Reggae’s Doing Fine

Welcome to 2009. May it go well for you and yours. I’ve had a great start. I was pretty stuffed at the end of last year, but a bit of time off and a break to the routine did what holidays are meant to do. Christmas proved to be an intensive whanau time at the homestead in Waiohiki. We had up to thirty staying at home on any given night. A week or two of close proximity to one another stirs the memories of tribal living and enables a more relaxed and humanly richer lifestyle. Simple things like playing table tennis and having swims at the river provide the main entertainment, and meals are shared, either side of waking and the slow fall of night. But, with Waitangi Day come and gone reality bites again. Despite the global economic crisis the social devils of the day are again ‘gangsters’ rather than ‘banksters’. The airwaves and tabloids are full of the language of hate and accusation – all gang members are “filth, criminals, low life, scum ilk, useless, aspirationless, ambitionless, young thugs” according to broadcaster and disappointed father Paul Holmes. “And as soon as all the parties get off their arses and, once and for all, find a way to ban the Headhunters, the Mongrel Mob and all other filthy gangs, the better.”

Denis and Ziggy Marley.

So it comes as no surprise that the Gangs and Organised Crime Bill has been considered under urgency and passed its first reading by 109 votes to 14. Whoa, it looks like the point of view I hold about these matters is very much the minority perspective – mind you that has been the same in regards to the Vietnam War, Bastion Point, and about a hundred other causes that seemed radical and out of step at the time but have eventually earned wider support. The 14 votes in opposition came from the Maori Party and the Greens. It is a relief to see the Maori Party taking a contrary viewpoint to its Government partner in respect of this proposed legislation because is fundamentally flawed in principle as it will be in application. The Gangs and Organised Crime Bill intends to:

  • Double the penalty for participation in a criminal gang to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment;
  • Make involvement in a criminal gang an aggravating factor in sentencing;
  • Give Police authority to apply for interception warrants to investigate the offence of participation in a criminal gang, and lower the threshold for offences that can be used as the basis for warrants, from those attracting 10 years in prison to those attracting seven years or more;
  • Enable removal orders to be sought from a Court to remove gang forts;

The Bill is pretty much what the previous Government intended to do which explains the Labour votes of support. The proposed legislation is full of ambiguity and betrays poor understanding of the situation on the street. It fails to differentiate between gang as New Zealanders generally think of them – Hori from the Black Power and Hemi from the Mongrel Mob – and the actual reality of criminal gangs. For instance Justice Minister Simon Power said that

“By doubling the sentence for participation in a gang we are reflecting the culpability of those gang leaders who organise the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine”

I’m all for stopping the P trade. It is immensely destructive and is intolerable. However the bulk of the crap is coming across our borders from Asia, particularly China. Hori and Hemi are well down the distribution chain. Yet, that’s who we seem to be primarily targeting with this intended legislation. There is a racial flavour to the political korero. If you listen to the language in the House its Maori gangs they are essentially incensed about. If you are a young Maori it may pay to become politicised, fast. Between 2004 and 2007 there were 339 prosecutions for participating in a gang but only 19 convictions and this may have something to do with the difficulty in defining just what we are talking about. For instance in Washington State USA the Anti-Gang Act defines a criminal street gang as:

“a group of three or more people who commit crime and, whether formally or informally, share a common name or identifying sign”

On that basis, in light of the outrageous ‘bankster’ behaviours of members of our financial sector, we would be trawling the membership lists of the Lions and Jaycees looking for conspiracies amongst company directors. Not likely though, eh! My friend Chris Tremain MP gave an impassioned speech in Parliament this week, citing gang related incidents that had happened in the Hawke’s Bay; a Mongrel Mobster headbutting an elderly lady shopkeeper and helping himself to food she had for sale, and the tragic case of the brave farmer trying to stop a member from the same gang assaulting a woman, and being knifed to death as a result. These are horrible and intolerable behaviours and deserve the firmest possible measures in response. Like, I suspect, the majority of New Zealanders (probably at a ratio 109:14), Chris positions the ‘gangs’ as a ‘Maori’ problem – never mind the European and Asian crews. Gangsters were hiding behind tikanga Chris says, and Maori communities need face up to their responsibilities and expunge these people.

I disagree. The Maori gang culture as we experience arises from alienation. The antidote is acculturation as Maori, and socialisation as New Zealand citizens. The objective must be to have the majority of those currently in our Maori gangs being good mums and dads and taxpaying citizens. Surely that’s got to be the aim? I’m not here to defend the indefensible or to argue on behalf of the continuance of gangs. I repeat at every opportunity my belief that being in a gang is, like being in prison, a waste of time and human potential. I could mount an evidence-based argument that the phenomenon of Maori gangs is essentially a consequence of colonisation and subsequent counter productive Governmental policies, but I’ll leave that exposition to the Black Power’s Waitangi Claim. No, what we need to focus on at this time is what we have to do solve the problem now, and into the future. It will be a good day when there are no Maori gangs, but it is an issue that has been with us for some forty years and will be with us for some time yet. We better have a considered crack at mitigating the situation right now before the recession delivers us widespread unemployment and even more idle hands looking for the devil’s work. Despite the kind economic conditions of the immediate past decade, and tougher and increasingly suppressive policies, we still have no end to the problem in sight.

In fact all that has happened is that we have doubled the prison population and a continuing upward trajectory in the muster. It reminds me of one of those scenes in Star Trek where the lurking space monster gobbles up and is augmented by the effects of the Enterprise’s ray guns. ‘Switch off the energy source Captain Key”. What we have been doing seems to have made the situation worse and, because we are continuing on the same tack, what we now intend to do will much it worse still. We’ve not looked at ‘gangs’ in a comprehensive way since 1987 in the days of the good Judge, Justice Sir Clinton Roper. The Labour Government promised a Royal Commission or such on the matter of gangs if it were re-elected. Maybe that’s what we need to hold? Labour surely wouldn’t oppose such a course of action by the National ACT Maori Party axis. We need to approach this issue across disciplines and along a broad front, rather than just hold what has become a seemingly annual criminal justice ‘zeppelin panic’. We need the debate, urgently. I heard the wail of desperation and pain from Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell, stung by the tragic events in Murupara. He’s hurting, just like his constituents, the whanau of young Jordan Herewini, killed in what looks to have been a deliberate hit and run outside the kid’s home in Murupara. It is said that this tragedy was a result of a spat between two Maori gangs – the Tribesmen and a number of visiting Mongrel Mob members. The Mob were in the area because of a tangi. Te Ururoa voiced his pain saying that perhaps gang members shouldn’t be allowed on marae, or shouldn’t be gifted the tradition of tangihana. The proposition has some support at hapu level. Its deep stuff, and the issue is ubiquitous. These Maori gang members come from somewhere. They are someone’s children, and belong to hapu, and to iwi. I keep on specifically stating ‘Maori gang’ members because I believe that there is a difference between Maori gang and gang per se. I think there are differing causal effects, different solutions, and a higher chance of success with members of a Maori gang than with the international gang or the determinedly criminal gang. So, at heart are Maori gang members whanau members, or are they total social devils? Are they members of an ‘ism’ (Mongrelism, Black Powerism, Tribesmanism) rather than members of a shared whakapapa? Do you bring them in and enable them to contribute to community or kick them out, outlaw them? Are they cells of the international criminal conspiracy or essentially participants in social phenomena? There’s a valid point of view in response to each side of those questions. But we better get into the dialogue. For the last decade we’ve looked for answers from within the pools of Government policy analysts (often trapped in an ideology that considers the gang member to be a non-citizen) so accordingly the answers haven’t been there to be found.

