South Auckland in the late 70s was an isolated and isolating place. The rapid influx of immigrants throughout the decade had resulted in a population that was largely Polynesian, overwhelmingly young and still hurting from the Dawn Raids. It was a social experiment that had not only been left to sort itself out, any ambition to break free was almost actively discouraged.
As far as Ryan Monga’s family was concerned, he was expected to keep a job, stay out of dad’s way, and pay his rent. Outside of that, well, no one much cared, which, as a loner, suited him just fine.
He preferred keeping his dreams and his determination close to his chest, so once Ardijah finally emerged it was too late to stop him.
Still, his family (he was one of nine children) can take some credit for starting him on his way. First, at the age of two, his older brother gave him a drum for Christmas, then, at 10, he spent six months with another brother in Rarotonga.
It took just three chords – D, A and G – to get him hooked: “I was like ‘wow, so this is that song and that’s that song.’ Then we started to walk around, playing, and get a little crowd. In my head I’m thinking not only can we make this music and sound like a famous artist, it’s drawing a crowd. I think I was connecting with the power of music for the first time.”
Over those six months he learned the basics of guitar, ukulele and drums, and began a lifelong connection with his Rarotongan roots.
Back in Otara he started at Ferguson Intermediate where a friend, Shane Ihaka, taught him enough chords to make Ryan a hit at parties. “It was all 1ZB when I was growing up. You’d hear the Beatles then I’d sit down and figure the song out. Then I’d play them at parties – I knew all the rock and roll songs, so I was a hit with the old people.”
He then got together with Ihaka and Peter, a bass-playing teacher, as “Shane, Ryan and Peter” and won the school talent quest.
Ryan was also tinkering with church piano. He’d hang back and watch someone play, then once they were done he’d jump on and try to replicate the finger positions. It was the only way he could learn: “It wasn’t until later that I found out I’m dyslexic: dots on a chart meant nothing to me. So I’d just write the chord inside the bar and improvise around that. That was the beginning of getting things set for the future really, even if I didn’t know it.”
He left school in 1977 and lied about his age to get a job sweeping floors at a container company in Mt Wellington. Straight away he was buying music which he’d listen to in bed with a speaker either side of his head until he fell asleep.
He especially loved Earth, Wind and Fire’s Gratitude album: “I didn’t know anything about stereo – the stereo image – but I think that album programmed my head on how to do it, how to shape music. It taught me there were no limitations to what you can do.”
With no music at work he took to using his broom as a mic stand while miming songs by the likes of the Commodores and Larry Graham.
Ryan’s first bass was a Rickenbacker Diplomat copy. He liked its long neck.
He was lost in his own world when a workmate, Mike Pomare, drove by on his forklift and their conversation led to an invitation for a post-work jam.
Pomare had a complete band setup, so Ryan ran through what he knew on the keyboard, then had a drum and then tore into a guitar.
“Then Mike went on the bass and started slapping and I was ‘woah, what the hell is that? Oh bro, could you teach me?’ He was ‘oh, I dunno’ but I got him to show me the basics and got it in half an hour. I was doing it, and it was like ‘oh man, this is my thing.’”
Pomare then drove him to a downtown music shop on Auckland’s Queen St where Ryan bought his first bass, a Rickenbacker Diplomat copy. He liked its long neck.
“So it was from work to his house for jam and then into town to buy a bass. That was a really big day.”
Every day he’d race home from work to play along to records. He also started jamming with the band at the Dawson Rd Mormon church in Otara.
A couple of church elders, Chester and Chris Fong, then introduced Ryan to guitarist John Diamond, known to everyone as Jay Dee. The pair hit it off and Ryan began spending a lot of time jamming at his house: “And that was pretty much the start of Ardijah.”
Once singer-percussionist James Tuiara and drummer Ritchie Campbell came on board the group began playing socials at the Ellerslie rugby league club.
As a gigging band they needed a name. They toyed with Stardust until Tuiara suggested Ardijaa, a combination of his girlfriend’s name, Ardie, and his own.
Bob Marley had recently toured and reggae was massive in south Auckland, so “jaa” quickly became “jah” and in 1980 they scored their first big gig at an upstairs club in the Mangere Town Centre, the Cordova Lounge.
They were signed to play Thursday, Friday and Saturdays for $170 a week and opened to a crowd of five people. But word spread fast and from the following weekend the place would be jammed.
“We were just playing all the right stuff for South Auckland, and that’s the thing, we’d never been catered for before, you know, musically, in this neighbourhood.
