Recorded music became widely available from 1901, when firms such as the Gramophone Company, Edison and Columbia began distributing musical discs and cylinders in New Zealand.
In 1901 the Talkeries retail chain was established, specialising in the discs that superseded the Edison cylinders. In most provincial centres, the chain held ‘record concerts’ for the public to hear new releases. In 1905 the Wellington branch alone imported 15,000 discs.
By the mid-1920s most New Zealand homes owned a record player, and the British-owned New Zealand branch of His Master’s Voice (HMV), established in 1926, was the dominant distributor of recorded music.
Early recording artists
New Zealand artists were quick to take advantage of the new medium, but they needed to record overseas. Before the First World War sopranos Frances Alda and Rosina Buckman were recorded, the latter in England in 1914 with a rendition of ‘Waiata poi’. After the war, the first to record a significant catalogue was the tenor Ernest McKinlay, who had been a member of the Kiwis entertainment troupe at the front. He was an early champion of Māori popular songs such as ‘Pōkarekare ana’ and ‘Pō atarau’, which became ubiquitous in the national repertoire.
Don’t need noise control
Ana Hato loved parties, and honed her voice at singalongs with family and friends at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua. Her niece recalled that ‘nobody in Whaka closed their windows when they had parties!’1, attesting to the quality of Hato’s voice.
In 1927 an Australian mobile recording unit visited Rotorua during a tour by the Duke and Duchess of York. They took the opportunity to record Māori soprano Ana Hato performing Māori popular favourites, many of them in duet with her cousin, the baritone Deane Waretini. Released on the Parlophone label, these became New Zealand’s first locally made commercial recordings, and sold in large numbers. Three years later, another Australian team recorded the Rotorua Māori Choir performing Māori traditional songs, love ballads, hymns, greetings and farewells, mostly composed in a European style. These also sold for many years.
In the 1930s acts that wanted to make commercial recordings had to travel to Australia. Among them were Wellington crooner Billy Hart and Nelson-born country singer Tex Morton. In 1930 three members of the Tāhiwi family from Ōtaki recorded 22 songs in Sydney. These included songs they had written themselves, and Māori and European popular favourites.
All Black George Nēpia recorded Walter Smith’s ‘Beneath the Māori moon’ and ‘Haere rā’ (‘Now is the hour’) in Britain for Decca in 1936.
After the country’s first radio programme was launched in 1921, New Zealanders were quick to respond to the new medium. At first, musicians acted as the patrons of radio, with many amateur and professional groups performing in the studio for broadcasts. Live broadcasts of popular singers and dance music – often from cabaret venues – were featured almost from the beginning, alongside the classical music favoured by the cultural gatekeepers.
The first New Zealander to sing on the radio is believed to be Violet Gyles of Wellington. She sang unaccompanied on Charles Forrest’s radio programme in 1922.
Despite the 1930s economic depression, ownership of radios increased exponentially, offering cheap, instant access to the latest music styles from Britain and America. Thousands of people attended community singing events in town halls and theatres.
In 1929 the first sound film was screened in New Zealand, and the musicians who provided the live accompaniment to silent movies were soon out of work. Many of them moved to perform in cabarets, playing dance music that would evolve into the most popular style of US jazz: swing. ‘Light music’ was a flourishing genre that suited conservative broadcasters and those wanting a style of popular music that was more accessible than classical, but had more pretensions than jazz. Among the big names were Gil Dech (famous for the piano solo ‘Remembrance’), band leader Henry Rudolph and multi-instrumentalist Ossie Cheesman.