The Sunday Series: Herbs political musos


Herbs, the band.  “The 11th inductee into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame, were once described as “New Zealand’s most soulful, heartfelt and consistent contemporary musical voice”….The band has always been political,[1] with links to the Polynesian Panthers and the cover of Whats’ Be Happen (released during the 1981 Springbok tour) being an aerial photo of police action at Bastion Point in 1978.[4] As well as race relations, the band took a strong stance on nuclear weapons in the Pacific with “French Letter”.  Wikepedia

This long running New Zealand icon has evolved with a changing cast of characters..  Here’s the original lineup. 

“Herbs produced a stream of reggae hits with some of the country’s top talent. In the 1980s and the first half of the ’90s, Herbs had 10 top 20 singles hits. Herbs also worked alongside UB40,[1] Taj Mahal, Billy Preston, Neil Sedaka, Tina Turner, Neil Young, George Benson, Joe Walsh, and Stevie Wonder.

Though upbeat, Herbs’ music is clear in its messages. Their 1982 New Zealand hit “French Letter”, which spent 11 weeks on the charts, came to express New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance. Fourteen years later, it was re-recorded to garner support for the prevention of nuclear testing at Mururoa. Similarly, “No Nukes (The Second Letter)”, “Nuclear Waste” and “Light of the Pacific” expressed much the same sentiment.” Wikipedia

“Herbs grew out of Backyard: Toni Fonoti, Spencer Fusimalohi and Fred Faleauto playing in the back bar of the Trident Tavern in Onehunga.

Will ‘Ilolahia was Fusimalohi’s cousin and he knew Fonoti from the Polynesian Panthers. When they asked ‘Ilolahia for a hand he went down to have a listen. “It was like that scene in The Blues Brothers where the band is playing behind chicken wire,” he says. “There were fights and jugs flying.” At the time he was managing Papa, a band with connections to Bastion Point through Dilworth Karaka and Alec Hawke, the younger brother of Ngāti Whātua campaigner Joe Hawke.

‘Ilolahia agreed to come on as manager, adding Karaka to the line-up for background vocals and guitar strum, and Backyard became Herbs.

Fonoti says his vision for the ideal band was himself as the Samoan, plus a Tongan, a Rarotongan, a Māori and a Pākehā. The later addition of Phil Toms created that dream band for the recording of its debut mini LP, Whats’ Be Happen? ”   Audioculture Iwi Waiata

“Bastion Point and the emerging land rights movement loomed large for the band. The cover shot of Whats’ Be Happen? was of police evicting land protesters from Takaparawhau/Bastion Point on 25 May 1978.

Band members took part in the occupation, and they also drew inspiration from, in the US, the Black Panthers and the Native American occupation of the former Alcatraz Prison, Aboriginal land rights in Australia, opposition to nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the fight against South Africa’s policy of apartheid or forced racial separation.

Whats’ Be Happen? hit the shops two months before the Springbok rugby team arrived in New Zealand on 19 July 1981 for a 56-day tour. This tour breached the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, in which governments of Commonwealth countries unanimously agreed to discourage – and withhold support for – sporting contact or competition with teams or sportspeople from South Africa or any other country where sports were organised on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin. 

Whats’ Be Happen? was released in time to be an Auckland Māori/Pacific soundtrack for the Springbok Tour, offering songs to be sung at rallies or played when people were healing tired and bruised bodies after the midweek and weekend protests. (The EP is a companion on the front line to Wellington band Riot 111 who – in a similar piece of cross-cultural synthesis – reclaimed the haka ‘Ka Mate’ from rugby and served it up as a punk call to arms.)”  Audioculture Iwi Waiata


“Herbs’ third release and first full album Long Ago, which featured the 1984 single of the same name, was produced by well-known New Zealand bass player Billy Kristian. In 1986, former Be-Bop Deluxe bassist/vocalist Charlie Tumahai joined the group, having been a session musician for various international acts.[6]

In 1986, “Slice of Heaven” with Dave Dobbyn reached number one on both the New Zealand and Australian charts. In 1989, Tim Finn joined them for “Parihaka” and, in 1992, Annie Crummer fronted the hit single “See What Love Can Do”.

Around this time the band forged into producing, providing instrumentation for Samoan singing sensation John Parker. The album titled Another Girl produced a local hit, a reggae-funk inspired cover of the maori folk song “E Papa”.”  Wikipedia

“Herbs are considered pioneers of the Pacific reggae sound,[4] having paved the way for contemporary New Zealand reggae groups such as Fat Freddy’s Drop, Katchafire, The Black Seeds, and Trinity Roots.

Although their last album of new material was released in 1990, Herbs still perform in New Zealand and Australia, with guitarist Dilworth Karaka the last remaining member of the original line-up that released Whats’ Be Happen? in 1981. Of the 2013 line-up, Karaka, keyboardist Tama Lundon (joined 1983) and percussionist Thom Nepia (joined 1985) remain from the band’s late 1980s commercial peak.

“Homegrown” is featured on the soundtrack of Once Were Warriors.”



What’s be Happen, Adam Gifford Audioculture Iwi Waiata

This article has been compiled from information, text and You Tube videos available online.

Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current Managing Editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand



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