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Showman onstage but a Maori first and foremost

A pioneer of the Maori showband era, Solomon “Solly” Pohatu, passed away. on Wednesday.

He was 78.

Horomona Te Heu Heu Pohatu, of Muriwai, was a renowned musician and member of the Maori Hi-Five showband — the first group of this genre and who, during their time, were described as the most successful New Zealand entertainment group to travel overseas.

Maori showbands exploded on to the music scene in the 1950s and retained their popularity well into the 60s.

The Maori Hi-Five had a number of hits including Poi Poi Twist and a cover of Puti Puti Kanehana E.

They played numerous styles — from mambo to jazz to rock-and-roll — while also adding comedy and a Maori flavour into their performances.

The mix worked, with the band proving hugely popular in New Zealand and overseas.

After establishing a reputation in Wellington, The Maori Hi-Five went to Australia when Solly Pohatu was 19 years of age.

That was the launching pad for the band’s international success.

From there, they toured England, Sweden, Paris and the United States, including working alongside The Beatles for a show in Hong Kong.

Solly Pohatu also did a stint with fellow iconic Maori showband, The Maori Volcanics.

He recalled his life in music and show business in a TVNZ Waka Huia documentary in 2016.

He spoke of what it was like being a Maori group living and entertaining overseas.

“Ko te mea nui tuatahi ki a matou, he Maori matou . . . kare e whakaaetia ki te whakawarewaretia — the most important thing to us was being Maori. We never let ourselves forget that.”

An accomplished musician of many instruments, Solly Pohatu had the vocals and stage presence to match.

He was famous for his Little Richard impersonations and rendition of Speedy Gonzales.

Facebook tributes included how “he could sing a bass C below the staff, and a high C above the treble”.

He was the lead vocalist on the Maori Hi-Five cover of Hippy Hippy Shake. Their version became a top selling hit in Sweden — staying at No.1 on the charts for two years.

Solly Pohatu also spoke in the documentary of his home Muriwai, growing up around music and the fishing practices of the area.

He referred to the marae as the training ground for stagecraft.

“When you listened to the elders speak on the marae, that was the beginning to stagecrafting in a showband . . . they were showmen, and Maori are still like that today.”

Turanga FM radio station acknowledged his musical legacy with a special tribute show this morning.

The tribute included Maori Hi-Five classics, audio exerpts from the Waka Huia documentary, as well as some of Solly Pohatu’s solo work.

“He spent some time here working at Turanga FM, and also had a show on Radio Ngati Porou called The Showband Show,” said Turanga FM announcer Walter “The Wiz” Walsh.

“I had the privilege of having Solly as my vocal coach back in the 90s and singing with him onstage at the War Memorial Theatre in 2009.

“No reira te rangatira moe mai ra haere atu ra ki nga ringaringa o te atua, haere, haere, haere atu ra.”

Solly Pohatu is survived by three of his four children, his mokopuna and whanau.

He is lying in state at Muriwai Marae, where his funeral service will be tomorrow at 11am, followed by burial at Whakorekoretekai Urupa, Muriwai. — Obituary by Shaan Te Kani

Solomon 'Solly' Pohatu was a member of the Maori Hi-Five, a pioneer group of the Maori showband era. They attained international success beyond any other New Zealand entertainment group of the time. Picture courtesy of Waka Huia TVNZ
Maori Hi-Five.