is highly accessible once you acquire the knack.

Yet the “Māori strum” still remains largely under the radar as far as the written history of Māori and New Zealand music is concerned. Perhaps there’s a bit of snobbery involved. Although it can be played with skill and discipline (check the performances at Te Matatini), the basic strum technique is highly accessible once you acquire the knack. Or maybe it’s that term, “Māori strum”, which can create some nervousness about whether it’s received (or meant) as affectionate or derogatory. Certainly, there are dozens of alternate names, the onomatopoeic “jingajik” being especially popular.

But “Māori strum” does at least acknowledge the primary role of Māori in performing, shaping and developing this guitar style. Also, that it’s a musical language widely shared, albeit one that each guitarist tends to make his or her own. As with vernacular speech – similarly picked up along the way rather than formally taught – each person’s version tends to have its own accents and inflections. The informal transmission of the strum over 80 years has also given it bicultural and multicultural dimensions, the style having crossed into Pākehā musical circles and been mingled with Polynesian strums over the decades.

There are many more stories to be told about New Zealand’s foremost vernacular guitar style: see the links below, including an interview with Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal. But here are 10 examples that trace something of the “Māori strum” guitar style’s profile in New Zealand popular recordings over that last 60 years.

1. Hoki Mai

Howard Morrison Quartet, 1958

Although the strumming style can be detected on earlier releases, the work of the Howard Morrison Quartet represents the first major breakout into popular music. Gerry Merito – who also wrote many of the Quartet’s hit parodies – was a powerhouse strummer of the first order. During hospital spells as a child, Merito acquired a guitar and learned how to play from an aunt. Howard Morrison first encountered Merito at a family party: “I couldn’t get over how strong an acoustic guitar player he was.” Although his contributions can get a bit buried beneath electrified overdubs on Quartet recordings, it pulses through loud and clear in this 1959 live version of their signature tune ‘Hoki mai’, released on the 1960 LP The Howard Morrison Story.

  

2. Karewa

The Maniapoto Voices, 1966

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the strumming style could be heard on the recordings of various small ensembles with te reo Māori repertoire. The Kini Quartet were a well-known example, others included The Tui Trio, The Apaapa Sisters, and Ngā Tangikoa (aka The Gaynotes). One of the most interesting was The Maniapoto Voices, featuring members of the Hikuroa whānau including songwriter Hinerangi Deller (an original member of the 1930s Waiata Māori Choir). Among those providing backing tracks was guitarist Johnny Bradfield, scion of the Auckland pop, jazz and Hawai’ian music scenes. ‘Karewa’, from the 1966 LP Songs of the Maori, finds Bradfield blending jazz voicings and fills with a brisk “jing jik” strum as heard in many Māori cultural groups around this time.

 

3. Hoki mai, E whitu, Pā mai

The Quin Tikis, 1968

It’s harder than you might expect to locate definite examples of the strum on Māori showband recordings. Instrumental arrangements from their 1960s heyday tend more toward horns, Latin percussion and other cabaret flourishes, with guitar featuring more as electric rhythm or in virtuoso lead showcases such as ‘Guitar Boogie’. But behind the scenes there was clearly much strumming going on. As Buddy Wilson (of the Ben Tawhiti Quartet) recalls in the 1996 documentary Ten Guitars, “Sit me in the corner and away I’d go – that strum will suit any damn song.” The fabled notion of an all-purpose Māori-strum-and-three-chords also comes across in this waiata medley from the 1968 LP Make Friends with the Quin Tikis. The guitars are played by Wez Taiaroa and Sam Mateparae. [The song is available on the 2013 Sony compilation Waiata 2: Maori Showbands, Balladeers & Pop Stars.]

4. Now is the Hour

St. Joseph’s Maori Girls’ College Concert Party, 1973

Probably the best archive of the strumming style’s evolution can be found on the almost 200 LPs and EPs by Māori cultural groups released from the mid-1950s onwards. Although not “popular music” per se, some were extremely popular, with several achieving Gold Disc-status many times over. One of my personal favourites is St. Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College Concert Party’s 1973 LP, The Beauty of Maori Song. Uncredited on the cover, the guitarist is believed to be Jackie Taitoko, a student from Te Awamutu, who displays total mastery of an array of meters, rhythms and tempos. ‘Now is the Hour’ features double-strumming over a languorous waltz beat, the guitar cross-hatching between the lines of New Zealand’s most famous song of farewell.

 

5. Lying in the Sand

Hello Sailor, 1978

During the 1970s, the strum style begins to be clearly heard on recordings by non-Māori popular groups. One of these was Hello Sailor. There is sometimes an irreverent pastiche element in Sailor’s melding of rock attitude with sounds and rhythms evocative of tropical latitudes, and nowhere more so than with their single ‘Lying in the Sand’. A send-up of New Zealand’s own 1950s offshoot of Hawai’ian music, which often incorporated Māori imagery, the song gently mocks this “South Seas” musical utopia with its major-sixth chords and sliding guitars (on the original single). And “It‘s got the classic party strum,” songwriter and guitarist Harry Lyon affirmed in a 2011 interview with Chris Bourke.