“You had 1ZB and all the rock radio stations, and Grunt Machine and all that on TV – ‘and here’s some more Kiwi music’ – and we were ‘nah, we don’t listen to that, we listen to this kind of stuff.’ That was our inspiration to start writing some funky songs. I was 19, and we were all really shy, we’d hide behind our microphones. We weren’t rock stars, we just loved the music and we were having a good time.
“It felt like we’d made it.”
Now with two jobs, Ryan realised one had to go when he started falling asleep at both.
“We’d finish the Thursday gig at 2am, then I’d go to the factory, work, get home again, rest for a bit and then go to the next gig. I’d sleep under the tables on the Friday night. There was one night when the guys couldn’t find me, I was on the floor snoring away. Saturday morning was the only relief, I could sleep.
“So when I started getting more money from gigs than I did working 40 hours a week I quit.”
Which was all pretty much unknown to his family. Ryan was a loner, he’d stay in his room in the garage attic with his music and as long as he paid his $25 rent each week he’d be left alone.
Until his father started catching him sleeping in on Fridays: “He’d yell ‘hey’ and kick me, then say ‘get a newspaper and find a job.’ I’d say ‘I just came from work’ but he still thought I needed another day job. ‘That’s not a job, that’s a good time.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that line, but it was like ‘well, I’m earning more than you fullas.’ You know, just quietly. I didn’t say it, but that’s what I was thinking.”
Still in 1980, and now with Clive (his last name has been forgotten) – their new, blind, keyboard player –Ardijah entered a talent quest at Billy Joe’s in old Papatoetoe. They had reached the semi-finals and were waiting their turn when a girl took the stage and sang Freddy Fender’s ‘Before the Next Teardrop Falls’. “It was Betty-Anne, and she was awesome.”
Betty-Anne Hall was one of eight kids; her family had moved to Auckland from Tauranga when she was three. They moved around Ponsonby, Mt Albert and Sandringham before settling in Mangere after her parents divorced.
Betty Anne’s mother was a soprano; her father played a banjo.
Music had always been part of home life; her mother was a soprano. Her father played a banjo but mostly he’d glower at the singers on the television.
“He was terrible. We’d be watching telly, some old music show like Happen Inn or something, and my dad would go ‘fucken flat.’ Another pet hate was singers closing their eyes: ‘What she going to sleep for? Is she tired?’ I was self-conscious about closing my eyes for years.”
Her first attempt at singing was at Kōwhai Intermediate in Kingsland. “That was Betty’s Group, the name was only because I played guitar … it was a harmony group, three Samoans and I was the Māori girl.”
After the family moved to Mangere she entered a talent quest at Manukau City Centre. It was the school holidays so she had her younger brother and sister in tow and they grumbled constantly until she won her heat and got a box of chips.
“That was pretty big stuff even if we had to share them. Then I made the semi-finals and got some more chips.”
That was the day she met another young singer, Annie Crummer.
While at Mangere College, Betty-Anne joined a gospel group run by senior student, Jay Laga’aia (a singer and actor best known for playing Captain Typho in two Star Wars movies).
Still only 15, she was pulled aside after the sister of her eldest brother’s girlfriend heard her singing at home. She wanted the teen to enter a talent quest and win her some wine.
“I was underage and I just said ‘oh … oh nah. I’m too shy and I don’t have any clothes’.”
She was entered anyway, in borrowed clothes, and while she did meet Ardijah at the semi-finals she didn’t think much of it. Both made the final, but neither won. Laga’aia was one of the judges and, according to Ryan, Ardijah were criticised for closing their eyes too much.
A few days later the same girl called Betty-Anne to say the band had been in touch and they wanted her to audition at the Cordova Lounge.
By now her family was in turmoil so she felt no need to ask for permission. “I was kind of gone by then, really gone, and I was looking for something I guess. My parents had other stuff going on … music saved me from lots of things.”
She went the rehearsal with five friends, all of them in school uniform, and sang a couple of songs. “I don’t know, it felt like, kind of forbidden, you know what I mean? This was an adult world and they were one of the first live bands I’d ever seen. I was too young for clubs, and even if the guys weren’t that much older than us, maybe five or so years, we were kids really.”
But the guys were impressed and she was invited to join. Now they could now add female-led covers to their repertoire.
To begin with Betty-Anne only had four songs to perform; Tuiara would take her place and she’d shift to percussion. Either way she was cripplingly shy and did her best to become invisible.
Ardijah now set about honing their musical chops and working up a show. None of them had any serious training.
