That piece, created by Tama Renata, one of the finest post-Hendrix blues-rock guitarists of his generation, also gets a strident and extended reprise supported by a powerful haka over the film’s closing credits. It is a remarkable piece of music which captures the coiled rage and emotional chaos of a central character Jake The Muss, played by Temuera Morrison.
Renata went from playing marae gigs in Gisborne to the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
Renata – who died in November 2018 – was a legendary figure in New Zealand music who played alongside some of the country’s finest talent. He went from playing marae gigs around Gisborne to being inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2012 as a long-standing member of Herbs.
He won critical acclaim (“One of those guitarists who can pin an audience to the wall with his playing,” wrote Colin Hogg in the Auckland Star in the mid 80s) but was also a beloved entertainer who played the bars and clubs for decades with his own Tama Band.
In 1980 Tama Renata was awarded a George Benson guitar by the Ibanez company in recognition of his work and at the time of the release of Once Were Warriors – in which he also appeared as the guitarist at a party – he was 40 and admitted to knowing the alcohol-fuelled lifestyle depicted in the film.
At that point however he hadn’t had a drink for two years and told Edward Rooney of the Sunday Star-Times, “I’m directing myself in more positive ways”.
Originally from Tokomaru Bay north of Gisborne, Renata came from a musical family (his father a multi-instrumentalist) and he started playing guitar at age four.
“I grew up listening to music, learning Gay Gordons, foxtrots,” he told Armand Crown for the Māori TV series Unsung Heroes of Maori Music.
As a youngster he would skip school to stay home and practise guitar, play with the family bands up and down the East Coast, and run away from home at 17 to go to Rotorua where he played with the Senators showband. Later he had his own Napier-based group Bulldog, and went to Christchurch before moving to Auckland where he picked up gigs as and when he could, eventually joining Exit.
Then he explored jazz fusion and funk ... It was a career undertaken at some speed because he simply wanted to play guitar for people as often as he could, and with whoever would have him. And the best wanted Tama Renata.
At studio sessions it was 18 months before producers realised Renata couldn’t read music.
He was never short of live work and numerous studio sessions in Auckland (he said of the session musicians he worked with, “It was 18 months before they realised I couldn’t read a note”). His skills were such that he jammed with one of his influences, Carlos Santana.
And – as with Billy TK (with whom he played frequently from the 60s onwards), Doug Jerebine (aka Jesse Harper), Eddie Hansen of Ticket and others – Renata was much influenced by the possibilities Jimi Hendrix opened up.
But he also was also capable of great subtlety: He wrote the ballad ‘Here Is My Heart’ for the Once Were Warriors film (sung by the actors Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen) and that is him on acoustic guitar and backing vocals on Herbs’ ‘Light Of The Pacific’, the title track of Herbs’ 1983 album. He joined Herbs officially in the 90s.
Always adaptable, in the late 70s he played with the funk-reggae group Papa and formed the Tuhi Tama Band with the great fellow guitarist Tuhi Timoti. His own Tama Band was awarded the Chelsea Disco Band of the Year award in 1979, and with the band Exit he recorded incidental music for the Oscar-nominated alpine skiing/climbing documentary Off the Edge by Michael Firth.
He contributed to a number of television and short film soundtracks (and played electronic drums on Pātea Māori Club’s chart-busting single ‘Poi E’ in 1982) but it wasn’t until 1989 that he stepped out of the recording studio with an album under his own name, Workshop on the Te Aroha label distributed by Jayrem.
Workshop – named for a panelbeaters on Auckland’s New North Road – was a lengthy labour of love by Renata, producer/engineer Reid Snell and longtime believer and publicist Aly Cook.
The first sessions began in 1984 but after that, recording time in the studio was down to when Renata and Snell could afford it. Sometimes months would go by between recordings.
Snell said that timeframe explained the diversity of material in the nine tracks recorded over 18 months – ballads to blues, reggae to rock – which were all Renata originals, save for the light reggae of ‘In The Ghetto’ written by Danny Wilson (originally covered by Herbs).
