The name Hōhepa Porourangi has little resonance today. Compared to popular Māori singers like Ana Hato and Deane Waretini, Porourangi made only three records that sold poorly and survive in only a handful of copies. Yet this cannot deny his status as the third Māori vocalist to ever make a commercial sound recording under their own name. That is, if he was actually Māori!
The earliest traceable piece of information regarding this singer lies in the master file-cards of the Australian Columbia Graphophone Company. Listed under the name “J.B. Kennedy”, he recorded two songs as an audition for Columbia on November 9, 1927 at their Homebush studio in Sydney. The first piece was a piano composition by Bruno Huhn set to the lyrics of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, followed by a performance of Alfred Hill’s Waiata Poi. The masters from this audition were never commercially released and have not survived for us to hear them.
Porourangi’s first reported public performance is listed in the “church notices” of the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday November 19. The Independent Theosophical Society advertises a “brilliant musical programme” to be held on the following night at King’s Hall on Hunter Street in the city. Featured in the program are “Miss Daisy Richards, the well-known violinist”, and the “first performance in Australia of Hohepa Porourangi, famous Maori baritone, in splendid Maori and English numbers, including Haere Tonu and Hine E Hine”.
Porourangi would go on to record both of these titles for his final session with Columbia on November 29 , along with the songs Akoako O Te Rangi, Hoea Ra Te Waka Nei, Pokarekare Ana and Waiata Poi. Although not credited, the piano accompanist for these songs could be Columbia’s musical director Gil Dech, who featured on dozens of studio recordings from 1926 to 1934.
These songs were later issued in Columbia’s “0” series, appearing in the March 1928 catalogue of “New Process” records. The introduction to this catalogue mentions that all titles were “supplied to the Australian and New Zealand public”. However, it is not until April 14 that Columbia 0869 is advertised in the New Zealand “Evening Post” at a price of 5 shillings. For whatever reason, these records sold poorly. By the time the December catalogue was published they were no longer listed for sale.
The only other published mention of Porourangi’s activities comes in the form of a 40 minute broadcast by the 2FC radio station, on Sunday December 4:
“6:42pm – Programme of Maori Music.
‘The Maori Flute’ – Miss Winifred Jenner
‘The Mere’ – Hoepa Porourangi, a Maori singer.
‘Tane and the Dawnmaid’ – Mr. Bryson Taylor.
‘Taku Aroha’ – Miss Winifred Jenner.
‘Tama Finding The Greenstone’ – Mr. Bryson Taylor.
‘A Maori Lullaby’ – Miss Winifred Jenner.
‘The Last Tangi’ – Hoepa Porourangi.
‘Hoki Hoki Tonu Mai’ – Quartet.”
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Saturday 3 December 1927, page 14.
Following this broadcast, no more mention of this “famous Māori baritone” can be found on the written record. It is possible that Porourangi’s performance at King’s Hall on November 20 was also reported in the “Sydney Lodge Notes” of the Theosophical journal “The Path”. Unfortunately, all issues published around this time are missing from the archival holdings of the National Library of Australia and the Sydney Theosophical Society.
Nothing else is currently known of this singer, except the few conjectures that can be drawn from his names. “Hōhepa” is a Māori loan-word meaning “Joseph”, which could unravel the first initial of his English name, making him Joseph B. Kennedy. His surname also suggests that he could be from Ngāti Porou iwi (or tribe), the name of which is derived from the legendary ancestor Porourangi. However, these “clues” could turn out to be red herrings. The “Māori” name credited on the record labels could very well be a pseudonym for the European “J.B. Kennedy” privately listed in the Columbia files.
In any case, Porourangi’s performance of “Hoea Ra” alone is far more convincing than other pākēha renditions, like Ernest McKinlay’s stiffly affected recording of 1929. The depth of feeling expressed in his voice sets an important precedent for later singers of Māori song on record, like the Rotorua Maori Choir and the Tahiwis. But if Porourangi is to join this “pantheon” of early Māori recording artists, more research will need to be done to confirm key biographical details. What currently remains of his legacy however, are not words or images, but recordings that we can actually hear and cherish. Hopefully, this article serves as a useful stopgap until the full story is unearthed.
 It is possible, however not likely, that Porourangi also recorded material between the 23rd and 26th of November. According to Ross Laird, the Columbia file cards for six masters, beginning with T-429 and ending with T-434 were missing from the records. It was common practice for file cards to be thrown out if they were not deemed suitable for commercial issue, although other supposedly “non-issued” recordings have been documented in the Columbia files.
 Two songs in this session were recorded for the very first time, “Haere Tonu (Maori War Song)” composed by Robert A. Horne and Ernest D. Hoben, published in 1916, and “Akoako O Te Rangi (Whisper of Heaven)” composed by Emira Maewa Kaihau, published in 1918.
The following is a list of known surviving copies of all three issued records made by Hōhepa Porourangi.
Columbia 0868 – “Pokarekare” / “Hine E Hine”
- Alexander Turnbull Library collection at the National Library of New Zealand, Wellington.
Columbia 0869 – “Hoea Ra” / “Waiata Poi”
- Douglas Paisley collection. Sydney, Australia.
- Late John Simpson collection. Sydney, Australia.
Columbia 0870 – “Akoako O Te Rangi (Whisper of Heaven)” / “Haere Tonu (Maori War Song)”
No copy located in private or institutional collections.
NB: Although no physical copy of this record has been located, it was dubbed onto tape at some point by Radio New Zealand. The compilation tape is now held by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision: https://www.ngataonga.org.nz/collections/catalogue/catalogue-item?record_id=216782 . Thanks to Sarah Johnston for this info.
Page 139 of the Preliminary Catalogue of Columbia “New Process” Records, up to and including March 1928 supplement.
Australian Record And Music Review, No. 10, July 1991, pages 5 -7, ‘Maori Recordings’ ISSN 1033-1352 edited by Mike Sutcliffe.
Special thanks to Ross Laird and Adrian Smith for access to original record catalogues and discographic information.