Talking to Ātea editor Leonie Hayden, Herbs: Songs of Freedom director Tearepa Kahi discusses the ‘constant riddle’ of documentary making, and the joys and sorrows of celebrating 40 years of one of our most important bands.
A Tongan, a Sāmoan, a Cook Islander, a Māori and a Pākehā walk into a bar, and make music history.
That was the original 1980 Herbs line-up: Toni Fonoti on vocals, Spencer Fusimalohi on guitar, Fred Faleauto on drums, John Berkley on bass and guitarist Dilworth Karaka from Boot Hill, otherwise known as Bastion Point.
Since then the legendary Pacific reggae band have become the living embodiment of the whakataukī ‘Ehara taku toa i te toa takitihi, engari taku toa he toa takitini’ (my achievement is not that of an individual, but that of many). Nearly 30 members have passed through their ranks over the past 40 years (including Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh), and yet everyone is so familiar even today – Charlie Tumahai’s signature beret, Dilworth Karaka’s soulful eyes, Willie Hona’s huge 80s moustache.
Thanks to songs like Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Slice of Heaven’ from the Footrot Flats soundtrack (Herbs’ only number one single) around the late 80s they came to be known as kindly uncles in nice knits. But many of their newfound fans might have been surprised to learn of their activist roots, epitomised by their 1981 debut EP What’s Be Happen, the cover a defiant aerial photograph of protestors surrounded by police on top of Bastion Point in 1978.
Forty years on from that seminal recording – a six-song powerhouse about Rastafarianism, materialism, police brutality, and racism – their story has been captured in a joyful new documentary from filmmaker Tearepa Kahi (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Hine), in cinemas on Thursday.
Many of us first encountered Kahi in 2013, with his feature debut Mt Zion. A love letter to Pukekohe in the 1970s, the film starred Stan Walker as a potato-picker torn between duty to his hardworking father and his love of music. It also featured a surprise cameo from the king of reggae himself, Bob Marley.
Then in 2016 came Poi E: The Story of Our Song, a riotously funny and touching celebration of our first te reo Māori pop hit, and the big beating heart behind it, the town of Pātea.
Like that film, Songs of Freedom is as much about a community as it is about music. It takes the viewer on a journey through a turbulent time in Aotearoa’s history: The Bastion Point occupation, the Springbok tour, the Dawn Raids, the Nuclear Free movement. Herbs sang about, and stood up for, all of these things and more.
The film made its debut on the closing night of the NZ International Film festival in Auckland’s Civic Theatre. The band and hundreds of their friends and family filled the cinema to celebrate the incredible legacy of the band, the struggles they faced, the music they made and the members who didn’t live to see it all.
The song ‘Whistling in the Dark’ on What’s Be Happen is named for the melody young Māori and Pacific Islanders would whistle to signal to each other that police were coming (the actual melody features in the song). As the lights came down in the Civic Theatre at the film’s premiere, the room filled with the familiar whistle. A room full of people whistling in the dark, not out of fear but in joy.
The day before that very special premiere, I sat down with Kahi to hear about the impact this band has made on his life.
Leonie Hayden: Nōhea koe?
Tearepa Kahi: Waiheke, Takapuna, Kaiaua, Rangiriri. Papanui in Christchurch and Pukekohe in Auckland.
My father was from Pukekohe, my mother was down in Christchurch. Dad was on a tour with Billy TK and they made it as far as Christchurch. They all became Hare Krishnas and the rest is history.
What were Herbs to you when you were growing up?
In Papanui, it was slim pickings back then and Herbs were a natural presence that moved through the neighbourhood, moved through the town and followed you around. When their second album hit, the one that really took off, it really took a hold of me. I remember my grandfather’s tangi was… it was all about the tangi but it was accompanied by this soundtrack that was Herbs.
Herbs and Bob Marley. That’s all you need. You can do a lot with that. These are the true north of being young, Māori and growing up at that time. I’ve had this exact conversation with Taika [Waititi]. ‘It’s just Herbs, bro!’
Sensitive to a Smile was obviously the big party jam album of the 80s, ‘Long Ago’, ‘French Letter’ etc. But did you, like me, rediscover What’s Be Happen in your woke 20s?
Yep absolutely, Auckland uni. Twenty-five year anniversary of Bastion Point, there was definitely that reawakening. Conscious young student at university studying history [laughs].
After high school I joined a Māori theatre company in Wellington who were on the road for two years – high schools, polytechs, marae, prisons. So that was an education. Then I left that because I wanted to spend time with my nana out at Pukekohe. So I was going into uni and coming back to Puke. Meeting What’s Be Happen at uni was definitely my pathway.
What do you like about making documentaries as opposed to feature films?
There are differences, but I see both as a storyteller telling stories. There was an opportunity to make something with Herbs and a documentary was the best form to bring it to life. There was some early talk when I mentioned to a few mates that I was thinking about doing this Herbs film, and they were like ‘write me a part!’ and I was like ‘yeah sure, but you can’t sing like Charlie Tumahai, bro!’
We went in eyes wide open knowing that there were significant members no longer with us. But it’s always exciting in terms of how we can bring their presence back to life on screen. That’s one of the exciting aspects of documentary, how you weave in archival material.
