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Poi E and me: The prime of Barletta’s life

The sister of Dalvanius Prime is proud of the song’s history.
Poi E movie

It’s been more than 40 years since Barletta Prime first worked her angles for a photo shoot, but she’s as comfortable in front of the camera as ever.

“It takes me back to my younger days, when I did shoots for publicity and to promote our shows – it’s the same thing. I found it very relaxing actually,” she says.

Stage fright has never been an issue for the former member of the Patea Maori Club and Dalvanius and the Fascinations.

Now 63 years old, Barletta is flexing her showbiz muscles once again to promote the film Poi E: The Story of Our Song, about the waiata that has become a much-loved piece of New Zealand history.

But the younger sister of Dalvanius Prime began her life in the limelight long before the Patea Maori Club graced the world stage. Aged just 16, she left Patea for the bright lights of Sydney – with her parents’ permission, of course.

Dalvanius and the Fascinations (from left) Paula and Barletta.

“Brother Dal was already in Aussie, so he rang our parents to ask if I could come over there to start entertaining,” she tells. “He was being a good big brother – letting them know I’d be looked after.”

With their parents’ blessing, Barletta joined her siblings and performed in Dalvanius and the Fascinations.

The trio made a name for themselves performing covers, and opened for international acts such as Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick and the Pointer Sisters.

For Barletta, who is one of 11 siblings, performing alongside her family was a dream.

“It was great when we were all together because the harmonies were so close – being a family, you have that. The vocals just blend.”

Dalvanius sadly passed away in 2002 at the age of 54, after a battle with heart disease and cancer.

“We had a very close bond – he was a typical brother,” confides Barletta. “He was very overprotective and was always making sure I was looked after.”

Looking back at photos from her time performing, Barletta can sum up how she feels in just one word – “proud”, she tells.

“Proud that I had that opportunity, proud to be able to share the talents we have.”

But another thought springs to mind. “Gee, I was skinny!” she laughs.

As if the trans-Tasman stint wasn’t enough for the siblings from Patea, they went further afield to entertain troops in Vietnam. Dal didn’t go with Barletta this time and the trip was an eye-opener for the teen.

“At one point, we were entertaining on the back of a truck when the siren went off. We had to quickly get off the truck and jump into the trenches!” she remembers.

By 1980, the Prime siblings had returned to New Zealand. Their mother had passed away, and they’d been told by people in the music world that they needed to go home and find their own Kiwi sound.

“That’s when Dal got into Poi E. He had the song and he wanted to get it out there,” Barletta remembers.

The Patea Maori Club in action.

Before it was recorded, Dal got Barletta and their cousin Maryanne performing Poi E on stage to different audiences around the country. Barletta reveals he was only trying it out in this format and already had a big vision for the song.

“He knew the song was better off being performed with a cultural group and of course he had all the family at hand in the Patea Maori Club. He knew it would be a hit,” she says.

The song, released in 1984, nabbed the number one-spot in the charts and stayed there for four weeks. It was the highest-selling single of the year and has been a top 10 hit in each of the three decades since.

“The song is something for New Zealand to be proud of and it’s something for Maori to be proud of,” Barletta says.

After Poi E’s success, Barletta moved home to Patea.

“I was happy living a normal life and doing what I do. But I always kept up with what they were doing,” she admits.

She got a job working as a rest-home carer, which is what she still does today. She never married because she was never in one place for long enough. When talking about her work, Barletta’s face lights up.

“I’ve always loved it. I’ve been around old people since I was young, my elders, and I thoroughly enjoy looking after them. It’s a great job.”

Most of her singing is now done around the house, where she’ll pop a tape on and happily belt out a tune.

It might sound like a quiet existence, but that’s just how Barletta likes it these days.

“I’ve been there, I’ve been in the limelight, performing to people,” she says. “Those are beautiful memories for me to treasure.”

Though talk of her younger days still brings a shine to her eyes, she’s happy to pass the torch to the next generation of Maori entertainers.

“There’s so much young talent coming up – it’s time for them.”

Words: Georgia Moselen-Sloog

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