The great Prince Tui Teka

21:38, Jul 07 2011

Prince Tui Teka died when I was nine years old. I never saw him perform live. But he is absolutely, to this day, one of my heroes. I've got my copy of Prince Tui Teka Live in New Zealand on vinyl; I've got that compilation CD, The Greatest (one disc studio, one disc live), that was released around 2002.

One of the best presents I have ever been given is a print of a Prince Tui Teka gig poster; my parents gave it to me as a gift for finishing my university degree - roughly a decade after I started it. But that part's not important to the story.

It's framed now. It hangs in the hallway of our home. Not the degree. That has coffee stains and cigarette burns on it (no, really) and will never be put to use. No, I mean the Tui Teka print. It's framed and has pride of place outside our study; near the front door. I pass it every day and it reminds me of Tui - a hero of mine.

Prince Tui Teka learned his craft/earned his stripes working with The Maori Volcanics and other showbands of the time. He was born Tui Teka and took on "Prince" as part of his stage-name; a royalty bestowed upon him. Elvis was the King, so he wanted to be (New Zealand's) Prince. Another stage name was Tui Latui - he performed in bands, The Royal Samoans and Maoris and Prince Tui Latui & The Maori Troubadours.

He moved to Sydney to cut his teeth and learned something that can't be taught - the craft and skill of being an entertainer. He unlocked his natural talents (which were plenty) and, just as important, he did the yards. He worked the stage; he treaded the boards. He amassed the repertoire. He built a persona around his actual personality - if it was ever an act it was impossible to tell. He made himself the act.

From there he travelled further afield, spent time in Germany, travelling Europe, Australia, Japan, the Islands and back to New Zealand.

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In 1970 Tui went solo. He spent the 70s touring New Zealand and Australia, working the pub circuit, working hard, bringing joy and music to people. He married his sweetheart, Missy. They were a comedy duo and sweet duet partners.

Tui Teka could play a dozen instruments, or thereabouts. He would ham it up on stage, his humour - which he, almost self-effacingly, called "dry" - would sometimes fall flat on purpose. Sometimes it was funny only to him ("hello Butcher, thanks for meating me") but this was part of the set-up - he could then win any audience over with a sensitive ballad, with a blast of trumpet or saxophone; with his and Missy's Guitar Boogie duet (on the one guitar).

Tui taught his band to play. His cousin David Mapu was the Tui Teka Band drummer. But only after Tui taught him some chops. ("It took two solid weeks of hard work. Now he is a very good drummer.") Teka believed it was best to teach the musicians what to play - then he knew what they would do and they knew what he was going to do. He choreographed and orchestrated his shows; his act.

There was the Prince Tui Teka TV show, which I remember, just. It was regular viewing growing up in the early 1980s.

Recently I was thinking about whether Tui Teka was a man of his time only. Could he only have existed then? Perhaps he was the correct Kiwi symbol/icon across the 1970s and early 1980s; a time when my uncle (a butcher - though he never did meat Tui as far as I know) would return home from work with trays of eggs so that we could have an egg-fight in the street. A time when we kids would wander the streets to trick-or-treat without costumes, hopeful that neighbourhood adults would feed us up on Coke and chips and chocolate just because we asked (semi) politely.

We played Tui Teka's live album a decade ago and guffawed along with the jokes - even the stupidest. I still raise a wry smile when he pulls out the obvious show-band humour ("drink up ladies and gentlemen; the more you drink the better we sound. And we want to sound really good tonight"). I still marvel at how he could turn from so stupid, so foolish to pure heartfelt balladry. And his penchant for impressions (he was a gifted mimic) is still something. Hear Tui do Louis Armstrong - he nails it.

The man had the gift - several in fact. He had the skill, the repertoire, the talent. And he had charm. He had character, personality. He was real. If he stood five foot tall he was also (nearly) four foot wide. Turn him on his side he'd still be wise-cracking. This was a man who didn't hide a round stomach - he flaunted it (until it eventually killed him). He was, he told the audience, on a seafood diet. You know the punchline. But Tui nailed it. And he had a visual element to his joke. It was (always) there. Right in front of him.

He never tried to hide one ounce of who he was; he was proud - because it was who he was. All that he was was the reason he was famous; was the reason we cared about him.

And then there was E Ipo. The first song sung in Te Reo to reach number one in New Zealand. This large, proud man singing his heart out for his woman; for his life. Telling us all how proud he was - there was even a spoken-word section, in English, so that everyone who heard the song knew how much Missy meant to Tui; knew how much he cared to show it. He belted that song out with pride. It was beautiful. It is beautiful.

I'm no expert in translation - so I'm happy to be corrected here but I believe the tone of the song, the feeling is along these lines:

To you, my darling/my greetings/No matter where you go/I will follow close behind.
My love/will remain firm/Come my beloved, turn to me your spouse here/and I will support you/my darling.

I like that. I like that a lot. Every time I hear E Ipo I think we were lucky to have Prince Tui Teka. Every time I walk past the print of the 1980 gig-poster I have, I think about that song, that man and all that he had to offer. The man had such presence; he was such a role model - for Maori, for New Zealanders. He was one of the true greats. His spirit, too, was huge.

I wonder if you have thoughts about Tui Teka. Please share them. Maybe some of you saw him live, or even met him? Maybe you too have held on to records. Maybe you remember his TV show. Were you (are you) a fan? Or were you not a fan at all. I thought I'd share my thoughts about Prince Tui Teka. One of the true icons, for me, of Kiwi entertainment. A man - a musical force - that makes me proud; that makes me happy.  I loved what Prince Tui Teka had to offer, what he stood for, the way he sounded - and I still listen to his music today and get the same great vibes, passion, humour and love from him through his songs and routines.

What did you think of Prince Tui Teka?

Postscript: Here, in five parts, is a documentary about Tui, with some great song footage: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. Enjoy.

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