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Pioneers of the Pacific sound

Almost 40 years after their first gig as the support act to Stevie Wonder, a documentary about Pacific reggae band Herbs has just been released. Former music promoter Hugh Lynn helped launch the band into fame and later became their manager. Now living in Gisborne, Hugh talks to Mark Peters about Herbs’ early days from the time they first approached him with a clutch of demo tapes.

Maori showbands such as The Howard Morrison Quartet had a New Zealand sound Hugh Lynn was familiar with as a child from the early 1940s.

“Maori showbands were classy and very polished on stage but there was not so much recording with showbands back then,” he says.

By the time the New Zealand music scene adopted pop and rock, Hugh was 12 or 13 years old — the same age he saw the band The Sunbeams in which two future Herbs members played.

“I saw then that this musical talent had began to move away from big bands,” Hugh says.

“There was a progression from The Sunbeams to rock and roll with imports like The Rolling Stones, and New Zealand acts like Ray Columbus, the La De Das, and Max Merritt and The Meteors. What was happening in London and New York was happening here.”

With a combination of Maori and Pacific Island musicians, Herbs brought a Pacific identity to New Zealand music by the late 1970s, says Hugh.

“They were reggae but what was noticeable was that it was different from Jamaican reggae. Herbs pioneered the Pacific reggae sound. They opened the door for bands like Katchafire.”

By the early 1980s Hugh was a high-flying music promoter, the owner of the Warrior recording label. Herbs’ manager Will ‘Ilolahia, co-founder of the Polynesian Panthers, a group of young activists based in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, approached Hugh and gave him demo tapes made by the band. Hugh saw Herbs were different and wanted to do things their way, he told The New Zealand Herald in 2012.

‘Maybe we gave them a chance for peace’“Back then you needed a lot of confidence to make that jump [to recording] and I could see it was bubbling up from them. But it wasn’t going to be easy. They were a New Zealand band and Maori and Pacific Islanders at that — some people thought they looked like a gang — so they had a whole lot going against them.”

Formed in 1979, Herbs had a different voice. That voice was influenced by Jamaican reggae and as the band’s name suggests something of Jamaican subculture. Their songs had a political message but that message wasn’t aggressively pushed.

“Herbs started to say something. This was a voice from the street. It wasn’t a voice that was choreographed or stylised.

They had no money but a lot of talent and spoke of what was going on in their lives.

“Herbs brought a Pacific identity to New Zealand music.”

The band flagged its political colours with their 1981 debut album ‘What’s be Happen?’ Released on the eve of the controversial Springbok tour, the record sleeve featured an aerial shot of the police eviction of the Bastion Point protesters in 1978.

Herb’s 1982 single French Letter from the album Light Of The Pacific, reflected New Zealand’s stance on France’s nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific. Because the song’s title was a play on the antiquated word for a condom, the song got little air time on radio. French Letter, however, stayed in the singles charts for almost 11 weeks.

Hugh’s marketing strategy had something to do with that.

“Herbs were political but French Letter was banned because of the name. It was hard to get air time on radio. I knew the business though and how to get ourselves on the charts. The record association who put out the top 20 would keep tabs on shops and sales. This determined how popular a band was and where it went on the charts. If you could get on the top 10, radio stations would pay attention. If you were within the top five you’d get high rotation.

“I sent people out to buy Herbs’ singles from shops to drive the singles up the charts.”

Hugh instilled discipline in the band. For a tour of Australia, where pub bands commonly played for one hour and had a support act, Herbs performed for two hours. Instead of a support act the band played recorded sounds of birds and of people moving slowly through the bush.

The footfall was soft, not clear, says Hugh.

“Theatre is my business. You got the feeling of what it was like for Maori in that environment. When you use a mechanism like that, it’s far more powerful than a powerpoint presentation.”

Because Hugh was bringing in international acts, he used Herbs as a support for acts as diverse as Tina Turner, Rick Wakeman, Black Slate, UB40 and Stevie Wonder.

By this time, Hugh had already begun to identify more with his Maori heritage. Of Irish and Maori descent, he had been brought up in a largely European environment. He didn’t see Maori features when he looked in the mirror. Others did though. When Hugh, as a young man, went to pick up a girl to go out on a date, the girl’s father told him she wasn’t going out with a Maori and slammed the door in his face.

He was confused, but before his grandfather died the old man gave him a taiaha, patu and a chart of his whakapapa. Hugh practiced with the taiaha but kept hitting himself with it, he says.

“When Herbs arrived I realised this is my taiaha. This realisation of me ‘becoming’ Maori caused much upset in the business but I started to use my position to work with bands like Herbs.

“This thing inside me was so powerful, I eventually ended up working in Treaty settlement.”

The only member of Herbs to appear in all of the band’s seven albums is guitarist/singer Dilworth Karaka. Dilworth was concerned about the Ruatoria Rastafarians who were terrorising the East Coast town. From 1985 to 1990, more than 30 buildings were burned. These included houses, a police station, a fire station, businesses, a school, churches and a marae. A man was beheaded, a horse was dragged behind a car and later died and a police officer was kidnapped.

In the hope of uniting the community through music, the band set their sights on launching their album Sensitive To A Smile there.

“Looking back at Herbs’ 1987 visit to Ruatoria to launch the album, there seemed to be naivety among the Herbs camp and music media about the gravity of the problems that Ruatoria was facing and continued to face in the years that followed,” wrote Murray Cammick in 2014.

Hugh, however, realised much of New Zealand media had not been on a marae so were initially nervous.

“I was trying to achieve a social profit. Music is a powerful and lovely way to consume information. We went and saw the Rastas. Our idea was ‘what’s the solution to this?’ We can feel wrapped up in a cause but how do we get out of it?

“God willing, we made some sort of difference. Maybe we gave them a chance for peace.”

• The theatrical documentary, Herbs: Songs of Freedom, is now screening at the Odeon Multiplex.

THE HAND BEHIND HERBS: Now living in Gisborne former music promoter Hugh Lynn launched New Zealand reggae band Herbs. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell