A pioneering New Zealand voice, a neighbour, and not finished yet. Ahead of the 20-year anniversary concert for his great album, Michelle Langstone talks to Che ‘Fu’ Ness.
Portraits by Edith Amituanai.
I lived next door to Che Fu for a year when I was a Uni student. It was in between his breakthrough debut album 2b S.Pacific, and the 2001 multi-platinum hit Navigator. I think I only ever saw him twice during that whole time – once on the street when I was walking up my front steps, when I went bright red and tripped over and once putting out the bins when I tried to act cool. I thought living next door to a musician might mean we’d hear the strains of song coming from the backyard, but mostly we’d just hear the low murmur of voices, and the odd waft of marijuana smoke breaking through the evening. That year, I used his song Waka from 2b S.Pacific as a vocal warm up for all the work we did at drama school. Its beautiful lilting refrain, “Verbalise how I feel when I’m with you, Centralise all energy till I get through,” and the way his voice flowed up and down the notes like water was a good measure for how I knew I was properly warmed up to go on stage, though I could never get close to the particular flow of his sound.
Like a lot of New Zealanders, Che Fu’s music feels to me a part of my DNA, part of summer memories, part of damp winters in my 20s huddled round heaters in cold flats. Navigator turns 20 this year, and it is still one of the greatest records ever made in this country — a reggae/hiphop/soul infusion, woven through with Pacific sounds. You’d have had to be living without power on some far flung corner of the country not to recognise the descending opening notes of Misty Frequencies, the song that won him a Silver Scroll, or the upbeat reggae/hip hop bounce of Fade Away, which won a slew of music awards.
I meet my former neighbour ahead of his show Return of the Navigator, part of the Auckland Arts Festival, where he’s performing with an all-new lineup of his band The Kratez. Closing in on 50, Che “Fu” Ness looks the same as he always has when I meet him in the band rotunda in Albert Park – baseball cap, dark shades over his eyes, sneakers that look like they just came out of the box. He’s holding a coffee and a sequined fan, which he’s using to keep the humid summer heat at bay, but he puts them down to shake my hand, and his grip is careful, and brief. When we sit down to talk, he’s slightly guarded, which I expected. For someone so loved by so many, he’s always managed to keep some distance between his personal life and his public persona, and in front of me I see how he does it – he keeps his sunglasses on, arms folded across his chest, not defensive, but protective.
He runs through the new Kratez line-up for me, listing the names in a perfunctory way, getting out the info like the seasoned interview subject that he is – professional and helpful. But then he names his son, Loxmyn, and I detect the slightest shift in his demeanour. Loxmyn is the toddler in the backpack being carried by Che on the cover of the Navigator album, and when I ask if that’s a satisfying full circle, 20 years later, to have his son in the band with him, Ness allows a smile to run across his face. “It’s flipping awesome. I guess a dream come true is what it is. I mean just the fact that he wants to hang out with his dad is pretty cool, and that he wants to play music as well is a bonus.” At 22, Ness’s son has already graduated jazz school, and has a band he regularly appears in. He’s a saxophone player, and in The Kratez, he’s on samples. “He’s fully dialed in, man.” Ness tells me, as he resettles in his seat, and unfolds his arms, his posture visibly softening.
The original Kratez crew will also be putting in an appearance at the Return of the Navigator show. I speak to Chip Matthews – former Kratez bass player and longtime collaborator – ahead of my interview with Ness. The new band are insanely talented, he tells me, and put the old guard to shame. Matthews’ memories of Navigator, and of Ness, complement the quiet, humble man in front of me, whose responses are thoughtful, and gentle, but restrained. Both musicians say they had no idea that Navigator would have the impact it had. Matthews, realistic about expectations in the industry, tells me with a wry laugh: “I think a lot of the time we all think ‘This is a hit’ and we’re more used to the fact of feeling this is an amazing album, and then it doesn’t reach expectations. I think with Navigator, from my perspective I had no idea that what happened was going to happen.”
Ness agrees, and says his focus at the time was on keeping the many elements of the creative process together. “On my side of the fence, it was more like a game of Sim City – I’ve got all these things I’ve got to juggle right? It wasn’t just that I sang on the record. I produced the record, I wrote all the songs, I put the band together. Obviously I was hoping people would love it, but that’s as far as that dreaming went. All I knew was that I was happy with the record.”
