Sydney, September 1990: Down-to-earth issues and homegrown politics have always been at the heart of Herbs’ music. The New Zealand band’s first single, ‘French Letter’, seductively lambasted France’s nuclear testing programme at Mururoa atoll. But timid local radio stations could only see a sexual innuendo in the title, and wanted it changed to ‘A Letter to France’ before they’d play it.
While the French continue to radioactively pollute our Pacific backyard, Herbs have moved on to other issues. A forthcoming single, ‘Fishnet Tights’, airs their concern at the devastation caused by driftnetting in the Pacific. Eddie Rayner and his Makers also contribute to the single, and Greenpeace have provided horrific video footage of dolphins trapped in the nets alongside tuna.
A conversation with Herbs slips easily into politics.
A conversation with Herbs slips so easily into politics that they almost forget to say that they’ve just made an album called Homegrown produced by US guitar hero Joe Walsh. And as you walk out the door, they casually mention their part in a new movie, directed (appropriately) by Cheech Marin. Shrimp on a Barbie is about a Mexican restaurant being opened in Australia, though it was filmed in New Zealand. Herbs play the house band. “After all,” reasons a diner as the band gives ‘Manyana’ a Polynesian lilt, “Maoris are cousins of Mexicans.”
Herbs are touring Australia until mid-November . Ten years on from ‘French Letter’, New Zealand is nuclear free. “Australia is a bit behind us on nuclear matters,” says bassist Charlie Tumahai. But, reasons his cousin, guitarist Dilworth Karaka, “I suppose you mine uranium, you can’t say much.”
It’s heartening that at home their message has finally got across. Even the National party has reversed its pro-nuclear stance (obliterating what little chance the Labour Government had of winning next month’s election). “The penny has dropped,” says Karaka, “the voice of the little people wasn’t being heard.”
That’s who Karaka was hoping to speak for when he founded Herbs in 1978, during the struggles for Māori land rights and harassment of illegal immigrants by the Muldoon government. Later came the divisiveness of the 1981 Springbok tour. “It took a couple of years for things to settle down,” he says. “It split families and homes. Even me and Charlie, who had been friends for so long, on this one issue we were split. People had to realise there were politics in sport, there was no way around it.”
A Māori group in New Zealand is calling upon Māori to boycott the upcoming elections. Karaka regards that as a suppression of freedom. Although the band have avoided directly endorsing a New Zealand political party, he expresses support for the green parties.
Tumahai: “The band has always been about ecology, not politics. We base our things on the earth, on the land. That’s it – not politics.”
“It’s a good thing to stretch out,” says Tumahai. “You can always come back.”
Herbs’ patented Pacific reggae has taken a back seat on Homegrown. “That’s because Joe Walsh got involved,” says Karaka. “It was time for us to become rockier. He says that to commercialise your music isn’t to prostitute it. You have to be a success to be able to do what you want. The commercial side is there anyway. The only way to get people to hear your music is to put it out – then you’re in that world. There’s still reggae there, but not in comparison to the past. It’s still Kiwi music.”
HERBS’ PATENTED PACIFIC REGGAE HAS TAKEN A BACK SEAT ON ‘HOMEGROWN’.
Tumahai returned to New Zealand in the early 1980s after many years playing in Bebop Deluxe. “I had offers to come to Australia, but I went home. Once I found my feet and started thinking about my country, and listening to my mates, I had to stay. People said, ‘You’re not earning much, it can’t be the money.’ And I’d reply, money isn’t everything. They’d say, ‘What?!’
“This band is what opened me up – they taught me how to be real again.”
After 12 years in Herbs, Karaka says he’s a lot wiser. “The industry can be very cruel, but there are also a lot of people who care. Now I can think of the band as a long-term project.”
Following their Australian sojourn, Herbs will return to their families, then tour New Zealand in the summer. Next year they’ve been invited to perform in Memphis, Tennessee. The city’s Memphis in May festival celebrates the culture of a different country each year, and in 1991 it is New Zealand. With five albums completed, it will be no problem to present a set of their classics: ‘Light of the Pacific’, ‘French Letter’, ‘Dragons and Demons’, ‘Brotherhood’.
“I only wanted to be part of a group and to make an LP,” says Karaka. “But to be still here and cutting it, I’m very proud.”
Written for On the Street, Sydney, September 1990