Pat Williams has a smile that he can’t quite seem to subdue. His face will grow serious as he discusses grave issues like youth drinking in Raro – and then it will crease and crinkle into a big smile again as he returns to happier topics.
We’re out the back of the United States consulate where he works as front-desk security in one of the most carefully-secured offices in Auckland. There’s very little signage, but when you get out of the lift on the third floor, you’re greeted by a large metal detector and x-ray machine, overshadowed by a stars and stripes flag on a post that reaches the ceiling.
Arriving there to apply for a visa, he takes my phone and camera off me, checks through my paperwork – and boom, there it is, that smile as he discovers a letter on Cook Islands News letterhead.
“You work in Cook Islands?” he asks, delighted. “Kia orana!” And we get chatting.
The US Embassy and Consulate in New Zealand, of course, also serve Samoa, Niue and Cook Islands – so it seems appropriate there should be Cook Islands staff working there.
Now, we’ve popped out the back door of the consulate and down to the little alleyway named Fort Lane, once a grimy corner of Auckland’s red light district. These days, it’s a trendy strip of restaurants and cafes, where we can talk quietly and shoot some photos.
But for Williams, this is full circle. Because not long after he first arrived in New Zealand from Raro, back in 1973, he would go down to the nearby Great Northern Hotel – just around the corner – to hear the phenomenal singer Prince Tui Teka.
He was just 16 or 17. “I was still a kid, going in the pubs with my uncle, hiding behind him because kids were not allowed,” he laughs.
“Tui Teka was playing down the road here, at the Great Northern. My aunty worked in there so I was allowed to go and sit in the back and watch. Tui Teka really inspired me. The way he sings and the way he entertained the people.
“I remember him playing the broken glass. He’d break the bottle, and play the horn through the neck of it. It was awesome!”
“Years later I met his wife. She was throwing out his guitar. The guitar was the one he had in that show. She was basically going to give it away. I said no, don’t! So she took the guitar back home. I didn’t have the money – if I had I would have bought it off here. So I said, take it to the museum.”
It was Tui Teka – and a few others – who inspired Williams. He picked up some drumsticks and hit off a long career in music.
Let’s backtrack a little. Pat Williams was born in Raro. His village is Atupa, Avatiu, though he also has connections to Aitutaki through his dad. He was the older of four siblings.
“I left school in Raro because they put me in school activities like the dancing team – so I thought, I’m out of here! I can’t dance,” he recalls.
There was Pat, then his brother William, then their sisters Ngara and Emma.
“My parents broke up and we were left behind. We struggled, actually – we were on our own, four of us.”
So in 1973, aged 16, he moved to New Zealand to find a job and to find his mum. “I worked, and I paid their fare for them to come over.”
They moved back in with their mum, who had already moved to New Zealand and soon remarried.
First in Rarotonga, then in Auckland, Pat was always on the fringes of the music world, learning from some of the greats. Since he was young, he supported Papa Jake, Apiti Nicholas, Jon Lindsay and more.
“I was the little kid running round, just enjoying the music.”
Ukulele, vocals, keyboards are all more recent skills. First and foremost, when he got serious about music in 1976, he was a rock and reggae and traditional drummer. “I used to play all the nightclubs round here.”
He worked with Bill Sevisi and the Yandall Sisters and, alongside the late George Brown, he toured New Zealand, New Caledonia and Cook Islands.
As the years went by, though, he discovered a nous for the music business that was much needed in the Pacific music community. He set up the Cook Islands community’s first home-recording studio. He began helping songwriters copyright their music – he remembers advising the likes of Dr Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen about how to protect their intellectual property, and Cook Islands traditional knowledge.
It still makes him laugh, though. Some songs are beyond the reach of any protection. He once recorded the New Zealand classic, “Fish and chips”, known so well to many who went to school in the 1970s and 1980s.
Every time he goes to a party, he’ll hear somebody strumming it on a ukelele. “The silly thing is, they put it in their own words now, and that’s why I get mad at them now. They make their own words and I don’t like it because sometimes they’re rude.
“I say no, that’s wrong. It always makes me laugh when I hear it.”
He was there at the beginning of the Pacifica Mamas and the Pacifica Arts Centre in Henderson, west Auckland, where he now lives. He recalls Mary Ama’s tireless work to establish the Centre, the fire that destroyed the buildings, the development of the new Centre, and the Pacifica Living Arts Festival.
He still has his music business, Nikari Studio, and has broadened into working with young people. He took his Tamariki Manea group of teenage musicians to Australia last year. “I was meant to take them to Raro but now all the girls have got babies.” He’s putting together another Tamariki Manea group later this year.
To supplement a musician’s income, he works as a security officer at the US Consulate – a role he fell into more by “good luck” than good measure, and one he embraces.
It creates a real personal melting pot: he’s a Cook Islander, living in New Zealand, his kids in Australia, and working for the Americans. And meeting him by the US Consulate’s metal detector and x-ray machine, it’s clear that his colourful background allows him to bring a real warmth and humanity to what might otherwise be a cold and off-putting security process.
But he’s 64 now. Next year, he’s entitled to superannuation – and it will be time to start thinking about retiring and returning home. Wife Nuhi Williams is already back in Raro, working for the Ministry of Health, and he looks forward to joining her.
“My wife said to me to come to Raro. I said, no I love my job, I love the people I work with!”
But he’s joking: he’s looking forward to the return home to Atupa.
He’ll be visiting next month with his tools and paintbrushes to sort the roof on their niece’s house, where Nuhi lives. “I think it’s easy for me to return home. When I go there, all the musicians know I’m there and I’m booked. Every time I go there I don’t have time for myself!”
They have some land in Atupa, to retire to. “Now all I need is to build the house!”
He looks forward to getting out the ukulele or drums again in Cook Islands – but when he does, it will be with a message to share. He’s concerned about the boozy environment around music and bars. “It’s to make money, and I don’t think that’s going to make anyone any safer.
“I’m old-fashioned,” he muses. “People talk about accidents and suicides and alcohol – but they don’t do anything about the alcohol problem. I’ve played in pubs, but I don’t drink.
“At the end of the day, families are the ones who should have more power to stop kids drinking and driving, because at the end of the day they are the ones who will be mourning. In my day you used to get a clip around the air to make you listen – and you did listen. But now you’re not allowed to.”
Working with the youngsters in Tamariki Manea, he says he had to be a role model.
And when he moves home to Cook Islands, he hopes to be one again.