It may have been any regular late Tuesday night at Wellington airport, apart from what seemed to be a growing number of leather clad Maori, warrior types in gang regalia gathering at the egress point for incoming international flight from Brisbane. As the passengers began to stream through the Customs’ checkpoint the warrior group became animated, and on the appearance of one passenger in particular, one of the group’s number, his face etched with traditional moko, stepped forward. He produced a patu, a short fighting club, and assumed the stance of the Maori challenge, tongue protruding, eyes wide and wild. The rest of the group fell in behind the first, and in unison broke into a haka, the ritual dance of challenge, of greeting, of respect. This was ‘Rongo Toa’, the haka of the Black Power.
Te rongo toa I am a warrior
O oku tipuna Who listens to the teachings of my ancestors
Ka hinga au, aue If I should fall in battle
Ka mate au, If I should die
Ka takoto toa Even if I am surrounded
Tena i karawhuia, By fallen comrades
Kia piki, Another will stand in my place
He hau toa A warrior wind blows
Aue hi! Aue hi!
The subject of their attention was a blond-haired middle-aged man pushing a luggage trolley stacked with bags amongst which, by the shape of the cases, were guitars. He was apparently a musician.
The visitor left his trolley and stood respectfully in front of the group. His body was inclined slightly forward and his hands clasped in front of him and extended towards the warriors in a signal of openness and peace.
At the conclusion of the haka two of the warrior group stepped forward and placed upon the ground a black guitar case. They opened the case and fell back into line. The challenger, eyes flashing, gesticulated to the visitor to pick up the contents. He did so; it was a 12 string Maton 425 “acoustic electric” guitar.
The legendary guitarist and rock icon Joe Walsh had just accepted the first challenge of the ‘Sinners Tour’ a project initiated by Mokai Whanau Ora, designed to raise awareness about methamphetamine use in New Zealand and to bring a message of hope, in that , with help, recovery is possible.
Joe Walsh had taken a break between a number of personal gigs, including the 50th Anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster held in London, where he played alongside other guitar playing legends, Brian May of Queen, Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Hugh Marvin of the Shadows, and his upcoming 30 gig world tour with the Eagles starting in Bangkok later in October
Joe had came this long way to the edge of the world to repay an act of friendship he enjoyed when he was touring New Zealand in 1989, with reggae band Herbs. At that time Joe was in the full grip of substance addiction, and in his words “on a journey to Hell”.
In those days we’d welcomed Joe and the brothers from Herbs at Waiohiki Marae, and, in a quiet moment I offered to take him up to the ancient pa site of Otatara across the river from the marae. It was one of those fantastic Hawke’s Bay late winter’s days where nature had cranked up the colour palate to its brightest hues. From the top of the hill, that part called Hikurangi, we could see the Bay, from Mahia in the north across the sweep past Mataruahou, now somewhat boringly called Napier Hill, through to Te Matau a Maui, Cape Kidnappers.
We walked and talked, stopping here and there for me to explain the topography, the purpose of the pits, the flat areas where whare once stood, the defensive trenches. The wind was keen and we sat down in a sheltered area just above the old marae atea, where the outlines of the wharenui, the main meeting house were still evident. From here we could still see the Cape. I had a bone carving on me. I seem to remember that one of the brothers had pressed it into my hand as we left the marae. It was a simple piece, a matau, a hook, and I passed it to Joe. I explained to him the story of how Maui had pulled up the fish, Te Ika a Maui, the North Island, and how the hook protruded through the belly of the fish and was visible still as the landform in front of us. And we just sat for a while.
There were no heavenly trumpets or observable tohu from the tipuna that surrounded us, but, as we were all to learn later, in or around that moment Joe Walsh experienced some sort of epiphany, a spiritual awakening. In retrospect it was probably the impact of a hundred encounters he had experienced in Aotearoa, Maori welcomes, expressions of aroha from people who had little in material terms but who were rich in spiritual wealth and were generous with it.
Time rolled on. We hooked up again during the Hell Freezes Over Tour when Joe sent us back stage passes. With the keenness of the god of drunks after who I am named I headed out to Western Springs to what I anticipated to be at least a fabulous bar, but backstage was dry and the whole place devoid of the usual recreational substances so long associated with rock’n'roll. Someone muttered something about Joe being “on the wagon” but I was generally underwhelmed and ignorant of the shift the brother had made in his life.
When we started on the Mokai Whanau Ora kaupapa I sent the call for help out to friends near and far. About the time I wrote the first blog in this Kupu Aroha series I was working out in the garden tending my Maori spuds when my mobile phone rang – don’t worry I have a rooster call as the ring tone, so there is no discordant noise pollution!
It was Joe Walsh. “Hey Denis, I have a few days spare in October, shall I come out and do something?” And so the idea of the Sinners’ Tour was born and the welcome at Wellington airport marked its reality.
I won’t go through the detail of the Tour. It was fantastic. If you’re interested, trawl through some of the web references and other material listed at the end of this blog. In brief though, we staged events at three venues, the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington, Otatara Pa in Hawke’s Bay, and Hoani Waititi Marae in Auckland.
Joe is known for touching hearts through music. This time he also touched hearts through the power of his words. In venue after venue when he spoke you could have heard a pin drop. In Parliament he reminded the community of law makers that addiction is an illness and that we needed to focus on making treatment available before we resort to imprisonment.