You can’t beat real life. You don’t know where it’s taking you. There’s something about committing to a script and words on paper that’s beautiful, but there’s also something about being a part of people’s lives and having them share their lives with you. That’s the main difference.
You must have had a lot to work with!
Well it worked with Poi E. It is a maze. It’s a huge mining expedition but it just takes time. Understanding that form, who speaks next, who should sing now. It’s a constant riddle.
The documentary follows the band now getting ready for a big reunion concert. Did you plan that from the outset?
The whole film for me was What’s Be Happen. I held that album in my hands and I thought ‘it’s that date, it’s this photo, it’s these people, it’s the land they’re standing on and it’s the album inside the sleeve.’ One of the early forms of the idea was a concert right there where the photo was taken and we’re gonna bring everybody that was arrested that day and all their whānau, and we’re gonna put on a big concert for them on May 25th. When I told [son of occupation leader Joe Hawke] Alec Hawke that, he just laughed cos those fullas know what the weather is doing on May 25th. I was little bit late to the party on that one.
The gig is something that I seeded early, but it was also something the band needed some time with, to get used to.
Buena Vista Social Club, Searching for Sugar Man, these are great musical docos. The next best thing we could do was still provide an opportunity for these guys to pick up a guitar and stand up on stage together and sing for their whānau. In some instances, that moment hasn’t happened for 38 years.
Why had it been so long?
It’s been well-documented, some of the relationships… I’m stealing Dilworth’s words but there always a bit of tension when you spend this long together. Some things worked, something didn’t. I was just like, ‘it’s 40 years. It’s time to blow out some candles’.
Do people go crazy when they see them in public? Or is it like ‘chur uncle’?
They’re definitely the uncles.
The uncles of the nations.
Yeah! They’ve been on the frontline for a long time. They’ve played a lot of twenty-firsts and a lot of weddings, a lot of birthday parties. Back in the 90s it was the big gigs: UB40, Whitney Houston, Dave Dobbyn tours. But they’re still the uncles, and the uncles have a special place in all our whānau.
How do they see their legacy? Are they proud of what they’ve done? Do they understand the cultural impact on us?
When you’re in the driver’s seat, you just keep clocking up the miles and looking ahead. You just keep reaching for the guitar. I don’t think time ever stands still. They’ve been lauded, they’re in the hall of fame, so I think there have been moments when they’ve looked at each other and said ‘chur, we did something here’.
I’d like to think they know that they’ve had an impact but there’s still a lot to celebrate in this film. I also think everyone understands their individual place in the journey, but not necessarily how they’ve moulded the galaxy. So there will be a lot of new things that will drop for them when they see the film as well. It started out as a birthday celebration and then it moved into something quite different.
How do you mean?
We knew that Papa Carl [Perkins] was crook. And I had an inkling that Tama wasn’t so well but he wasn’t sharing with anyone what that ailment was. And then Tom Nepia passed away after the concert. It started off as a birthday cake and it’s become a bit of a tohu maumahara maimai aroha (in memoriam). So there’s been that aspect. We’re lucky we did what we did, when we did. There’s a lot more to celebrate now, knowing this was the moment. Which makes it kind of tough too.
You lost three band members after filming began?
We were finishing off the sound mix on a Friday afternoon; Mike Hedges, Dick Reade and myself, down at Park Road Post. We must have finished at about 1.30. We all gave each other big hugs and then Tama Renata rings up Dick. Typical Tama, he’s looking for an amp. I grab the phone and say, ‘Tama, we just finished the film, man! We’re gonna show you on Monday, it’s gonna be mean!’ And then he passed away on Sunday.
The Perkins whānau, the Nepia whānau, the Renata whānau, they’re all gonna come. Dilworth and everyone as well and they’re going to see themselves, and feel the music and the journey, but they’ll be feeling the loss as well.
After the release here we’ll be giving time and energy to make sure it marches across the Pacific. They’re heroes everywhere, from Vanuatu to Tahiti to Sāmoa. That was the original band: Tonga, Sāmoa, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Māori and a Pākehā from the North Shore. All coming together, joining forces and standing up to the man with guitars instead of throwing stones.
There’s a lot to rekindle and a lot to rediscover. Some things people will know and some things will take them to a new understanding. I hope everyone sings along and stands up. That’s the dream. Stand up and sing!
Imagine if you could add up all the hours people have spent singing along to Herbs.
Oh man. A million years easy. Just walk down the aisle of a supermarket, there they are. Helping in the kitchen at a marae, there they are. Cuzzy’s on the gat, there they are.
Musicians of their influence in any other Western country would be millionaires. I know money isn’t the measure of happiness or success but did they get their due? Did the uncles all get fancy houses out of it?
That’s a good question. Tony Fonoti is one of the greatest songwriters to ever come out of New Zealand, he’s still writing amazing songs. He gives his time to running a shelter for homeless people over in Brisbane. I suspect it’s been a tough road for the uncles. I don’t know if there’s been houses for all of them. There’s been a lot of positive change for us, but what has come back to them? They’re still gigging and writing and sharing. What are our ideas of success? If our idea of success is a house, I’m not too sure.
I’d just like to think Recorded Music NZ sends them all a bhutti cheque every year and they do whatever they want with it – give to their families, communities, whatever.
Well I hope that this film contributes to the bhuttiness of that cheque.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.