Herbs Write the Reggae Soundtrack to New Zealand’s 1980s Protest Movement
Sometimes it’s actually pretty easy to judge a record by its cover. Musically, Herbs’ 1981 debut Whats’ Be Happen? is a stirring example of the spread of reggae across Oceania in the 1970s. But it’s also a vivid political document, from the second you glimpse the black and white photograph on its sleeve. The aerial shot of the final standoff between police and protesters at Bastion Point in May 1978 captures the moment government forces ended a peaceful five hundred-day-long occupation of Ngāti Whātua ancestral lands north of Auckland earmarked for development.
These political tensions are entwined with the band’s early music, starting with the needling guitar riff of opening track ‘Azania (Soon Come)’. It’s a song that traces a line between the civil rights battles facing Pasifika and Māori communities in Aotearoa and the oppression of South African apartheid, all over a rocksteady beat. After name checking Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, the chorus offers a call to “bow to the freedom fighters” and “send racists on the run”, a message of decolonisation sounding across the southern hemisphere.
Protesters occupy a rugby pitch during the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand. Photo by Robin Morrison, courtesy Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira and Morrison estate.
The track fades out to a repeated chant of “Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Azania!”. More voices join the call as it circles around, taking on a deeper, rougher, full-throated quality familiar to anyone who has witnessed a haka. The band draws on all the requisite nuts and bolts of classic reggae, from the offbeat guitar accents to splashes of steel drum, but this is one musical clue that we’re not in Kingston anymore.
Vocalist and songwriter Toni Fonoti attended Bob Marley’s one and only Aotearoa performance in 1979, and around the same time started putting together the first Herbs lineup. He found a willing foil in Dilworth Karaka, a former Rugby League player turned guitarist who was among the demonstrators at Bastion Point. Whilst Fonoti was only around for a few years—long enough to pen the group’s hit 1983 anti-nuclear anthem ‘French Letter’—Karaka became the sole consistent member of a porous lineup that included dozens of members over the next forty years.
On the EP’s signature song ‘Dragons and Demons’, it’s the combined harmonies of Fonoti, Karaka and the others that brings the song to life. At first, Fonoti leads with a buoyant melody that recalls Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. But the timbre of the group vocals lifts the track off to another plane as they sing about the mythical beasts inside one’s head. It’s a little dark, a little introspective, and kind of dreamlike, punctuated by a guitar solo from Spencer Fusimalohi—and the guy can shred.
Watching for the first signs of a convoy at Bastion Point, 1978. Photo by Robin Morrison, courtesy Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira and Morrison estate
On the title track, the group continue to mine a trusty vein of imported Jamaican rhythms. Here, they reflect on the dislocation and homesickness felt by Pacific Islanders who were drawn to Aotearoa to find work, and the strength to be found in the songs and language of their people (driven home by fragments of lyrics sung in Tongan, Samoan and te reo). The theme of alienation picks up again on ‘Whistling In The Dark’, as Fonoti sings of a peaceful evening walk derailed by a run in with a “pig on his beat”. It doesn’t go well and in the face of such over-policing, the chorus offers a warning and a rallying cry: “warriors will rumble, blue boys will stumble”. This is no fiction: the band was formed amidst a backdrop of dawn raids, deportations and violent crackdowns against Pasifika non-citizens that spawned resistance movements like the Polynesian Panthers.
The group’s sole Pākehā member, bassist Phil Toms, penned ‘One Brotherhood’, a slow-burning call for solidarity in the face of “police batons”. Field recordings of waves and seagulls wash in and out of the track like the tide, as if the listener is there too, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Herbs and their comrades as they look out towards the Pacific.
Politics remained important to the band even as their sound became more polished, their popularity grew and the original lineup dissipated, but this EP captures a moment in time that could never quite be repeated. It is a work that’s inseparable from its moment; just a fortnight after its release, it became the soundtrack to violent clashes between police and protestors during the Springboks’ controversial 1981 tour.
Ngāti Whātua occupation of Bastion Point, 1978. Photo by Robin Morrison, courtesy Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira and Morrison estate
However, like the reggae liberation anthems that inspired Herbs (celebrated on the acoustic closer ‘Reggae’s Doing Fine’), the record’s messages of solidarity and resistance still carry potency and relevance for Aotearoa and beyond, whether it’s the Djab Wurrung tent embassy protecting sacred trees in regional Victoria, Australia, Wet’suwet’en demonstrators in British Columbia blocking a gas pipeline through their land, or opposition to housing developments on ancestral lands at Ihumātao, outside Auckland, New Zealand.
After all, Whats’ Be Happen? is a question written in the present tense. In 2020, it hasn’t aged a day.
WATCH: Te Arepa Kahi’s 2019 documentary Herbs: Songs of Freedom is an essential account of Herbs’ 40-year legacy
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