Uncle Bambi and the mystery of the travelling guitar
Many Online Cenotaph staff have had an ongoing fascination with a series of photos of a guitar that have been attached to nearly 150 personnel records. The images, taken by Museum staff in 1999, have since lost their context and were described as “Private Tuaine Utanga’s guitar and signed guitar case”.
What we did know was, Rarotongan born Private Tuaine Utanga of the 30th Infantry Battalion, took a guitar with him on active service. On the guitar's canvas case there are over 200 signatures of fellow New Zealand soldiers who served with the 30 Battalion and the 24 Battalion between 1941 and 1945. While the records made reference to a diary that listed the dates and places that the guitar had travelled (see full list). However, neither the guitar, its case nor the associated diary are held in the collection of Auckland Museum. So where were they?
Unpicking the mystery
As Cook Island’s Language week 2021 approached Victoria Passau (Collection Manager, Online Cenotaph) sought to unpick (pun intended) the story. She contacted her friends at the Cook Islands WW1 NZEF ANZAC Soldiers Research Project who posted a call for information on their popular Facebook page. Victoria received an email almost straight away. The power of the internet!
Tuainekore Peter Utanga’s great nephew, Henri Nicholas, got in touch. He let us know that, in the late 1990s, himself, Pepe (his mother) and his brother Neil Nicholas gifted the guitar to the Parnell RSA. This was Peter’s local RSA where he spent “most of his precious time with his great mates from the war”. As much as they would’ve loved to have kept it in the family, they felt this was the best place for it. Henri also let me know that his mother would be happy to talk to us about her favourite uncle.
On a showery May afternoon, Madison and Victoria visited Pepe Nicholas at her Avondale home1. She reminisced about her favourite uncle while sitting in her living room surrounded by photos of her kōpū tangata (extended family).
Uncle Bambi was one of five children and grew up on the island of Rarotonga. The family was a very musical family. He played in a string band with two of his older brothers - Fred and Utanga, as well as their two cousins. Their group called Poro Naero (head of a nail) used to play dance halls and (silent) cinema halls in the 1930s. As another family member reminisced in an email “By all accounts they were very talented and loved to play. So, I'm not surprised he had a guitar to take on active duty.” The group would play contemporary songs and jazz. They would play guitar, a family piano and a mandolin. 3
He moved to 15 Arawa Street, Khyber Pass, Auckland in the early 1940s, working at James Hardie. Many of the Utanga and Nicholas family have moved to New Zealand over the past 80 years. The Utanga whānau through the Nicholas line have strong links to Aotearoa New Zealand.4 They are of Ngāti Ranginui and Waikato whanui descent. Tawhitinui is their Marae located in Ōmokoroa, to the west of Tauranga.
Military service and the case of the travelling guitar
Peter enlisted in the Army in 1941. Private Utanga was the only one of his family to serve in the war, spending three years overseas. Initially serving in Fiji and then in Italy. Pepe doesn’t remember him speaking much about his war experience. Just little tidbits here and there about Cassino and only when he had a few drinks. She still holds a photo that Peter took away of him and his mother.
In October 1944, in between his second and third embarkation, Peter returned to Rarotonga to visit his mother. The Pacific Islands Monthly (November 1944) paints a colourful picture of his service5.
It may be readily believed that the Islander is popular among his comrades (he is the only Maori in his battalion) for he is a talented musician and carries his guitar wherever he goes. He has composed the words and music of more than twenty songs in modern style, including a few catchy “blues” tunes. One of the best is a beautiful waltz song, "On Vella Lavella Island."
Return home to Parnell
After he returned from war he moved back to the Parnell / Grafton area. Firstly living in Gibraltar Crescent and then later moving to Stanwell Street. In his retirement Peter would visit the Parnell RSA everyday and Pepe remembers visiting with him and being introduced to his comrades as his granddaughter.
Uncle Bambi loved rugby league and played for Parnell with a lot of other Cook Islanders who lived in the area. In later life he would religiously attend Carlaw Park to watch the games. He would attend games with a small bottle of water in his pocket so he could take his medication. People would shout “Hey Bambi! Are you drinking booze!” and he would exclaim “No! It is water for my pills.” The family carry on the sporting tradition with Pepe’s sons and nephews playing or coaching local teams.