But, as you might expect, he had special words to say at Otatara, and these stemmed in part from something that happened at my home the evening before. My lady Taape and our German friend Jenny Weichbrodt had prepared kai. Jenny had baked a German bread – the boys commented that it tasted like paraoa – Maori bread. I’d invited Johnny Nepe-Apatu and Claude Te Kahika from the Hastings Mongrel Mob over for the meal and they arrived laden with crayfish and mussels.
His beard and hair were long
His breath smelt of mussels and paraoa
James K Baxter ‘The Maori Jesus’
I should tell you that Claude is the leader of the Hastings chapter of the Mob, and that a member of my team, Mane Adams, is the leader of the Hawke’s Bay Black Power. That night these two leaders talked between themselves and made undertakings for the following day.
It’s best that I relate to you the events of that day at Otatara in Joe’s own words as recorded by Doug Laing of Hawke’s Bay Today
“This is a special place, and it is very special to me. It was here on a visit many years ago, up on the hills, that I had a moment of clarity. I don’t understand it, but I reconnected with my soul, and I remembered who I used to be…I admitted I had problems and I had to do something about it. It was the beginning of my recovery from my addiction to alcohol and drugs and when I got back to America it gave me the courage to seek help. Methamphetamine is evil. If you are involved in bringing it into the country, or selling it, or manufacturing it, your ancestors are not at peace with you. You will eventually be responsible for people’s deaths, and when you go to meet your God, it will be a burden on your shoulders. I have tried it. It is a dead end. It goes nowhere. It’s a demon and it eats your soul from inside you. If you are doing meth I say to you, no matter how awful things are they will get worse beyond your wildest imagination. But you can come back, as hopeless as it will look. It was the hardest thing that I have ever had to do but it can be done”
And, as at each venue, after he had spoken Joe turned to play his guitar and then the keyboard, and as he did so, he vested the lyrics with a personal message for each listener.
Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you before it’s too late
Desperado ‘The Eagles’
And, at each place in turn, it was simply stunning to behold. People looked inside and made personal commitments to change. People looked at each other and made mutual commitments to change.
He worked no miracles
He sat on the ground playing his guitar
James K Baxter ‘The Maori Jesus’
But something miraculous did happen at Otatara – or near to it in my experience. As the last notes of ‘Desperado’ rang around that ancient site a body of men moved forward to pay tribute to the bard and began the rhythmic slap of the Ngati Kahungunu haka ‘Tika Tonu’. And, here’s the rub, amongst their number, fuelled by the discussion between Joe and their respective leaders the previous night, were men dressed in red and men dressed in blue, members of two competitive gangs, fully patched, battle regalia on, yet side by side, united in their Maoriness, united in their humanity, these responses catalysed by the love and humility demonstrated by Joe Walsh.
The overall impact of the Sinner’s Tour has been profound. Spirits have been raised, hope has had its larder replenished. The work now is to translate hope – a future that makes sense – into reality.
This future reality has to be whanau defined. It can’t just be some wishy washy dream, it needs shape and measurement, goals that are explicit and demonstrable. The way we’ll draw these goals out is through use of ‘cardsort’ – an interactive group process – and we’ll cluster these desired future statements around the areas of housing, health, education and employment/enterprise.
And that’s the current mission. We’re starting off this month working with 50 hard to reach and hard to serve whanau in Wellington City, and I’m sure that I will be able to report back to you next time that we’ve actually engaged with many more whanau than that and across a broader geography.
This work can be tough and it can be shitty. At this point in our korero I could have easily told you a raft of grim stories, bleak, depressing news that might risk your soul being curdled with the acidic bile of cynicism. As a people we Kiwis often seem to indulge in Jansenism and delight in focusing on the dark behaviour, our social failings; and then, having beat up on the worst aspects of our presentation as human beings, we bleat about it, generally in an outraged tone, and often in the name of God.
That’s the easy stuff. The hard part is doing something about whatever that dark thing is that has us troubled. That takes a different focus; the focus on light, of hope, of possibility.
Forgive my Irish-derived Catholicism but if it’s God you are fond of quoting its worth considering that He’s only four lines into Genesis, the first book of the Bible, before He’s got His scribe having Him say “Let there be light”.
And lighten up we shall.
‘Reformed drug user hits cord’
Editorial Hawke’s Bay Today October 7
“P linked to near fatal bashing”
Hawke’s Bay Today October 7
“Message with a melody”
NZ Herald October 7
“Gang Rivals join to fight ‘demon P’”
Hawke’s Bay Today October 8
“Eagle visits ‘special place’”
The Dominion Post October 8
“Denial the real horror says P abuse victim”
HB Today October 9
Eagles’ guitarist on anti-P crusade (TVNZ) (10/7/04)
Stream video of TVNZ report (10/7/04)
Message with a melody (New Zealand Herald) (10/7/04)
Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh talks about drug addiction risks (10/7/04)
Joe Walsh anti-drugs concert for MPs, guests (10/5/04)
Eagles guitarist helping fight against P (10/6/04)
Series of reports from Stuff:
Ex-Eagle’s anti-drug message reaches Parliament (10/6/04)
Desperado comes clean (10/7/04)
Eagle visits ‘special place’ (10/8/04)