There were two instrumentals (‘Ngā Waka E Whitu’ and ‘Phoenix’, the latter named for his daughter), alongside a tribute to the legendary gentle giant bouncer/roadie Scruff: “He’s a funky dude and his eyes see right through you; all the hurt inside, he’s a friend for all time.”
Although known as a guitarist without peer, a revelation of the album was Renata’s soulful voice.
But when it was sent to record companies there was little – and sometimes no – response. It wasn’t until publicist Cook came on board four years later that they struck the distribution deal with Jayrem.
Twice turned down by the QEII Arts Council for financial assistance, Te Aroha – formed by Renata and Snell – paid its own manufacturing and promotional costs.
‘Workshop’ featured Renata's exceptional guitar work and touched on funk and hard rock.
However Workshop – which of course featured Renata’s exceptional guitar work, notably on ‘Phoenix’, but also touched on funk and hard rock on ‘Still the Same’ about French nuclear testing in the Pacific – failed to get any traction at radio, then shamefully ignoring local artists.
In one notorious comment a programmer declined to play anything from the album because he said it had been only recorded on three-and-a-half tracks so wasn’t of sufficient quality for their station. He had taken seriously a jokey aside in the liner notes, and didn’t know there was no such thing as three-and-a-half track.
But Renata just picked himself up and carried on doing what he had always done, playing anywhere and everywhere, in demand as a guitarist for dozens of local artists and fitting in whether the style be pop-country (with Ray Columbus), mainstream music (the Yandall Sisters) or at Hendrix tributes alongside Billy TK.
In April 1993, when Renata performed in Sydney, the weekly music paper On the Street described him as a Maori warrior, challenging any rivals. “The legendary Maori Acid Rock Guitarist – he blew out Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa, now he–ll blow out anyone that's game to turn up with their axe.”
The Tama Band at that time was also a going concern and featured his younger brother Dale on drums and bassist Max Hohepa.
After his death Aly Cook wrote on Facebook: “Though [Tama] never became super rich and famous, to those in the know he was so rich in talent he was overflowing.” Adele Paris, née Yandall, wrote, “Tama was an awesome musician whom we will always remember as ‘the fastest guitarist in the west’!”
Linn Lorkin posted a musical tribute to Renata on Soundcloud; it had been long in the works. It was, she explained, “about the glory days of Tama in the early 70s at Georgie’s nightclub on Khyber Pass, when I played Fender Rhodes with Howie Morgan on bass and John McGuire on drums, and the astounding guitar playing and singing of Tama. What a star! A lot of musos used to come to hear him and sit down the back saying, after a particularly virtuoso passage, ‘F***! How did he do that?!!’ It's one of the first songs I ever wrote when I first arrived in New York not long after those never-to-be forgotten times in Auckland.” The recording was by Happy Talk, live at the Gluepot (link below).
Tama Renata – the self-styled “speed king of New Zealand guitar” – was a modest man with a quick sense of humour, but his star didn’t shine as brightly as it should have. It was therefore no surprise that he would appear in the TV series Unsung Heroes of Māori Music in an episode with his friend Tuhi Timoti.
Renata was “a genius,” said Frank Gibson Jr. “You don't come across genius much in any era.”
Interviewed for the programme, drummer Frank Gibson Jr who played with Renata said, “He’s a genius, you don’t come across geniuses much in any era.”
On Renata’s passing, New Zealand film-maker Tearepa Kahi – currently completing a feature-length documentary on Herbs – told Stuff that the guitarist was “a musical unicorn”.
“His fretboard dexterity is legendary, but his greatest super power was his memory. He could remember every note he ever played and it all started with his kuia who played 13 instruments herself and taught Tama seven of them.
“During filming of our Herbs film, Tama played a song for his fallen friend [and bandmate] Charlie Tumahai. He sat in a daze for just a second, then his fingers pulled out ‘Angel’ by Jimi Hendrix and his voice followed.”
Cook, his former publicist, champion and friend – now a highly successful musician in her own right – wrote: “Strange, at the end of my tour last month I went to Cape Reinga and sat high above the lighthouse and thought about Māori Spirit leaving from there.
“I guess you will be flying free now from the pain you have been in. Go well dear friend, go in peace.”
Te Aroha Records