Te reo Māori Kuki Airani
Peter’s relationship to his mother tongue was a complex one. While he sang in Te reo Māori Kuki Airani he did not speak it with his family, preferring to fully assimilate to the English spoken by his mates at the RSA. Pepe remembers her family all speaking in their first language but quickly swapping to English when Uncle Bambi arrived. She believes this was influenced by his war service and being the only Rarotongan in the Battalion.
“Every time they sat together, like he and his sisters, the conversations were always in English. And yet when he was not around the conversation was in Cook Islands Māori… I never asked why. I guess it was because he didn’t want to answer back in Cook Islands Māori...Most of his friends were Pākehā and the only Raros that he came in contact with were us, the families!”
Interestingly, Pepe believed he was more comfortable speaking and singing in the Italian he learnt while on active service. He even wrote lyrics in Italian and would sing them to his sister and niece after a bit of a rum and coke. She also told us she had been smacked for speaking Cook Islands Māori while attending school in Rarotonga during the 1960s. So Peter’s sense of disconnection from his first language might not have been as unusual as it might seem.
Pepe reflected that she regretted not talking more to her uncle about his service. “I have a lot of regrets about not digging deeper into his thoughts and his feelings. He would speak about his friends, ones that he had lost, and all of a sudden he cut off. It was too hard. Too hard.” But she felt very lucky to have had a deep connection with Uncle Bambi and knew that while he couldn’t freely talk to his family, he had the support of his RSA comrades and the gift of music to share his story in other ways.
Peter died on the 12 July 1982 aged 75 and is buried in Waikumete Cemetery. He was a very popular man and much adored by the family and many of his nieces and nephews would visit with him throughout his life. “He was a beautiful man, with a beautiful voice.”
Meitaki ma'ata to Pepe and Henri Nicholas for sharing their Uncle Bambi with us. Pepe, it was a real privilege to get to know him through your loving words.
On the 13th of July 2021, Museum staff, Victoria Passau, Leone Samu Tui and Richard Ng visited the Parnell RSA. They were able to look at the guitar in person for the first time and appreciate the welcoming place that Uncle Bambi spent so much of his time.
Thank you to Rich, Paul and Fredi of the Parnell RSA for being so accommodating. We were able to take some lovely photographs of the guitar and enjoy a drink to celebrate Uncle Bambi's life.
1 Peter’s eldest brother was Pepe’s whangai father and his sister is her grandmother.
2 Despite being a lifelong bachelor Peter was called Uncle Bambi, an honourific nickname for his Grandfatherly presence.
3 Musical talent runs in the family with Pepe’s grandmother playing the guitar and Uncle Bambi's nephew Harry Cuthers being the roadie for Herbs.
4 During the 1860s Matua Tupuna Henry Nicholas moved to Rarotonga and married a local girl. Paterson, L. (2018). Pāora Tūhaere’s Voyage to Rarotonga. In Standfield R. (Ed.), Indigenous Mobilities: Across and Beyond the Antipodes (pp. 233-254). Australia: ANU Press.
|Aiken||Howard William||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||391457||
|Bermingham||Alfred Buckley||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||47046||
|Black||Kenneth Rupert||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||46164||
|Blair||Roderick Hector||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||85840||
|Cave||John Butler||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||089440||
|Clark||Ronald Archibald||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||47406||
|Clarkson||Samuel Lewis||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||71671||
|Connor||John Earle||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||73176||
|Crane||Robert George Stanley||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||68908||
|Dee||Samuel Francis||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||7318||
|Delaney||Patrick John Dempsey||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||44636||
|Donaldson||John||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||47425||
|Easton||Kevin John||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||47408||
|Edlin||Lionel Clifton||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||43144||
|English||John||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||70749||
|Evans||Royce Leonard||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||239136||
|Findlater||James Robert||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||43384||
|Fowler||Lloyd Graham||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||47718||
|Fraser||Donald Roderick||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||3210||
|Griffiths||Cyril Raymond||Army||World War II, 1939-1945||391325||
Cite this article
The mystery of the travelling guitar. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 29 June 2021. Updated: 4 August 2021.