He came to Ōtaki School to motivate the children to be the best they wanted in any field but the country music star left motivated by them to go and learn the language of his people.
“When I was at school I got slapped for speaking Maori. I feel so proud to be here. You people are lucky. You are learning what I wasn’t allowed to,” Dennis Marsh, New Zealand’s top Country and Western entertainer said following the powhiri where he was welcomed in te reo. “You give me motivation. I’ve got to learn Maori. You have motivated me to learn.”
He spoke of his childhood, born on the front verandah his grandparents’ house in Te Kuiti, he was one of 10 children. The family grew up on the farm, his dad was a farmer, and he attended the local school “I didn’t want to go to school. I was frightened.” Although the family sang a lot, Dennis wasn’t really into music and preferred hunting, fishing and horse riding. After leaving school after two years in the fifth form (year 11) he got an apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery.
“I was the first chocolate chippy!” he laughed, of his career choice. There was a lot of singing on the work sites and it was from there his singing really “took off”.
He grew up believing he wasn’t a singer, but after injuring his back and now unable to work in the building trade, he turned more and more to music. He plays guitar, ukulele, piano and accordion. He has recorded 22 albums of his own music, the most recent Maori Songbook which was a best-seller.
“If you want to be the best entertainer, you can be. The best opera singer, you can be. You can be anything you want to be,” he told the 200 plus children present. “It took me 30 years to become the best country music singer in New Zealand!”
Between the chat he sang to the children and had them singing with him, among the songs Pokarekareana, She Taught Me to Yodel with everyone joining in the yodel-odele eee! and winding up his visit with We’ll have some Maoritanga Tonight!
Unfortunately the sound system went on the blink and he couldn’t use his Elvis Presley inspired numbers.
Dennis Marsh was visiting Ōtaki School as a guest of the Kapiti Kids Motivation Trust, where top New Zealand sports and arts people visit schools around Kapiti telling their stories and background. They told how they got to the top of their field, whether sport, music, dance, theatre or art. Trust president, Roger Booth accompanied Dennis on his visit to five schools along the Kapiti Coast and to two radio interviews during his three days here.