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Author Topic:  New Zealand steel guitarists
Levi Gemmell

New Zealand
Post Posted 1 Nov 2017 11:26 pm     Reply with quote

Previously I started a thread discussing non-Hawaiian Polynesian songs that have made it into our perspectives and even our repertoires. Tahitian music, at first informed by early Hawaiian music, reflexively came back to influence players we know and love such as Andy Iona, Danny Stewart, and Sol K. Bright. Frantic Tahitian rhythms and distinctive introductions, ornaments, and turnarounds have cast their shadow on Hawaiian steel guitar as early as Kanui and Lula. Samoan songs were recorded around the Pacific, with Danny Stewart and even the great pianist Richard Kauhi recording his own Minoi Minoi. Fijian songs such as Isa Lei have become well-known across the world. Tongans in New Zealand, perhaps as part of a legendary mythology, became the most recognized proponents of the steel guitar in my country. It is said that the first steel guitar in Tonga was a National Tricone brought by a Mormon missionary, who left it in the hands of a young man named John Tuita. Charlie Sanft, father of Dick Sanft, was deported with a National steel guitar after his Mormon tutelage in Utah suffered due to the lure of Hollywood's fame and paid work, and became a well-known attraction when there was no electricity on the island of Vava'u.

Tongans both, Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm are the popular heroes of steel guitar in New Zealand.

Wolfgramm at 23 migrated to New Zealand in 1948, and made significant recordings. His records with the Maori singer Daphne Walker are a national treasure, and here I share a few. In my opinion, his main influence around this time was Harry Brooker. As I've written before, Felix Mendelssohn's Hawaiian Serenaders were pretty influential in this country. On New Zealand's very first long-playing 33 & 1/3 RPM record, the very first track is the instrumental South Sea Swing - which I've heard attributed to A. P. Sharpe's Honolulu Hawaiians, but I believe is a Brooker original. Wolfgramm and Walker covered Sol Ho'opi'i's Sweet Hawaiian Kisses on that record - but again Wolfgramm bears an uncanny resemblance not to Sol, but to Harry Brooker.

His mature style embraced the Latin-American songs which Americans still play, and I have found accessible versions of La Rosita, Amigo's Guitar, Say Si Si and others on Spotify, as well as rare LPs. Bill shows us the dissemination of international music on the following two tracks. First a medley of two Tahitian songs (Tahiti Nui, Vana Vana) and a Fijian song (Chulu Chululu), and then Tiger Shark which is still played in Europe.

Bill Sevesi under certain auspices, made his recorded debut on Tex Morton records. Tex Morton is New Zealand's father of country and western music - and he triggered the distinctly Antipodean development of a style born out of Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, that directly anticipated Buddy Williams and others in Australia. That is, as well as Cole Wilson and the Tumbleweeds (also known as Colin McCrorie's Kalua Islanders) and many others here. Following are some of the Tumbleweeds cherished recordings, and a link to a television documentary where Colin McCrorie gives us the dulcet strains of King's Serenade in homage to the Hawaiian influence.

Sevesi was prolific in recordings and assembling important groups. I'd love to share his earlier recordings but I cannot find them online, so below is Sevesi with vocals again by Daphne Walker. Following that is a Canadian singer called Luke Simmonds, with whom Sevesi also made recordings much earlier than the one here...

In my limited experience of conversations with older generations, many names have occurred and reoccurred. Ben Tawhiti is the first - a Maori, and Bill Sevesi's lead guitar player who was an exceptional steeler in his own right. Haka Boogie was cut with him on steel guitar, under Morgan Clarke's title. Can it be belittled as a hidden rockabilly gem from the South Pacific, or is it the first full-fledged expression of a phenomenon already developed and explained in the United States?

Tawhiti was the subject of a Maori Television documentary shortly before his death. He can be seen speaking in Maori and playing some typical Hawaiian licks, as well as a little-known Italian song called Inamorata, and La Paloma, towards the very end. He was also known as a skilled Maori wood carver. It is worth the watching just to see a glimpse of his eight-string Commodore steel guitar on the home-carved stand of his making.

Walter Smith was the first well-known teacher of stringed instruments in popular and international styles here, and began in the '20s, teaching the steel, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and ukulele. String bands have always been popular among Maori, and Walter Smith is a major propagator of that.

Mati Hita, Tommy Kahi, Trevor Edmondson, Dick Sanft, Jim Carter, my teacher Ralph Cocks, and many others emerged in New Zealand's Polynesian music scene, and I should love to share more information about them very soon. Very Happy I would love for any forum contributors to share anecdotes or information about New Zealand steel guitarists.
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Mitch Drumm

Frostbite Falls, hard by Veronica Lake
Post Posted 2 Nov 2017 1:00 am     Reply with quote

Good post, Levi.

You gotta love Daphne. Just exceptional on Analani E and E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei.

Is that Ben Tawhiti on steel on Morgan Clarke's "Hawaiian Rock and Roll"?

Can you ID the guitar player on that recording? He had obviously heard Danny Cedrone on "Rock Around The Clock".
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