When confronted by such a conundrum Maori researcher Fiona Cram has used an approach she describes as ‘Complementary Expertise’. This method aims to devise methods both to identify likely concentrations of knowledge and to elicit the expression of that knowledge by those who have it but may not immediately recognise its relevance to the issue at hand. (Goven, Cram, and Gilbert, 2004:4). Knowledge relevant to decisions that are often seen as narrowly technical may in fact be widely distributed in society. This means that many who hold knowledge relevant to the development of good policy are not within the circles typically involved in policy making or consultation underpinning policy. This points us towards the need to engage at iwi, hapu and whanau level in terms of solving the big questions around Maori gangs. In my heart I believe that the culture of New Zealand Maori ‘gangism’ can and should pass. I believe that the Maori gang as we know it can be replaced by a widely shared positive focus on personal achievement, within a whanau hapu tribal complex. I think we can help shift these misapplied intellects and self defeating behaviours into a new form of ‘nga tamatoa’, developmental warriors committed to their tribes and communities. But we need great leadership for this to be so: leadership from within Maori gangs; leadership from within the tribes; and leadership from within the political apparatus. The issue remains unresolved and is seen annoy the public at large, disgrace Maoridom, and confound the drive towards Puawaitanga – the fulfilment of Maori potential. The members of the current political axis of power (National Act Maori) have been promoting a fresh approach to Maori issues, so let us accept that Maori gangs are a Maori issue. Tau Henare, in his first speech of the year, said that the new Government was “Ka Awatea”, representing a new dawn of policies. Hardly. What we’re seeing in this instance is the same old ‘crush and suppress’ policy. The Maori Party need to move past the angst exhibited by Te Ururoa, grab this problematic as a serious issue to be resolved on behalf of the nation, and have a decent crack at it. Both Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia have an understanding of the issue at a deep experiential level and here is an opportunity to eschew the failed policies of the past and develop a by Maori for New Zealand response. The New Zealand Maori gang problem is resolvable but to do so it needs a broader lens than law and order alone, and it needs political will, community leadership, intelligence, pragmatism, and much courage.

There has been understandable upset over the shooting to death by a Police marksman of Halatau Naitoko, a young Tongan father, on Auckland’s western motorway. The Police took action because of the crazed and extremely dangerous behaviour of an alleged car thief and gunman, Stephen Macdonald, who they spooked in a suburban street, and who then fled in what is suggested by his lawyer to have been a P fuelled panic. The incident reached its tragic conclusion when Naitoko, trapped in his work van in traffic, literally ‘copped’ a shot from a Policeman’s high powered rifle. It may have arisen from a case of mistaken identity, as a result of poor aim, or be a deflected bullet. The cause is important. It will have bearing on the way in which Police handle similar situations in the future. But, in the moment, the young man lies cold in his grave. The grief stricken howls of family and friends and those who love him will find an internalised echo in the hearts and minds of all those involved, and grief and regret will surely fill every waking hour and fretful dream of the bloke who pulled the fatal trigger. It is a tragedy, a no-win situation, but it deserves careful and considered examination. Once it became clear that the Police had made a mistake the Police Association as one might expect, moved in to defend their colleague. The Association pointed out that this awful outcome occurred as a result of the actions of the alleged offender. The Police had to make a tough call in a rampaging situation where many innocent people were at risk. “It is,” the Association spokesman said “a war out there.”

Language is important. It is not a war out there. This is Aotearoa and there is civil peace in our fair green land and long may it stay so. By popular demand we have a generally un-armed constabulary. The Police are not a military organisation. They dropped the “Force” status many years back. But, if you are dressed in para-military gears, carrying military style hardware, and exist in ‘them or us’ culture, then, in the heat of an alarming situation such as occurred in Auckland on that recent, sad, day, it may be easy to slip into the paradigm of war and accept collateral damage. It was good to see Judith Collins the Minister of Police taking a ‘buck stops here’ attitude and fronting up to the family straight away. That’s leadership, although there seems to be some polarisation between the Police leadership and the unionised front line. The Commissioner, Howard Broad, made a very human and restorative visit to the family and expressed his personal opinion that, at the appropriate time, the officer who killed their boy should meet face to face with the family. The family have already expressed their forgiveness but the mum has said that she would like to see the face of the man who took her son’s life. This is the Polynesian way and is likely to be good for everyone; forgiveness is a powerful force and can lift the burden of a mistake, especially one with such far reaching consequences. Whilst there will be enquiries and hearings over the incident should it proceed to open Court as a case of manslaughter as suggested by the family spokesman? All things considered, probably.

Recently, on National Radio, Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, speaking of compensation for victims on what seems to be his weekly slot on Jim Mora’s programme, said that justice not only has to be done but has to be seen to be done. Jim didn’t think to ask him about his views about the situation with Halatau. We’ve seen now too the sentence passed on Bruce Emery – four years three months – for the knifing to death of young Pihema Cameron. One might reasonably expect the Sensible Sentencing Trust to be morally obliged to champion the Naitoko family’s cause, and that of the Cameron whanau with the same vigour they have done for so many others. Don’t hold your breath though.