He takes his sunglasses off, and his energy seems to lift as he goes back there. “There were some ideas in there that weren’t stock standard, they weren’t like, ‘Hey guys – here’s the bridge.’ It was getting Godfrey to learn new ways of playing,” he says, referring to saxophonist Godfrey De Grut, “which was a mission for me in the sense that – how am I gonna tell a masterful musician how to play hip hop? And I found myself doing that. And realising that Godfrey is now, like, lecturing at uni, you know what I mean?” He’s got a slight gleam in his eye at his own boldness: “To think that I was fully confident that I was the expert in hip hop and that he needed to learn some stuff from me! That sort of thing was what I was thinking about at the time. I wasn’t thinking about how the sales would go or how much of an effect it was going to have on people. I was too far in it to see the light. You know what I’m saying?”
I ask him why he thinks the album did so well, and he demurs. It’s not false humility, he’s just reluctant to praise himself. Chip Matthews, on the other hand, has an idea: “It was the timing of it, because it was the first of the Māori and Pacific [artists] reaching that level, and that was the thing that I think blew a lot of us away, was that it wasn’t — and we all love Dave [Dobbyn], but it wasn’t Dave, or someone else who was more sort of generically middle of the road — it was this dude doing his version of hip hop and RnB, and then it sold 60,000 albums.” It seemed like a moment in NZ music history that changed things, and Ness’s was the voice that broke through, leading the way for the new sounds that came after. When I put that to him he shakes his head: “It was my second record after 2b S. Pacific, and there was a bit of expectation, so that was always a worrying factor. So a lot of anxiety. It’s just like when you put your heart into a project and you just hope it’s going to work. So that’s where I was at at the time. I had been given a lot of resources, so there was that pressure, they were touting me as if this was going to be a landmark record, and having to live up to those sorts of expectations was a little bit daunting.”
Because it was his first time producing an album, Ness threw himself into the practical side of things, teaching himself Pro Tools for a year, so that when he went into the studio he had a better language to describe the sound he wanted. Unlike 2b S. Pacific, his fingerprints are on all the decisions on the album. I ask him what he feels when he listens to it now. “There’s a myriad of thoughts and emotions that enter my mind when I hear different songs. Each song has its own little scenario that goes with it. But for the most part, I guess I really enjoy the anticipation before I play these songs. Because I guess knowing that a lot of these songs have resonated with people, it’s like, ‘Oh – they’re going to like this one that I’m about to play. That anticipation is really exhilarating.”
If you think about Navigator as a time capsule, it has something to say about New Zealand culture in 2001. Chip Matthews says Ness’s music was right at the front of cultural consciousness: “He comes from humble beginnings and he never loses sight of that. I think because of being a Rasta, he has always been hyper aware of using his position to highlight those who do not have the position or the voice to be able to express themselves in a public forum.” Ness is Niuean Māori; his parents Tigilau and Miriama were activists at the front line of protests for Māori and Pacific people in Aotearoa, protesting the Dawn Raids, marching for Bastion Point and land rights, and speaking up against oppression. Their lifestyle and morals provided him a lot of “Play-Doh” for his records, particularly Navigator, says Ness. “They were pretty much hard-out into Māori issues, Polynesian issues, and those facing people in Auckland and Aotearoa. That meant that I was dragged along to these marches, and that I got to be on the streets when they were marching down to parliament from Waitangi in 1978.”
Ness was four years old on that march, and remembers the endless stops at marae, the numerous pōwhiri, and the way the kawa and language changed as they travelled. His father’s band, Unity Pacific, were also highly politicised, and combined with being raised in the Rastafarian faith since age eight, the influence of social consciousness was embedded in Ness. “When it came to the time of Navigator there was a lot of fodder there for me to draw from, because I guess I was always sensitive to that side of things. Just in myself I felt like if I was going to say something, this is what I should be saying. I grew up quite heavily with Bob Marley’s music, and so that ethic of writing words and lyrics that might be helpful to someone was always strong.”
He says he “leaned back” from what was popular on the radio at the time, preferring hip hop to the RnB “girl/guy love story type songs” which left him faced with a question: “So what am I going to write about Che? What am I going to do? I had a lot of stuff that I could draw upon, that I felt was way more worthy to write about.” Catch One, the second song on Navigator, is the loose biography of his parents meeting for the first time at a protest. Random, which follows, deals with police harassment and profiling. Chip Matthews says Ness’s kaupapa has always been about allyship: “He was one of the first people to really make it clear to me that music is a gift, that we have been given the gift of communication, and once you understand your role within that kind of universe you should take it seriously, and Che’s always been one to take it seriously. He walks the talk. He’s not false.”
