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Topic: Blue Smoke by Ruru Karaitiana

Is part of topic Made in New Zealand ( Te Papa exhibition 17 October 2001 - 13 April 2008)

Blue Smoke goes drifting by into the deep blue sky
And when I think of home I sadly sigh
Oh I can see you there with loving tears in your eyes
As we fondly said our last goodbyes.
– from ‘Blue Smoke’ by Ruru Karaitiana

‘Blue Smoke’, released in 1949, marked a turning point in New Zealand musical history. It was the first commercial record to be entirely recorded and produced this country.

Before that, local artists had been recorded on wax cylinders (which didn’t lend themselves to commercial production). Then, after the appearance of flat discs, some New Zealand artists were recorded on 78 rpm gramophone records, but under overseas labels.

There are still New Zealanders alive today who were introduced to Maori music through these early recordings. The most popular Maori artists worked within European melodic traditions, but brought their own harmonies and rhythms to the work.

Ana Hato and her cousin Deane Waretini, a soprano and baritone duo, were recorded by the overseas company Parlophone at Rotorua during the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1927, then again in Sydney, two years later.

In 1930, Columbia recorded the Rotorua Maori Choir, mostly from Ngati Whakaue iwi (tribe), and accompanied by Gil Dech on piano. The recordings were made in the Tunohopu wharenui (meeting house) at Ohinemutu. Carpets and shawls were hung from the roof and walls to dampen the echo.

Pakeha singers were also being recorded. Bob Bothamley, a Wellington radio enthusiast and pioneer, made many recordings of local artists. In the early 1930s he recorded the ‘cowboy’ singing star, Tex Morton, on aluminium master discs pressed with a home-made lathe. These were said to be the first country music records made outside the United States.

Morton went on to become an international success. Recordings of him were made overseas and imported to New Zealand, as were those of overseas country music stars like Wilf Carter. These helped establish a market for the later appearance of New Zealand’s own style of country and western music.

However, it was the new record label TANZA (standing for ‘To Assist New Zealand Artists’) that produced the first locally recorded and pressed disc for commercial distribution – ‘Blue Smoke.’

Its composer, Ruru Karaitiana, was from the Ngati Mutuahi hapu (sub-tribe) of Rangitane. He was a jazz pianist, and toured locally as part of a dance combo. With the advent of World War II, he joined the army and served as a private with the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion.

He was on the troopship Aquitania, heading for the Middle East, when a friend pointed out the smoke trailing from the ship’s funnel. Karaitiana was inspired. Within a couple of days he’d composed the melody and written the words for ‘Blue Smoke’ in his head. The song was performed at troop concerts, and Karaitiana tried unsuccessfully to get it published in England.

With the war over, Karaitana returned to New Zealand in 1947 and started the ‘Ruru Karaitiana Quintette’. In 1949, TANZA picked up ‘Blue Smoke’, and the Quintette performed it with Pixie Williams (from Mohaka ki Ahuriri) on vocals. The backing music was Hawaiian-style, a popular sound at the time. It used lap steel and rhythm guitars, ukelele, and double bass.

In those days, recording could be a nerve-wracking experience. The recordings went directly onto masters and if a mistake was made, a new one had to be cut – which was expensive. And the studio wasn’t sound-proofed.  According to Williams, during her first recording session with the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette, they had to keep taking breaks because loud machinery was operating next door. (1)

Evoking the melancholy of parting from loved ones, ‘Blue Smoke’ appealed to the public’s post-war sentiments. It became a local hit, selling over 50,000 copies. It went on to be covered by a number or overseas artists, including Dean Martin. In 1951 it was rated the fastest selling music in the USA.

After ‘Blue Smoke’, TANZA released Ken Avery’s ‘Paekakariki’, and for the next several years the label continued to put out work by local songwriters. This included more songs by Karaitiana (‘Let’s Talk it Over’, ‘Windy City’, ‘It’s Just Because’, ‘Saddle Hill’), as well as by Sam Freedman (‘Maoriland’, ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’) and Cole Wilson (‘Maple on the Hill’, ‘I’ve Wandered Too Far’). 

In later years, TANZA was succeeded by other record labels, including Kiwi and Viking. They too were keen to record and promote local artists for the educational and commercial market.

By the 1980s the number of independent local labels had burgeoned: Ripper, Propellor, Bunk, Jayrem, Maui, Bag, Pagan, Flying Nun, to name a few.  Like their pioneering predecessors, many of these companies were at least partly motivated by the desire to preserve the many different sorts of music being produced around New Zealand, and to make them available to a wider audience.

1. Personal interview with Robyn Anderson, Te Papa Tongarewa, November 2001

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2001).

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