Page 1: Biography
Williams, Phyllis Constance
This biography, written by Sheila Robinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Phyllis Constance Morris (later known as Kirimamae) was the first of five children of John Bentham Morris and his wife, Annie Isabella Gallagher. She was born at Gisborne on 31 March 1905. Her father was a sheepfarmer at Kaiaua Bay, seven miles north of Tolaga Bay, where the pioneering life meant travel was by horse or boat and self-sufficiency was taken for granted.
Phyllis went to Gisborne for only the second time in 1918 to attend Annie Rees’s Cook County College. The following year she entered Chilton House School, Wellington, where she completed her schooling. She then returned home to help on the farm and to enjoy the social life of the big East Coast stations, often riding her horse alone for up to eight hours along the beaches to get to a dance. Passionate about horses, she became a highly competent horsewoman, even though one jumping accident left her on her back for many months. In 1922 she became captivated by the traditional songs of the Maori shearers as she listened and sang while helping in the shed. Although her mother had taught her to play the piano and she loved to sing, she had had almost no formal voice training and consequently came to sing in a Maori style.
On 14 September 1926, in Gisborne, she married Charles Kenneth Williams, the son of Lilian Mary Ludbrook and her husband, K. S. Williams, MP for Bay of Plenty and minister of public works. Charles was managing Matahiia, the family sheep and cattle station south-west of Ruatoria. Phyllis joined the large household of a busy farm with its numerous visitors and memorable musical evenings. She bore two sons and two daughters. Travel in and out of Matahiia was unpredictable, as the Mata River was unbridged and prone to flooding, but Phyllis had grown up with East Coast isolation and was used to difficulties.
Her father-in-law, who spoke fluent Maori, took her to hui all over the Coast where she became familiar with Maori language, and began a collection of waiata. In 1932 money was being raised to buy the first X-ray machine for Te Puia Hospital and Phyllis was asked to perform at the first concert. She sang a solo in Maori and was promptly co-opted into the action songs for further concerts. Her initial awkwardness was soon remedied by expert lessons from Ngati Porou leader Materoa Reedy, and she attended regular haka party practices at Hiruharama. Increasingly, she was asked to sing and was always given a generous reception. Reedy bestowed on her the name Kirimamae, for an eminent ancestress of Ngati Porou. But when the group was invited to sing outside the East Coast, Williams declined to accompany them. Having seen a photo of herself in the front row – tall, thin and fair – she thought she spoiled the look of the group. However, her quest for authentic material for her song collection continued, and she was helped by many, including Materoa Reedy, Bishop Herbert Williams, Sir Apirana Ngata, Rotorua singer Ana Hato, and ancient chant expert Hera Haereroa.
In 1936 she auditioned with the National Broadcasting Service and was offered 12 quarter-hour broadcasts in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, using 96 songs. When her son became seriously ill she had to cancel the tour after one recital. The Matahiia homestead burnt down in 1938 and with it her large collection of music. There followed several more crises, including the death in infancy of her youngest child, and for several years her singing career was superseded by family concerns.
In 1942 Ngata began singing classes in Ruatoria, in preparation for concerts to raise money for the Red Cross. Impressed by his teaching, Phyllis Williams joined and performed in evening concerts at important hui, such as the celebration for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu in 1943, and the 1947 opening of the Uepohatu Memorial Hall, Ruatoria, in memory of the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion. Slowly, she rebuilt her collection of Maori music.
From 1942 Williams broadcast almost every time she travelled from Ruatoria. She recorded for troops stationed in the Middle East, undertook a tour of YA stations in 1947, made programmes for the overseas service, and recorded illustrated talks on Maori song forms in 1956. She also made six programmes of East Coast songs with Hiria and Paddy Tamati. In Australia and New Zealand she sang and recorded pieces written for her by leading Australasian composer Alfred Hill, who noted that it ‘is impossible to put into words the beauty of Phyllis Williams’ singing voice’. Her last broadcast, in 1959, was with the National Orchestra strings under Alex Lindsay. Two records were made entitled Maori songs with strings , which Hill thought would ‘establish for all time the proper way of singing and interpreting Maori songs’.
Family commitments now made it difficult for Phyllis Williams to continue travelling outside the district, except in 1961, when she entered a national contest for 20 minutes of stage entertainment and won the judge’s accolade for ‘most professional presentation’. But she felt that her voice and material did not belong beside trained opera singers, and always remained modest about her considerable accomplishments.
At a time when Maori music was rarely heard outside marae, Phyllis Williams combined her innate musicality with her enjoyment of the songs to produce moving performances of authentic material. Her contralto voice was completely at home in the full range of Maori waiata, from the closed-throat singing of the keening lament to the full-throated joy of the welcome. Wherever she visited on the East Coast she was honoured as Kirimamae, long after she and Charles had moved to Gisborne in their retirement.
Charles Williams died in 1978. Phyllis continued to enjoy choral singing, gardening, and the company of many friends until her death on 26 July 1993. Fortunately for posterity, she left recordings and reminiscences of what she called ‘a marvellous life’.