Navigator is also steeped in Rastafarian philosophy, something Matthews says was a felt experience on tour – members of the band, like Brother Zeb, knew Ness from the 12 Tribes of Israel group, and the teachings filtered through in conversations. “Maybe in that regard it felt like a little bit of a mission we were on. It was nice to be part of that, and as time went on you could feel the import of that.” Ness smiles when I repeat this to him, inclining his head in agreement, and I ask him if he set out with a mission in mind. “Not specifically, but organically it just happens like that. It was really awesome to see people outside of that upbringing finding value in those things that we would sing about, talk about, and just gas on about in the band room and in the van together. That was really a good time for everybody, in terms of that spiritual learning. That definitely created a lane for us to fill.”
The band responded in performance to an incident in Palmerston North when they were touring – a gang fight that saw a young man killed. As Matthews recalls it: “Che took time out to talk about that, and you could see it impacted some of the crowd and it impacted some of us on the stage as well. Those were the times you realised that he’s a very special performer, a very special human being, and that people can relate to him. He took the time out in our show to make sure he acknowledged those who have passed, and it didn’t matter how they got to that point, he acknowledged them as human beings. That was a pretty special moment.” It was on that tour that Matthews realised the depth of Ness’s reach and relatability – crowds of young fans would chase after the tour bus, banging on the windows to get the singer’s attention.
Ness is generous with this time as we talk, but is hesitant to expand into memories the way his bassist Matthews does. He’s low key about his career – proud, for sure, but low key. What surprises me most when I ask him about whether he’s making new music is the quick tumble of explanations he gives me about collaborations with other musicians, and assurances he’s making music all the time. It’s not that he’s defensive, but I sense he gets that question a lot, and feels in some way the need to justify his choices, or justify the absence of a new album. His last was High Score in 2006, a compilation of hits from his three previous studio albums. He is at pains to explain the choices he has made in his career, and as he does so, a whole other side of him opens up: “I think for me, where I’m at, just as a musician and as a parent, balancing those two things has always been a thing that I have to focus on. And for the beginning part, for the first three albums, that took up a lot of priorities – that took up a lot of my life. Being a child of parents who were quite into a movement, as much as I love and respect the work that they did, there were losses.”
He goes quiet, and I press him on those losses, and he looks at me intently for a second before answering: “There were things that were given up – a lot of that was family time, a lot of that was one on one time with the kids. I was completely raised by my nan and my aunty. So while my parents were doing these great things, it wasn’t forgotten the fact that they were away a lot of the time.” Silence falls between us, and I let it grow, because I don’t want to interrupt his openness. “When I seriously thought about doing this as a career, that was always at the front of my mind. If I was ever to have a family, I probably wouldn’t go that route, I wouldn’t go 100% into the music all the time, every day. So that’s the big difference, and that’s the sort of change that I’ve made for myself.”
Ness has four sons, and when he speaks about them it’s with a soft, luminous love, as he lists their ages, and tells me what they’re into. Three of his boys play music, and his youngest, aged 12, “plays PS5”, he grins. There is no part of the way he describes his life that makes it seem as if he has missed out on anything by putting his family first — he’s done it exactly the way he wanted to. “That balancing act meant that I couldn’t throw myself into the records as much as I could before, which was always part of the plan anyway, for me. So I have had to subsist through collabs and the odd project here and there. But in terms of the creative side of me, yeah I still make beats and make music – with my kids! It’s awesome. Really good fun.”
Twenty years after Navigator took Aotearoa by storm, Ness is heading to the Auckland Town Hall with his band to recreate the magic he found on the first tour. “For me that first show was really dynamic, like a rhythm and blues type review, but in a hip hop way. The concept of The Kratez was kind of like how a DJ would go to a party, and he’d take his record crates and he’d think about the party and the people who’d be there, and he’d kind of design a crate to hopefully pump that party well. I’m hoping to recreate that sort of hip hop band kind of idea, where we’re there to rock the party like a DJ would. We’re not just there to play the songs and just shuffle along.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say Ness has come over slightly nostalgic for what was clearly a special time in his life. Wrapping up our chat on the phone, Chip Matthews is downright wistful. “I don’t see him as much these days, but when I see him he’s the same character – he cares about you, he truly wants to know how you. He hasn’t changed. He’s still the guy who loves to play PlayStation and have a scratch, and probably loves rugby as much as he has ever loved rugby, and he loves music, and that’s Che. That’s who he is. He’s like your nextdoor neighbour, except he’s multi-platinum, and he’s been able to be a voice for most of New Zealand, but he’s still your neighbour.”
Che Fu and The Kratez present: Return of the Navigator, March 13, 2021, Auckland Town Hall.