Steve Apirana: The Maori bluesman

Saturday 1st February 1997

There's nothing run-of-the-mill about STEVE APIRANA. The former street kid from Christchurch made his way with retro cover band the Velvettes and is now one of the best of the new wave of cutting edge singer/songwriters. He spoke to Kimberley Ware.

Steve Apirana
Steve Apirana

There's a story Steve Apirana tells about himself on stage that goes something like this: "When God made me, he made me perfect. Then he got his thumb onto my nose and went 'squissshhh'. Then he got my hair and went 'ffffttttttt'; then he got my face and went 'streeeeetchhh'. And when he'd finished, he looked at me and said, 'Steve, you're a beautiful man.'"

Beauty unfaded after more than 20 years on the stage, this Maori gospel blues singer is big man. With a deep, raucously smooth blues voice. And he has a big presence. With a face like his and a humour as dry hilarious, he attracts attention where goes. Like the super models, it could just b because of his looks, but after hearing him perform it's plain the attention is warranted. The man can HOLD an audience.

"Hi. My name's Steve Apirana." (Voice goes up an octave at the end in typical Antipodean fashion)
"And I'm gonna play you some some songs off my new album." (Voice up)
"It's called 'Steve Apirana'" (voice up) "because I couldn't think of anything else to call it."
"And this is my band." (voice up)
"I call 'em 'the Band', (voice up) '"Cause that's what they are."

A former street kid, Steve first found fame in the '60s with his band in Christchurch, New Zealand, called Butler. They played support to such luminaries as Daddy Cool, Black Sabbath, Split Endz and Dragon.

Butler first happened when Apirana and his friends - all of whom lived "by their wits" on the streets of Christchurch ("There were eight or nine of us, so we never got bothered by anyone...except the police") started going to a church run drop in centre in the city.

"It was the only place that would let smelly-looking kids come in to their buildings," Steve grins. "We were heavily into rock music and they had a dilapidated drum kit, an amplifier and a couple of guitars. They let us play on them and we thought we were the Rolling Stones or somethin'. We would toss a coin to see who was going to play the drums because no one wanted to play the drums, we all wanted to play the guitar." None of them had ever been 'taught' how to play. "We taught each other," Steve says. "Being brought up in a Maori community, just about everyone would have a guitar and just about everyone sings. We would have a lot of parties...and that would be where you learnt to sing as well."

In the end, sick of having to take his turn at playing the drums, Apirana got together with four others and they began a 'proper' band. "We approached the guy who was running the centre and got him to open it up on a night it was not normally open so we could practice." Three days later, they had a manager. "The minister's son offered to be our manager." Steve laughs at the improbability of it. "Here we were, a band formed in three days, nowhere to play, only a couple of instruments, but we had a manager.

"He looked after us, fed us a lot, kept us off the streets and out of trouble - well, pretty much out of trouble," continues Steve. "We still got into a bit of trouble, but we stopped the crime side of our lives. I'd been in trouble all my life, sent to boys homes, family homes and stuff, and I just carried that into my adult life. But these guys were Christians and they were not just telling us about it, but they were showing us the practical side of Christianity. The thing we noticed was that they never wanted anything from us, but often gave us money and food. Being a street person, the first thing you do when you meet someone is suss them out, see what they want from you. After a while we discovered that they didn't want anything from us. What they were giving us was genuine. So that was kinda where the changes came from. From having a goal and something to live for and the other was the Christian thing happening for us."

After seven years, a gradual following and many pubs, festivals and weddings, Butler split, and Steve went on to play in the spoof band The Velvettes. Kiwis will remember a gang of Blues Brothers-style sunglasses-clad musicians romping on stage playing rock 'n' roll hit covers with their own brand of crazed irreverence.

The Velvettes first got together for a New Year's Eve party in 1981. "They were all gospel artists," Steve says. "A lot of our mates would go into town on New Year's Eve and get rotten drunk. I mean, that wasn't too bad; but the worse thing about it was that they would feel guilty about it and it would take them about six months to get rid of the guilt about it. So we thought, why don't we put something together? We put on a talent quest, everyone did a few songs and this was our few songs. People really dug it and so they asked us to play at their parties and things.

It took just one performance at a festival in Zealand for them to become an overnight' national name. They began to get invited to go overseas, including England's Greenbelt festival, and supported name bands when they came to New Zealand.