Metaphoric loose fire and shrapnel have been going in all directions around West Auckland over another matter as well. Hon. Paula Bennett MP, our new Minister of Social Development, has copped flack for allowing her virtual ‘son in law’, the dad to her granddaughter, to serve out his bail conditions at her address for ten months and for writing submissions to the Court on his behalf. The bloke, Viliami Halaholo, reputedly a street gang member, is now in prison for four or so years. He’s gone through the criminal justice system, has been found guilty and has been allocated his due period of punishment. Why criticise this mum for providing whanau support and modelling the actions you’d hope any of us would do in similar circumstances? I accept that it might be a bit embarrassing for a Minister of the Crown to have a whanau member in trouble, and it does erode the notional ‘mana’ of the whanau, but beyond that, why pillory Paula? I don’t know her personally, but what I’ve seen and heard of her is most encouraging. She seems to have a practical grip on life and is acting like a human being rather than a political zombie or puppet. For example she recently jumped into a fight between some Westie girls who were scrapping on the street. Paula stopped the fight, gave them a firm motherly lecture, and sent them on their way. And here, in this instance she’s stuck by her daughter and granddaughter, and for that matter the figurative ‘son in law’ as well, enabled the justice system to do its work by providing a place where the guy’s bail conditions could be met and were met, saved the nation about $60k in the costs of otherwise having him locked up for 10 months, and, by her actions affirmed to her family that she’d be there for them good times and bad. Give the lady a prize! The chances of a rehabilitated offender, and of loving and respectful relationships between the daughter granddaughter and father, have been improved regardless of what the family circumstances are in the future. It’s hardly the stuff of Outrageous Fortune. But, no, the Sunday tabloids want to beat a drum over it and make it sound like she’s had some sort of Ministerial lapse of judgement even though these actions predate her Warrant by a long period. I tell you, in a time when we face the reality of a widespread culture of youth gangs, a large prison population, lots of kids without dads around, and a growing issue of unemployment amongst low decile brown skinned communities, I like the thought of having a Minister of Social Development who has the life experience of the Hon Paula Bennett. But hell, it looks like the bureaucrats and political soothsayers are going to wind her in and shut down her human and pragmatic responses.

