It was 1981, an ugly year in the south Pacific as the region confronted ongoing nuclear testing in French Polynesia, and the racially-selected Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand.
A Pacific reggae band called Herbs was booked to play at the Sweetwaters Festival in Ngaruawahia – but organisers were becoming increasingly worried about a heavy gang presence. They feared tensions were about to spill over.
The band took to the stage – and as their set reached a colourful climax, Cook Islands dancers threw eis to the gang leaders to quell any potential tension.
“We were told by the promoters that they were a bit worried that a lot of the gang members came down,” recalls Herbs manager Will ’Ilolahia. “I asked the girls to go out with leis. I organised for the leaders of the gangs to come forward near the stage and so we gave them the leis. That was it, no trouble, no worries, everyone was just getting into the music. Music speaks louder than words.”
Now, a film depicting the reggae icons’ journey is set to premiere in the Cook Islands on Thursday.
Directed by Tearepa Kahi, Herbs: Songs of Freedom tells the story of five young Polynesian men, including Cook Islander Fred Faleauto, joining forces to make a change through music.
“For me, it’s just another release of the work we’ve done. It carries on the message of what we’ve been trying to do. It was a bit of a hard battle, during the movie three of our members died. We’re just so glad it’s now finally on the screens,” says original manager ’Ilolahia.
Vocalist Toni Fonoti, guitarist Spencer Fusimalohi, drummer Fred Faleauto, and bass player and guitarist John Berkley all played together in an Auckland band called Backyard in the 1970s.
They had a regular gig at the Trident Hotel in Onehunga at the time. Not long after, guitarist Dilworth Karaka accepted an invitation from ’Ilolahia to join the line-up. They initially called themselves Pacific Herbs, before settling on Herbs.
The band convinced ’Ilolahia to be their manager. He doubled as co-founder of the Polynesian Panthers, a group of young activists based in central Auckland. Quite a group to be involved in, considering the political climate of New Zealand at the time.
“I felt that they had a good representation of the different ethnicities,” he tells Cook Islands News. “Coming from the Panthers, it seemed a good mix for me – a Palagi bass player, a Cook Islands/Samoan drummer, a Tongan lead guitarist, a Samoan vocalist, and a Maori guitarist and vocalist.”
’Ilolahia brought staunch politics, a willingness to do what was necessary, and fire in his belly. “I was involved in the Springbok Tour trials. I was facing 10 years for being one of the organisers of the ‘Biko squad’.”
The Biko squad was the combative edge of the anti-Springbok protests, named in honour of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko who was beaten to death by South African security police.
“We (the Polynesian Panthers) had already been in existence for 10 years before Herbs. Although our Panther activities finished with the Springbok Tour in 1981, we have a saying ‘once a panther always a panther’. The beliefs that I carried from the Panthers, thankfully Herbs were keen to put it through to their music,” ’Ilolahia says.
The 1970s and 80s was an era of great social unrest for New Zealand, with issues such as Bastion Point, the police dawn raids on Polynesian migrants, and the anti-nuclear movement dividing the nation. This division amongst their fellow countrymen motivated Herbs to come together as a multi-ethnic group, set on unifying people through their music.
A meeting was called by ’Ilolahia so the band could write a manifesto. First, they decided they would play their own music. Second, they would tour the Pacific. Finally, they made a commitment to tour at least once internationally with their wives.
“The band wanted to get out of their pub gig. They were playing in the corner while there was big fights and crates and things flying, so they wanted to get out of that scene,” ’Ilolahia says.
United by righteous anger and reggae, the band released their debut EP What’s Be Happen? in 1981, the same year as the Springbok tour. The cover art featured an aerial photograph of people gathered in a circle at the Bastion Point protest – It set the tone for where Herbs was coming from. Though the album did not have huge success on the charts, its most notable song, “Dragons and Demons”, resonated with disenfranchised Polynesian youth throughout New Zealand.
Their next recording was 1982’s album Light Of The Pacific, which featured the hugely popular single “French Letter”. The song was an anthem for those protesting the presence of nuclear weapons and energy in New Zealand, as well as a protest against the French bomb tests carried out in French Polynesia.
“We were able to convince the government of the time and influence the French to stop the bombings in French Polynesia. Oscar Temaru (former President of French Polynesia) used our presence to help influence putting a stop the bombings,” says ’Ilolahia.
The song stayed in the singles charts for 11 weeks with almost no radio airplay, thanks to some ingenious thinking from ’Ilolahia.
“We organised our crew to go into the chart shops, buy the single, and then we would recycle it to another chart shop and do the same thing. We were able to stay in the top 10 for 11 weeks without any radio play,” ’Ilolahia says.
However, just as they were about to hit the bigtime, things went south for the band. Issues among members and differing opinions on what direction they should go in saw both Fonoti and ’Ilolahia end their involvement with Herbs.
The band managed to rebuild, eventually using their newfound fame to go on to land numerous opening roles for big name acts such as Tina Turner, Rick Wakeman, Black Slate, UB40, Stevie Wonder and many more. The band also went on to tour overseas, fulfilling their dreams of touring around the Pacific and even Asia.
To date, Herbs has had almost 30 members through its ranks, including Cook Islanders Fred Faleauto, Ryan Monga, and Kaitapu Monga, who currently plays bass for the band. Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh even did a short stint with the band. Unfortunately, Dilworth Karaka is the only surviving founding member. Herbs have released a total of nine albums, gradually evolving into a chart-friendly outfit with a reputation for amazing live performances.
The band is set to be honoured with a mass-induction into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. Although the band draws inspiration from throughout the Pacific, ’Ilolahia says the Cook Islands influence has been pivotal in the band’s success.
“We came to the Cook Islands on our second tour, I think it was around 1983-85.
“I definitely enjoyed visiting the Cook Islands on our tours over the years. The Cook Islands drumming influence is an earmark in the Pacific reggae genre of Herbs and the wider pacific reggae genre in general,” says ’Ilolahia.
· Herbs: Songs of Freedom opens at Empire Cinemas on Thursday.