Herbs And Freedom Songs For The New Revolution

I’ve just returned from a full-on weekend in Auckland. I originally come from Timaru. My father used to say, on learning that I’d been in that city, “Did you call in on your aunt Mary?” Having driven from Timaru to Auckland in the 1950’s he considered Auckland to be a far-far-off place. He could not conceive that I’d go for a single day for a sole meeting or such. Well dad, even though you and your sister Mary have been gone many a long year, last weekend I did it all: the Warriors at Mt Smart; Ihumatao with the “protectors”; and, the world premiere of Herbs: Songs of Freedom. If aunt Mary had still been alive I would have squeezed a visit in to her too.

First things first. Friday August 2 was cold and shitty. I feel morally obliged when in the city to contact my tuakana Pakeha, the Porangi Butcher, Sir Peter Leitch. Its game day. He’s retiring from it all next year, but this was a home game and he had his Stacey Jones’ Lounge to run. He’s at once host and spruiker.

The Mad Butcher’s Lounge is the last mancave. Members who bring guests are to warn them that, like old days’ sawdust on the butcher’s shop floor, there is potential for use of coarse language. Once the Butcher has the mike anyone in sight is fair game. His eyes canvass the crowd like a store manager looking for shoplifters, or a second-hand car dealer spotting a bewildered buyer and the opportunity for an easy sale. The Lounge is a bastion of anti-PC stalwarts and Pete sets out to entertain a variety of individuals of a certain age and life experience. Although, “to be fair”, as the nation’s most well known sausage maker prefaces most of his comments, it is also an opportunity to parade and fete those Sir Peter has assisted in their, mainly sporting, careers. And there are legions of them. That night there were All Blacks, Warriors, and, Dame Susan Devoy.

The Butcher lets it rip, one moment praising Dame Susan for her extraordinary domination of world squash and then ribbing her. Devoy didn’t win world titles without being able to deliver a good return serve and that night she gave the old man two good returns. Yes, brother butcher, time to retire.

It was freezing. The Warriors were woeful. I left at half time, the only thing I took from the game was a persistent head cold.

Ihumatao. I’m familiar with the place. In the late 1970’s I was a Detached Youth Worker alongside others such as Will Ilolahia and a young guy of Samoan descent Brian Lepou. Brian was one of a group of young activists involved in acts of resistance, most importantly through music and theatre. He was part of the grassroots Polynesian/Maori theatre company Maranga Mai.

I attended Brian’s tangi at Ihumatao and began to learn of the history of the place. In latter years we had several Auckland Black Power events there, and eventually Knockers Allen gained permission of his wife’s people to set up the Black Power MG clubrooms at Ihumatao.

In recent years, on my way to various events at Ihumatao, I’d frequently drive past the signage declaring intent to protect the land – it was as if it was the metaphoric “acre of dry grass” waiting in Maoist anticipation for the single spark to ignite the praire fire. Its happened.

The moment the law was invoked and eviction notices issued it made true Hemi’s (James K Baxter) prophetic statement, following Nga Tamatoa’s first protest at Waitangi in 1971, that what was being seen in the Maori protest group was “the back of a fish rising in the water. It is not the back of a terakihi or barracuda. It is the back of a whale. Maori militancy is here to stay.”

The members of SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) are smart, patient, and resolute. It is right to position the land in question as being part of our nation’s cultural landscape rather than as a Treaty issue. Here is one of the first examples of adaptive Polynesian horticulture in the last land on earth to be settled by humankind. It is our Stonehenge.

But the element most pertinent to the korero I share today is the use of cultural devices, powhiri, whaikorero, song, and haka. Theatre. And it is here that the events at Ihumatao fuse with the first public showing of Terepa Kahi’s documentary film, Herbs: Songs of Freedom.

In the International Film Festival’s promotional material Herbs’ lyricist and vocalist Toni Fonoti is quoted as saying “Herbs wasn’t just a band. Herbs is a movement”. And indeed, Herbs was part of a freedom movement. Every movement needs anthems, and Herbs provided them by the score.

The Herbs documentary uses a variety of filmic devices. Reviewer Graeme Tucketts acknowledges that in the film “history does get filtered” and to those of use that have intimate knowledge of the players that’s amusingly accurate.

A central source for material is Herbs re-assembling for an anniversary concert. A variety of archival footage is unearthed. The Bob Marley concert was identified as a catalyst for the formation of the band. It may have been a richer history if the 1979 Keskidee Tour, in which many of the key players were intimately involved, was acknowledged or referenced. I thought too the Joe Walsh membership of the group, albeit brief, would have added a further dimension.

As it is, the film is pretty much the Dilworth Karaka and Will Ilolahia show. Will assumes a Forrest Gump like ubiquity: Herbs lighting up Kanak resistance, and by the power of song causing the French to desist from further atmospheric testing; Herbs, again personified by Will in the form of Patu Squad, causing the Red Squad, as the Scots would put it, to think again.

Dilworth is positioned as the resolute matua through a revolving door that saw the entrance and exit of over 20 members. Toni Fonoti gets to have a welcome say. Promoter and manager Hugh Lynn consolidates the Greek Chorus by way of interpretive commentary.

But what the hell, Herbs: Songs of Freedom is fantastic. This movie is designed to light the fire under a new generation of activist and a grumpy curmudgeon like me quibbling over detail should zip it and get to the chase.

I laughed and sang. I cried. Last year 2018 saw the passing of three of the brothers, Thom Nepia, Carl Perkins, who literally bred House of Shem, and the Hendrix-like Tama Renata. But it was the memories of Fred Faleauto, with his young suicidal Polynesian cry out for help in ‘Dragons and Demons’, and the brilliant Charlie Tumahai, that brought the lump to my throat, and the realization that our own youth has gone.

We who are left now have the obligation to support our rangatahi in the fresh movements for revolutionary change: to reclaim the cultural landscapes; to liberate ourselves from the scourge of methamphetamine; and to reassert mana wahine, mana tane, eliminate domestic violence, and ensure the sanctity and protection of our children.  Sing songs of freedom!

I have seen the boulder lifted

From the back of the tribe. I have heard their singing voices.

I have felt their hands like the wind on the grass

Stroking my cheek, when it seemed all hope had gone

James K Baxter

Thank you, Herbs, your brother, Denis

Tags: Bob Marley  Denis O'Reilly  Ihumatao  James K Baxter  New Zealand Warriors  Peter Leitch