I missed the Parihaka Peace Festival, however, by all accounts from friends and whanau, it was once again, uplifting and immensely enjoyable. John Dix told me that they had an attendance of 12,000, a majority of whom were Pakeha – way to go Tangata Tiriti! The weather turned sour on the final day and the event managers had to close the mainstage, regroup the production equipment, and then fire up again. They did all that with only 40 minutes down time. That’s an indication of the superb team that they’ve assembled. Olmecha Mahal, Taj’s son, ran a music workshop for the youth. He took about 70 teenagers and after one full day of workshop they were able to perform on the mainstage. Word is they were great. There was a choir workshop too, people of all sorts learning ‘world music’ about freedom and passive resistance. This participative stuff is fantastic and its one of the ways in which Parihaka differentiates itself. Parihaka is more like a waananga than a ‘big day out’. Once again there were no arrests or serious incidents although there was a story about kids smoking cannabis, originally published in the Taranaki Daily News (‘Parihaka Drug Shock for Warden’ Tuesday, 13 January 2009) and subsequently reprinted in numerous publications, plus broadcast on radio and television. It sounded disturbing. The article reported a “high profile Maori Warden”, Imelda Mauriri, claiming that that the only reason that the Festival was peaceful was because everyone was stoned. Imelda apparently saw children as young as ten and eleven smoking cannabis at the event, and parents “so stoned they couldn’t find their babies”. My previous experience at Parihaka is that there is very little obvious drug taking as compared to mainstream events. It would be naïve to think there wasn’t any drug use at all but to me the most apparent drug-related feature of the event is the relatively low presence of alcohol and the complete absence of obnoxious drunken people. In any case something about the story sounded dissonant. A Maori Warden is ordinarily unlikely to speak to the media in the way Imelda did. Whilst the Maori Wardens’ kaupapa is ‘He aroha ki te tangata – love to all the people” they do have a quasi coercive role, and you’d expect them to intervene on the spot if they saw a child smoking dope – hell, a ten year old isn’t even allowed cigarettes – or parents so disoriented they couldn’t find their tamariki. However, whilst the Wardens would drive home accountability to a whanau whose members were behaving badly, their approach would be respectful and wouldn’t ‘takahi’ or tramp on the mana of the wider hapu network. The Maori Wardens would engage the broader whanau and hapu elders and make a real issue of the problem amongst all those involved. They’d act in the moment, and take the opportunity to try and turn the intervention into a sustainable good outcome. They wouldn’t spout about the issue to the media; they’d try and fix it. The Maori Wardens played an important role post-war when Maori society was confronted with the drug issue of those times – the new drinking habits of returned service men – and the social dislocation created by the urban drift. The role was diminished in the 1990’s as the New Zealand Maori Council – to whom, through a marae-based District Maori Committee network, the Maori Warden are accountable – was increasingly sidelined as new hapu-based tribal authorities began to form around Treaty Settlements. However in recent years they’ve been increasingly seen as a useful device to foster community-based policing amongst Maori communities. It has been an intelligent move driven by some of the more enlightened sectors of the NZ Police. It has been aligned with a move to developed iwi-determined crime reduction and crime management strategies. Accordingly the Maori Wardens have been given improved training and increased operational resources and are playing an important role at the interface between Maori society and the modern criminal justice system. But, as I’ve said, dealing with community issues through bad mouthing to the press isn’t their style. I wasn’t surprised then to see a Press Release from the Taranaki District Maori Wardens’ Association (5 February, 2009) reporting that ‘Miss Mauriri’ had been censured for making her statements. It appeared that she wasn’t at the Festival in any official capacity but was working in a food stall. Moreover, in explanation, she said she’d been somewhat misreported. In the overall scheme of things this isn’t a big issue but it does portray a sad tendency of our media, the inclination to shit all over the fragile developmental efforts of Maori communities. What sort of responsibility does the media hold in a case like this? Do they give a one sided story as presented by a chosen voice or are they obliged to contextualise what’s being said, both in its reality and in the integrity of its source? What are the media obligations to present a balanced report of the drug taking behaviour at the event? Did any journalist enquire of the Police on site as to what their view and experience at the Festival was? Is what now looks to be an example of poorly researched hype an example of professional laziness on the part of the journalist and editor, or is it part of a deliberate and cynical editorial policy designed to sell papers? Whatever, the impact of such a shitty story is that it unfairly reinforces the inaccurate positioning to the mainstream that Maori are a criminal class. It also dumps on what is rapidly becoming an iconic national event. Besides being good fun, the Parihaka Peace Festival not only bridges the cultural divide between Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti, but it also provides lessons, and teaches skills, in the art of passive resistance. That’s a necessary skill for any nation builder in these complex days. The story about drug use had plenty of column inches and air time. The rebuttal has been studiously ignored. You read it here first! Ha!

Thirty years ago Aotearoa was visited by the legendary Robert Nesta Marley. Bob made a huge impact on Aotearoa and his birthday, February 6th, is as significant to some of our citizens as is the commemoration of the Treaty of Waitangi on the same day. The Auckland War Memorial Museum has taken up a challenge put by Sir Paul Reeves to celebrate the dynamic of culture rather than attempt to provide static enthnographic descriptions. I was quite excited to learn that their event crew had hooked up with the Ragamuffin promoters and organised a powhiri to welcome Bob’s whanau, Ziggy, as well as the wider entourage. Dilworth Karaka from Herbs got hold of me and suggested that I be part of the powhiri and I was keen as. The Museum people then emailed and asked me to participate in an event called ‘Late’ to be held after the powhiri. This second stanza was to be moderated by Finlay MacDonald, and have David Slack, Carol Archie, Sir Paul Reeves, Moana Maniapoto and myself as a panel.

Panel left to right Carol Archie, Moana Maniapoto, David Slack, Sir Paul Reeves, Denis.

The topic was to be around the Maori Pakeha cultural dynamic and related issues of identity. This korero was then to be followed by a third part in the form of a concert from Moana and the Tribe, and then Little Bushman. It was an eclectic proposition to say the least. I headed up with Taape the day before so I could have a chat with Marilyn Waring and Love Chile about undertaking a PhD through the AUT Institute of Public Policy – and that’s the part-time plan for the next four years. Mane and his son Aaron met up with us in town and we headed out to the Auckland Museum for the powhiri. I’d looked forward to the chance to get into some korero about what went down in the late 1970’s and why reggae and the Rastafarian influence had so strongly taken seed here in Aotearoa.

