The sound of a Kiwi Christmas

Grant Gillanders: 'I knew there were a few Kiwi Christmas songs around that hadn't got much recognition, but didn't know how many I would find.' Photo supply.
Grant Gillanders: 'I knew there were a few Kiwi Christmas songs around that hadn't got much recognition, but didn't know how many I would find.' Photo supply.

A New Zealand musicologist's collection of New Zealand-flavoured Christmas songs embraces the old and the new and includes more than a few curiosities. Oh, and Fred Dagg is in there, too, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Christmas might be a seasonal event for many, but Grant Gillanders has been embracing yuletide themes for a good year or so.

An Auckland-based musicologist and archivist, Gillanders has just released Pohutukawas & Pavlovas: 60 Years of Kiwi Christmas Songs, a 33-song compilation that ranges from 1949 to this year.

It includes such curiosities as Sticky Beak the Kiwi, the 1962 song by Julie Nelson and the Don Ball Orchestra, a 13-minute musical skit by the members of Split Enz, who sent their fans an album of personal greetings in 1982, as well as Fred Dagg's take on Star of Wonder and Billy T. James' A Maori Christmas.

''Like most of my projects, people thought that I might struggle to find enough suitable tracks,'' says Gillanders who, having begun compiling Christmas-related songs by Kiwi artists in 2011, ended up with more than 300 tracks from which to choose.

''It started out as a bit of joke. I knew there were a few Kiwi Christmas songs around that hadn't got much recognition, but didn't know how many I would find.''

The album opens with Pixie William's 1949 version of Best Wishes, her follow-up to the Ruru Karaitiana song Blue Smoke (which topped New Zealand radio hit parades for six weeks the same year and sold more than 20,000 copies in a year).

Gillanders initially had another opening track in mind, Auckland singer Esme Stephens' 1943 recording of White Christmas with famous American band leader Artie Shaw, who toured New Zealand as part of a United States Navy band in August of that year. However, he was worried the poor quality of that recording might deter potential listeners from taking in the remainder of his collection and ''chickened out'' and left it off.

Pohutukawas & Pavlovas: 60 Years of Kiwi Christmas Songs is the third part of a Gillanders trilogy that began with Rucks, Tries & Choruses: the history of NZ rugby . . . in song, which was released by major label EMI in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The other instalment is Kiwiana Goes Pop. Ranging from farm songs and pub songs to television themes, it was released by Universal NZ at the same time as Gillanders' Christmas compilation, though the latter is on another label, Frenzy Music.

Gillanders, who collaborated with EMI in releasing Waiata: Maori Showbands, Balladeers & Pop Stars in 2011, clearly enjoys the detective work involved in tracking down artists and others.

''If I'm working on a project, sometimes I have to stay on at night because I get so excited. If I go to bed, I just don't sleep.''

Likewise, he takes pleasure in providing more than a little historical context in his liner notes.

''I wanted to keep the track listing chronological, but the booklet highlights what were the key presents people might buy at the time. I wanted to tell a bit of a story. For instance, the 1940s was all about wooden toys, but by the late 1960s they were all plastic.''

But back to the music. Gillanders says it was important to include Christmas songs specific to New Zealand.

''I started out thinking I wouldn't find many New Zealand composers' tracks, but close to half of them are. I just thought they'd all be cover versions or ones that had been changed around a bit, like Billy T. James' take on When A Child Is Born. So it was quite a buzz to find so many locally written things.''

Gillanders says the 1960s and 1980s witnessed a deluge of Christmas music, although he can't explain why.

''I found that with my rugby series last year. It's beyond me. I think there was a bit of a spike in sales of local content in the 1980s compared to the 1970s, but it's hard to say.''

Though loath to select a list of highlights, Gillanders says he was particularly happy to locate then secure the licensing rights to the Split Enz oddity, Billy T James' A Maori Christmas (1985) and Fred Dagg's 1976 version of Star of Wonder.

''Those three tracks were the hardest to licence. I got one, then two ... I wasn't expecting to get the Split Enz one, but Tim Finn said that was fine.

''Those have all become my little friends now, but I'd hate to pick out one.''