 

6. Till

The Hi-Marks, 1979

A popular late entry in the pantheon of showbands, The Hi-Marks revived the smooth vocal blends of The Mills Brothers era with a mixture of vintage repertoire and waiata. Some material featured full instrumental backing, but there was also a fair amount of standalone strum. Their rendition of ‘Till’ (a 1957 Percy Faith hit) features a 12/8 strum pattern of a kind that is often heard accompanying slower-paced waiata including ‘Pōkarekare’ and ‘Whakaaria mai’. Whether this guitar part was played by one of the Ruka brothers – Hayward, George, Butch – or nephew John, or perhaps a hired gun, is not known.

 

7. Maoris on 45

The Consorts, 1982

The Consorts were the creation of Dalvanius Prime, in his post-Fascinations and pre-Patea Māori Club phase, and producer Terence O’Neill-Joyce. In the charts for 11 weeks in 1982, reaching No.4, ‘Maoris on 45’ was inspired by Dutch novelty act Stars on 45, whose formula was recording medleys of songs by particular groups and placing them over an unvarying disco rhythm. Prime took this concept and turned it into a mini-celebration of Māori party songs, showband medleys, and the strumming style itself. ‘Maoris on 45’ splices together five classic items (‘Pā Mai’, ‘Me He Manu Rere’, ‘Hoki Mai e Tama Mā’, ‘E te Hokowhitu’, ‘Taringa Wairua’) over a “jingajik” strum, bass and drum machine, with the bookending verse: “Everybody sing a Māori song/The tunes are simple, try and sing along/The ukulele it will play for you/The melody and the guitar, too.” The identity of the guitarist is not known.

 

8. Don’t Dream It’s Over

Crowded House, 1987

Over the years, a number of non-Māori musicians have testified to the Māori strumming style’s influence in their musical background, including The Topp Twins and Reg Mombassa (Mental as Anything). Even Richard O’Brien reputedly learned it during his pre-Rocky Horror sojourn in New Zealand. But probably the best-known examples are the brothers Finn, with the strum famously used in Crowded House’s 1987 smash ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Neil Finn has spoken of picking up the style informally and incorporating it unconsciously in such songs: “That influence has always been there,” he observed in a 1995 Sunday Star-Times interview. “It‘s deep as hell from childhood because that‘s the way that we learnt how to play guitar and heard people play guitars around us.” Composed on piano, the recording of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ that became No.2 in the US features a slow, loping strum played on a chiming electric guitar. A slightly different acoustic feel is evident in this recently-released home demo version from 1985.

  

9. How Bizarre

OMC, 1995

The best-selling recording ever made in New Zealand prior to Lorde’s ‘Royals’, ‘How Bizarre’ exemplifies the “Urban Pacific” sound pioneered by producer Alan Jansson in concert with various Auckland musicians – including OMC singer Pauly Fuemana. At the heart of this sound, notes Simon Grigg, who released the song on Huh!, is the “fusing of acoustic guitars with hip hop loops”. The strumming on ‘How Bizarre’ was courtesy of videomaker Lee Baker. Some critics have identified this as “Māori strum”, although it’s noticeably cleaner, less percussive than familiar strums such as the “jingajik” (except during the pre-chorus breakdowns). Others instead hear it as “Kiwi strum”, a term that acknowledges the wider propensity for acoustic strumming in New Zealand, from the folk and country scenes, busking, bands such as The Bats, though to Pasifika styles. Maybe part of ‘How Bizarre’s effect is to evoke the melting-pot of strums that might be heard at some imagined New Zealand beach party.

 

10. Iwi

Iwi, 1998

Reggae has been a major influence on Māori popular music since the 1980s. Musicologist Jen Cattermole suggests the initial appeal was due not only to messages of political emancipation which resonated in 1980s Aotearoa, but to reggae’s affinities with local music styles, including guitar rhythms such as the “Māori strum”. To be sure, the skanks associated with reggae have their own emphases, but a certain rhythmic meshing comes through in the rolling pulse of pioneering groups such as Aotearoa. A catchy skank-strum fusion is also heard on the self-named track by soul-hip hop-reggae group Iwi, from their 1998 debut LP. “The track was a way of capturing some of the feel of a party using the recording techniques of the 1940s,” says engineer Robbie Duncan. “We had a party here at Braeburn Studios and recorded the track in the kitchen.” The acoustic playing by Garry Wehipeihana shows the strumming style “ki roto i te whare”, powering on into what is at least its seventh decade.

 

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Below: composer, performer and musicologist Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal demonstrates some strumming patterns associated with the “Māori strum” guitar style. This is the first part of a 10-part video interview. 

 

Michael Brown is Curator, Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library. He studied the “Māori strum” guitar style as part of his doctorate completed in 2012.

 
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