Auckland War Memorial Museum, Aaron, Eddie Grant, Munz.

It was not to be. I don’t mean to be insulting, and I accept that it is hard to fuse the organisational needs of an institution with a free flow exchange within the bounds of tikanga, but the welcome had many of the features of rent-a-powhiri along the lines of a tourist experience. Despite the fact that amongst those that were gathered there was the collective memory of reggae and Rasta in Aotearoa (Tigi Ness, Dilworth Karaka, Taape and myself to name some) and the contemporary face – Ziggy Marley, Eddie Grant, from the African tradition, and the Crates and Three Houses Down from the Pacific, there was no discussion of the Afro-Caribbean and Polynesian ‘cultural dynamic’ identified by Sir Paul.

It was a missed opportunity. It’s a story worth exploring. Since the time I had been invited to participate in the powhiri I had started reflecting on what was going down here in Aotearoa at the time Bob visited and why reggae took such a hold. For my part the gang issue was to the fore and there were shooting wars and big stoushes on the streets. I was networking as a Detached Youth Worker alongside the likes of Will Ilolahia. Will was a leader in the Polynesian Panthers, and was working with the King Cobras, and the Headhunters. Just like the present effort with Nga Mokai we were looking for a way forward. You can’t solve a problem at the same level as which it is created. You need to find new ways of framing ideas and action. It seemed to me at the time that music and theatre were powerful ways to talk about and address issues of social justice that we were confronting. There was energy around a new (to us) music genre called reggae and the source of this energy was Jamaica. I determined that I was going to get there and see for myself. In 1977 after persistent door knocking I was awarded a travel grant from the Commonwealth Youth Programme and I used this to get me to Kingston Jamaica. I had a Governmental letter of introduction from Rob Muldoon to the then Prime Minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, but there was a political crisis at the time. A virtual curfew was in effect and I didn’t push my luck, choosing to just mix it at community level in the Kingston Streets of Spanishtown Road, and Matilda Corner. With an improved understanding of roots reggae and Rasta I went on to London, venturing out to Brixton and Islington. I visited a number of community based youth clubs. It was a pretty heavy time. Black white relationships were strained and there had been a series of riot type events at local authority housing blocks in the immigrant districts. One night at the Railway Round House I saw a play called ‘Scenes from Soweto’. It was performed by members of an Afro-Caribbean Arts Centre called Keskidee. I went to their studios, an old church hall in Islington, and watched them at work. They had a Rasta band called Ras Messengers and the mix of theatre and music just wowed me. I convinced myself I was going to get them to New Zealand and enlist them in a drive to bring ‘the street’ together by staging a tour around the communities of Aotearoa. It was a pretty crazy dream. Getting the entire Keskidee troupe to the other side of the world and then touring them around Aotearoa for a month was a big challenge and would require, even in the late 1970’s, some $60,000. Back home in the hood I shared the dream, and slowly but surely started to build buy-in from a growing body of people. We formed a team. We were from different places and different races. Some of us were from otherwise opposing gangs. Despite our diversity and even disparate views we formed a national collective, calling ourselves Keskidee Aroha, and committed ourselves to bringing the Keskidee troupe out to New Zealand. Whilst we all got on well at a superficial level there was quite deep distrust – for instance between the rival gang participants – when it got down to the nitty gritty. We figured that if we were going to take on such a programme we had better put ourselves through the wringer first. We ran these really intense hui almost along the lines of an encounter group. The sessions were facilitated by Tim Dyce and were full of reflective processes. Damn they were intense, but the friendships that emerged still hold true today. As the Keskidee Aroha tour concept took shape we developed the idea to keep the artists with the people and to do our best to ensure that there was an actual exchange of culture so that it could serve as a catalyst to our own cultural development. I’d rustled up support for the project from several quarters. One source was the Caloutse Gulbenkian Foundation from Lisbon, the richest philanthropic organisation in the world. They had a Commonwealth branch in London and were into some cutting edge community arts projects. I convinced Dr Michael Volkerling of the QE11 Arts Council to visit Keskidee when he was visiting London, and then got letters from him and from Rob Muldoon, as Prime Minister, to support the Gulbenkian application. We also talked Internal Affairs into sponsoring Tigi Ness on a trip to London as our delegate to Keskidee. Tigi spent time with them so they could better understand what we were about, and to finalise the details and conditions of the tour. When Tigi returned we held a hui of the national collective here in Hawke’s Bay. Tigi presented us with what was to become our logo. It represented the common womb of all people, the palm tree as the twin symbols of the Pacific and of the Caribbean, the palm leaf as the dreadlocks of Rastafari and the African roots of Keskidee, and the bottom koru as the Maori roots of the project.