As with everything else, Steve's pretty laid back about their success. "I mean," says Steve, "it was because we were playing with people like Black Sabbath, Split Endz and Dragon and stuff, and you get known around the country. You get known by some of the artists. Not just the artists, but the promoters. And they'd say, 'We're going to take this band - Joe Cocker - to New Zealand, so what's a good band we can get from there?' And they remember us from last time." He adds, "But there weren't a lot of bands around in those days that could do a support, so we were very fortunate."

So you mean you played with Joe Cocker? For a blues man, Cocker has got to be something of an icon. And, it transpires, he is one of Apirana's heroes. He pauses and you can hear the grimace as he says, "No. That's a long story. We turned it down."

You what?!

"We actually agreed to do it...then we had to turn it down. The promoter was, um", a wry smile, "very upset with us, so we got another band who were friends of ours to do it - Dragon was one of my big regrets because Joe Cocker was one of my heroes as a singer. I would have loved to have met him - or even be on the same stage, or," and he laughs, "just to stand pretty close to him."

During this time, Apirana became a social worker with Christchurch's Anglican City Mission and began working at the Open Door drop in centre - the very same place that had opened its door to him. After about 10 years with The Velvettes, two years full time, Apirana decided he wanted to take his music in another direction. "The original concept," says Steve, "was just to make something available to people who wanted to have a good time. In the end, it became a thing in itself and everything had to get in line behind that. I also wanted to get my family settled. I had got remarried in 1981 and I had another three children."

They moved to Noosa, Australia, where his wife hailed from, and since then Apirana has been working non-stop. He put solo albums of his bluesy guitar numbers and set up his own record company. Riverside productions. Earlier in 1996, he did a university tour around Queensland and he has just finished recording not one, but two albums. One is a live recording of an hour's TV programme he did for Channel 7 in Australia.

In August last Steve played some London gigs and was part of the mainstage entertainment at Greenbelt. It's something he's obviously enthusiastic about - even though playing in pubs was never his favourite thing. "I love London," Steve says. 'When I think of "the world", I think of England and America -and New York. It's kinda like 'big time'. You're thinking in your mind, "This is London mate, this is Big Time. I could bump into Mick Jagger in the street."'

But what about the pubs? He gives a big guffaw and rasps, "The only thing about playing in pubs is if I come home smelling like an ashtray, my wife won't let me in bed."

But then he adds mischievously, "I'm looking forward to playing in pubs in London. This time, my wife is not with me so I can go to bed with myself." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

Reader Comments

Posted by my mummy named me Ed in Hawkes Bay @ 23:54 on Jan 17 2019

never met you but my wife has we love your music we take Gospel music out on the streets in Napier mosts Saturdays, trying to get some of your sounds out there too, your voice is so melodious, the Lord has and still is blessing you and your whanau, kia ora e hoa, kia kaha. Jesus loves us all the good and the not so good.

Posted by cameron bradow in innisfail @ 17:44 on Jul 18 2013

hey steve you might remember me I drummed for awhile with shane crang I was at his wifes funeral in cooran ive met you a couple of times over the years. I was wondering what the song was you sang a few years back well probably in the nine tees about step out of the boat I think I really got blessed by that song. god richly bless and keep you and your family in the palm of his hand. thank you cameron

Posted by Arthur timoko in auckland @ 20:23 on Mar 19 2013

YEAH Stevie rocks ,I had the honor to see stevie play live in
a little town in the south waikato called putaruru where he performed at the plazza theatre, Ive just read his life story
for the first time and i think it is absolutely wonderful what
god can do for each individual.ive also just made a commitment to follow jesus with no turning back this time, by the way stevie that song is the song that inspires me to compose song. i hope one day i will get to
meet you in person. love you bro and may gods blessings be continuously apon you and your family 4eva more

Posted by Regina in Australia @ 06:31 on Sep 1 2012

Wow!! I couldn't remember this amazing man's name, but I remember his voice. He came to Coffs Harbour many, many years ago and I got a tape of his. Of course the tape was played to death, and long past tape players I got to thinking of him again. I tried lots of googles for some lines in his songs, then went "Maori Christian Singer". Praise God for your search engines. I love this man's voice. Thank you!!!

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