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Wellington cafe culture

Page 5 – Music and cafe culture

Music was, and still is, a vital component of the Wellington café experience. The forms of musical entertainment were as varied as the establishments which offered them, and they changed over time, influenced by the popular sounds of the day, the 'theme' of the café, and the cultural heritage of the owner and clientele.

The early days

Immigration, particularly from Europe, influenced the development of a musical identity in Wellington. Prior to the 1940s, apart from the occasional guest artist or local celebrity, very little entertainment was offered at the few cafés or tea rooms in and around Wellington. Entertaining in the rather confined space of a café was extremely difficult. The café was primarily a place for the consumption of food and drink.


The Second World War significantly changed both the music scene and café culture in Wellington. The wireless and gramophone had become commonplace in New Zealand homes and also allowed café owners to play the popular music of the day. Most of the coffee houses of the 1950s provided music of some kind, with jazz by far the most popular form.


The 1960s saw changes in musical tastes, particularly those of young people, which affected the kinds of music played in cafés. The popularity of acoustic folk music was embraced by cafes such as the Monde Marie in Wellington, which became an important performance venue for local and visiting artists. This trend was soon to be overtaken by a more pervasive form of popular music - rock 'n' roll.

The Dominion of 22 June 1964 carried the banner headline 'Beatles Arrive'. The visit to Wellington by the four lads from Liverpool signalled the arrival of a new form of musical entertainment.

In Wellington, the rock 'n' roll and pop music scene exploded into action during those halcyon days ... there was also a huge youth club scene in the sixties ... And there were the jamborees, the Dancelands, the coffee bars, and the suburban night clubs too.

This phenomenon, however, did not have an immediate effect on local café culture. Much of the entertainment was confined to the dance halls and clubs liberally scattered throughout Wellington. Cafés tended to provide either recordings of popular music or live bands catering for small audiences.

The dominance of the dance hall did not last. Changes to the licensing laws meant that pubs and taverns could stay open longer and the major breweries very quickly took advantage of the opportunity to offer live entertainment. But the cafés rocked on. Able to provide a wide range of recorded music, they used it to create and enhance atmosphere.

How to cite this page

Music and cafe culture, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated