READY TO FLY, The story of New Zealand Rock Music
By: David Eggleton.
At the beginning of the 1980s, reggae music had revolutionary value: it seemed slightly threatening. But by the end of the 1980s, reggae had become an accepted part of the mainstream musical landscape. The group that most symbolised this transformation was New Zealand’s leading reggae band, Herbs.
Herbs were the top Polynesian rock band of their era, cultural ambassadors for Auckland as the Polynesian capital of the world. Their harmonies, skanking rhythms, and Pacific themes made them especially popular throughout the Pacific Islands, where they toured several times. Herbs, with their regular changes in personnel, were more than a group, they were an institution, a taonga.
Herbs sprang out of a band called Back Yard. founded in the mid-1970s by core members Tony Fonoti (a Samoan songwriter and vocalist), Fred Faleauto (a Samoan-Cook Island drummer) and Spencer Fusimalohi (a Tongan guitarist). According to the group’s original leader, Tony Fonoti, he wanted: ‘to put Pacific influences into music, make Island culture more available, give it a modern soul’. The group rehearsed in Ponsonby, and in the late 1970s had a residency at the Trident Tavern in the working class suburb of Onehunga, their starting line-up augmented by a number of different musicians, including Maori guitarist and vocalist Dilworth Karaka.
Already Back Yard were into reggae, but the event that galvanised the group was the inspirational performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers at Western Springs stadium in 1979. Following that. Back Yard changed their name to Pacific Herbs, then to Herbs. They had hung out with Bob Marley and his entourage for the length of the Jamaicans” stay, and they took the Third World superstars’ advice to heart: play the music of the Pacific rather than the music of Jamaica.
Herbs ended up synthesising distinctive Polynesian sounds – the lighter guitar strum, the fine-patterned drumming, the chorale harmonies- with a rocksteady back beat. In this early phase they managed to instinc-tively combine the earthy and the mystical into a particularly potent brew. They quickly attracted wide interest, including an offer of management from lawyer Ross France and gang liaison officer Will Ilolahia – as well as access to the Hugh Lynn-owned Mascot Recording Studios. Lynn elected to promote Herbs partly as a result of his new-found interest in his own Maori heritage, and partly because of his enthusiasm for the band’s potential.
Influenced by the political protest lyrics of Bob Marley, the two principal songwriters. Tony Fonoti and Spencer Fusimalohi – who were both being increasingly drawn towards Rastafarianism – crafted a number of remarkable songs, including ‘Dragons and Demons’.
‘Whats’ Be Happen’,'Crazy Mon’, ‘Jah’s Son’ and ‘Light of the pacific’ – this last a chanted celebration of things Pasific that sounded positively hymn-like, and which dramatically emphasised spirit of place.
Herb’s first album Whats’ Be Happen was released on Hugh Lynn’s Warrior Records label in 1981. They followed up with one of their best-known numbers. ‘French Letter’ – co-written by Tony Fonoti, Spencer Fusimalohi and dilworth Karaka – a protest song with piano accordion about French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll.
Then Fonoti suddenly quit to join the Twelve Tribes of Israel, while Fusimalohl also left, a bit later, to set up his own reggae band Diatribe. Herbs seemed about to implode but held together by Karaka and Faleauto and retaining bass player Jack Allen, the band reached out to bring in several seasoned Maori musicians: vocalist and guitarist Willie Hona, saxophonist Morrie Watene, percussionist Carl Perkins and keyboardist Tama Lundon.
With Herbs Mark II, the band entered a new phase, as Huyh Lynn took over management, keen to tour Herbs internationally. Meanwhile Hona. former lead guitarist with Mark Williams’s backing band Face in the 1970s, proved an able songwriter and arranger, giving the Herbs’ sound considerable polish. He amplified and developed Fonoti’s founding philosophy, while the key to Herbs’ distinctiveness remained the male harmonies and Fred Faleauto’s drumming.
Herbs championed Greenpeace and played many marae gigs and benefit gigs for koha (donations). As a seven-piece band with a road crew and a big sound-rig, they struggled financially, with Lynn pouring money into them. The band’s public profile grew steadily as Herbs’ harmonies were added to Tim Finn’s ‘Parihaka’, Annie Crummer’s ‘See What Love Can Do’ and Ray Columbus’s remake of ‘Till We Kissed’. The band was to win over the nation with their crooned accompaniment on Dave Dobbyn’s smash hit of 1986, the groovy ‘Slice of Heaven’, taken from the soundtrack to the Footrot Flats movie.
Herbs toured Australia in 1985, where the reception was lukewarm at best. When the group returned to New Zealand, Jack Alien and Carl Perkins quit. They were replaced by bassist Charlie Tumahai and percussionist Thom Nepia. Charlie Tumahai, a much-travelled veteran of top English pub rock band of the 1970s Bebop Delux, brought his own flair to the group.
Herbs launched their album Sensitive to a Smile in june 1987 at Ruatoria, a Rastafarian stronghold on the East Cape. At that year’s Music Awards, Sensitive to a smile won the Best Album Award, and Charlie Tumahai and Dilworth Karaka won Best Songwriters’ Award for ‘E Papa’. Its triumph confirmed Sensitive to a Smile as a classic New Zealand album, and Herbs as one of the country’s major bands. It was to be the peak of the group’s achievement. Original drummer Fred Faleauto quit and, disgruntled, Willie Hona also quit a few months later: for both the complaint was the same – they couldn’t live on the pittance they were earning. The band got a new drummer and went back into the studio with fan and producer Joe Walsh, guitarist for California band the Eagles. The result was the disappointing Homegrown, with Herbs’ unique Pacific reggae vibe marred by Walsh’s flashy Americanisms. Herbs soldiered on into the mid-1990s, but essentially their upward surge halted in 1988 – a time when potent new sounds were emerging.
In 1986 Herbs had toured the country as part of the national showcase of the best Maori bands of the mid-1980s. The showcase included three other groups: Aotearoa, Dread Beat and Blood, and Ardijah. Three were reggae; the fourth was soul-funk combo Ardijah – the best band of its kind and the forerunner of a trend.