There were 14 artists who agreed to travel to New Zealand, including Ras Messengers. Rob Muldoon applied some suasion over Internal Affairs and under the Prime Minister’s guidance they agreed to underwrite the project for $20,000. The Gulbenkians gave us £8,000 pounds sterling, about $16,000 Kiwi, and the Arts Council threw in $14,000 to cover the touring troupe’s wages. We did a contra deal with Air New Zealand. Todd Motors and Avis went three ways with us on the costs of a fleet of mini buses. Sir Russell Pettigrew gave us a truck and had one of his companies, Dale Freightways, fix it up when it crapped out. We also received sponsorship from the Sutherland Trust, Nambassa Trust, the Willi Fels Memorial Trust, and Accord. With the support of the Film Commission we had come to an agreement with Merita Mita and Martyn Sanderson that they would film the tour. It was good company all around. By early May 1979 we were ready to roll. However there was growing tension over Muldoon’s involvement. Some believed that our project was just a way of distracting a large number of radicals from more meaningful issues. The Bastion Point occupation was hot and some members of the national collective became involved in ‘He Taua’, the war party that bashed of a group of Auckland University Engineering students who were taking the piss out of the haka as part of their annual capping day stunts. The Keskidee project was right in the middle of a rising sense of black consciousness. This led to a huge blow up amongst the national collective and on the eve of the tour start a split occurred along racial lines.

For a while the view prevailed that the Pakeha members of the collective should withdraw and not be involved. My lady Taape was welcome at meetings but I was not. However the following day Keskidee failed to arrive on their flight. It transpired that despite the implicit expectations of a ‘black brotherhood’, and Tigi’s time with them, they were not happy with their compensation and we had to renegotiate the whole deal. It suggested that ethnicity, skin colour, and minority status did not necessarily provide an automatically shared kaupapa. It all took a little time to reorganise flights and tour venues, and in that space cooler heads and more inclusive approach was taken. We found a way to reunite as a collective. The tour was planned to start in the Far North as a salute to the Maori Land March. Even though they’d just flown half way round the world we bundled the Keskidee troupe into the mini-buses at Auckland airport and drove through the night to the ‘tail of the fish’ and the gates of Te Reo Mihi. Our kuia Wehe Wallace, Jimmy Baxter’s great friend and supporter from Jerusalem, gave voice in reply to the welcoming call from Te Aoupouri, and this signalled the start of an extraordinary month of cultural exchange, full of theatre, and not all of it limited to the stage. During the tour the Keskidee theatre company staged a range of its plays: ‘Scenes from Soweto’, ‘Eden’, ‘Malcouchon’, ‘Black Woman’, and ‘Lament for Rastafari’. The band, Ras Messengers, spread the word through their reggae sessions. We worked hard, and put on performances and workshops at a high rate and in a wide variety of venues and locations; in Kaikohe at Otiria marae; at Morewa with a large group of Stormtrooper gang members; at Te Omeka near Matamata. This latter venue attracted a mainly Pakeha audience who thought they were going to experience a night of Harry Belafonte type calypso. Instead they got full on racially confrontative theatre, and it freaked them out. When we were in Whakatane, Wanjiku wu Kairie performed her solo act called “Black Woman”. Wanjiku’s character is locked in a South African jail and is repeatedly raped by a white warder, day after day. The physicality of the piece was incredible. Wanjiku would be thrown around the stage by an unseen force, and the act of rape was graphic and disturbing. I watched some of the local Black Power become visibly affected by the show, perhaps considering their own regular behaviours with the ‘block’ whereby women would be pack raped. Perhaps this was one of the triggers to the Black Power’s change in behaviour regarding rape. Back in Auckland we had a gig at the Gluepot with the King Cobras, and another with the Headhunters out in the West. Porirua reggae pioneers Kaos played at this event. I wrote at the time

“The gang image was new for Keskidee. Most of them were amazed, fascinated by the dress and demeanour and the size of the gangs and the gang members – and after this initial reaction I think they may also have tasted fear”. Keskidee Aroha Report, 1980

The day after the Headhunters gig we were due to perform at Paremoremo Prison, but the Keskidee troupe had had enough. They were in deep culture shock. The effect of constant travel, lack of personal space staying on marae, new food, and the ubiquity of scary looking people, had taken their toll on their collective psyche and they were freaking out. We went out to the jail with a makeshift crew and put on what my brother Waki McKinnon, then serving a life sentence, told me was the worst performance of any group that had visited the jail during his time there. But we persisted. We had a memorable visit to the Social Welfare Boys Home at Kohitere in Levin. The Keskidee crew were in a scrappy mood, seeing what appeared to be white warders standing over brown kids. Rufus Collins, the Keskidee director, witnessed a senior staff member talking rudely and in a demeaning way to a young Maori guy in the dining room. Rufus put on a one man show of his own, demonstrating the art of theatrical improvisation as he wielded the scalpel of mocking wit and in front of the entire institution eviscerated the bully. It was Oscar winning stuff. The management bundled us out of there as quickly as they could, but the job was done; every kid in that room that day felt empowered. We parked up at Takupuwahia Marae at Porirua. It was the early days of the ‘Shanty Town’ settlement and Elma Rei and his whanau were pumping with Kaos. They got on well with Ras Messengers and just jammed whenever possible. We put on a show at the Wellington Trades Hall. The hall was lit with a steely blue light and just before the show was to begin Tama Poata stood and gave a mihi to the ‘manuhiri tuarangi’. And then Wi Kuki Kaa stood and spoke. It was surreal. The whole dream of reciprocal cultural exchange became real for us in front of our eyes. And then, on, on, to Wairoa and Takitimu where Rufus had a heated cultural debate with Canon Wi Te Tau Huata; on to Gisborne and Te Poho O Rawiri Marae, and then a foray with Ras Messengers and Dilworth Karaka and some of the Kiwi musos, up the Coast to Uawa, Tologa Bay. Next to Ruatoki with the then fresh faced Tame Iti, and finally back to Akarana for the final do at Te Puke Otara. This last gig nearly blew up in our faces. I’d naively encouraged the Blacks to come across without ensuring clear lines of communication and control. It was only a year ago that I learned of some of the crap that went down that night between some of the Blacks and the younger locals who were more or less members of the Stormtroopers. The Blacks were an older crew and they laid into these young guys from Otara. The Otara crew felt I’d set them up and the relationship was tense for some time. It wasn’t so, but I accept it was a bad call on my part. Aroha mai.

The point of this long winded shaggy dog tale is this. I believe the Keskidee Aroha project provided a useful cultural dynamic at a crucial time. It helped many people take their anger and frustration and turn it from violent and destructive outrage into change fostering political theatre. I have heard Tigi poignantly talk of this shift away from violent action in his documentary ‘Street to Sky’. The Keskidee project encapsulates the whakapapa of reggae and Rasta in Aotearoa. Tigi Ness is widely regarded as the Rasta and reggae kaumatua. John Heeney told me that it was Tigi that led Chris Campbell of ‘Ngati Dread’, the Ruatoria Rastas, to Rastafarianism when Tigi was in jail over the Springboks tour and Chris became exposed to his reasoning. Miriam (Ama) Rauhihi went on to feature in the Twelve Tribes and is still pursuing her kaupapa through film and media production. Dilworth Karaka and Fred became part of the Herbs phenomena. The movie that Merita and Martyn made, “Keskidee Aroha” won’t ever rank as a great documentary, but it is full of insights at a time of huge social and cultural shifts in Aotearoa. Martyn ended up marrying Wanjiku from Keskidee. The impacts continue, and we may well need to recover that spirit to turn bad times to good times.

The very streets will always be mine
Good times, good times
Reggae’s doing fine.


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Here we go Again

Here we go Again

If we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to unsuccessfully grapple with present and future social problems. The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calls these problematics ‘wicked problems’. They are…

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