It wasn’t long before Betty-Anne and Ryan started a romantic relationship which then transformed their commitment to music as a career when, at the age of 16, she got pregnant.
It was time to get serious: playing covers at the Cordova Lounge was never going to feed a family.
It was time to get serious: playing covers was never going to feed a family.
If Ardijah’s name had been a tribute to James Tuiara's relationship, once their pregnancy was announced the band’s future became all about Ryan and Betty-Anne.
And three gigs a week in the Mangere Town Centre wasn’t going to provide for a family.
“Having our son [Kaitapu] really young kind of forced us to get real,” says Betty-Anne. “We were lucky though, we were living with Ryan’s parents and his mum would look after him while we played. I only recall once ever not coming home after a gig: we went to a party and I fell asleep. By the time we got home she’d called the police, so that didn’t happen again.”
As for career prospects outside of music, she used to talk to her friends about becoming a cop, but that was no longer an option.
“I didn’t sit School C[ertificate], I ran away with the band instead. My dad had promised to buy me a car if I stayed in school, but that wasn’t going to happen now, and when I talked to people about doing music as a job they were: ‘Music? What’s that? That’s a bloody good time.’ Then people would look at us like ‘well, what are you really going to do?’ Oh, come on, shut up.”
As for the famously single-minded Ryan, his idea of a Plan B was probably Plan A again, but louder.
So, in 1981 they began searching for a new venue, this time in the inner-city where they found scored a slot at the Crypt on Queen Street.
This was quite the culture change.
Ryan: “We did get a bit of ‘bloody south Aucklanders’ and ‘who do these young kids think they are?’ I mean we’d pack the club out, but the other musicians – we made friends with some of them – but mostly they were doing jazzy-type stuff and we were still doing funk covers.”
In 1982 they moved down the street to the Peppermill nightclub (not a single atom remains, the original building was demolished to make way for the now-demolished Downtown shopping centre).
If it was a different venue, they found the same attitude.
Betty-Anne: “There is a thing, and I’ll say it – city musicians – where there’s a different sound and attitude. I don’t know whether the name ‘South Auckland’ was prominent then, like really prominent, you know? But I know that to most of those guys if you were talking Otahuhu, that seemed really quite far. How do you even get there? So if you’re from further out than that, then that’s another country almost.”
Still, mixing with new people quickly opened up further opportunities.
By 1983, the Mongas were married and living in a communal house on Millais St in Grey Lynn where they began experimenting with the electronic equipment they’d been collecting.
They were now being sought out by bands in need of a funky edge. Betty-Anne’s first studio experience came that year when she shared vocal duties with Debbie Harwood and Josie Rika on the Big Sideways’ ‘Let It Out’ 12-inch (Unsung Music).
An approach from Nigel Russell then saw Ryan join an early incarnation of Car Crash Set – he’s credited on the No Accident LP (Reaction) as Mr Thumbs. Again, he was dealing with a world where things worked differently: “I remember one recording session, it was more of a party really. We were that pissed and out of it, we didn’t record much. I just can’t work like that, and I don’t, but right then I thought ‘OK sweet, you’re the boss’.”
Now part of the country’s emerging electronic scene, the Mongas joined another new group, IQU. The bassline Ryan laid down for their first single, ‘Witchcraft’ (Jayrem), remains a monster.
“All that was a great training ground,” says Betty-Anne, “especially for me. It was sort where we were heading musically, so I appreciated it even more because it felt like we were coming into something, a new way of playing, that was already rolling, the wheels were in motion.”
It also highlighted how lucky she had it with Ardijah. “We did one gig with [IQU] at Zanzibar and, I’m sorry, but it was awful. I’d always just thought that if you could do it in the studio you must be able to do it live – that playing in a studio was just an extension of playing live, you know? But no, I remember watching one of the guys, he was shaking so much I was thinking ‘is he OK?’
“But they were all good projects and it was great to be part of that scene.”
Ardijah started to write songs with a drum machine and an old ghetto blaster.
“It was all a progression thing for us,” says Ryan. “We were just starting to write our own songs with a drum machine and a double-headed tape deck – an old ghetto blaster. By swapping cassettes around and layering tracks we could build up a whole song.”
For the time being though, Ardijah remained a covers band. The bills had to be paid.
In 1982, the band had begun playing in the south again with an eye to playing at Cleopatra’s in Glen Innes, a club based in the lounge of the Tainui Tavern. This was the epicentre of the South Auckland club scene. And it already had a house band.
Sidewalk was a cover band with a bit of a Rufus-vibe about them. They were made up of three former show band players from Pakuranga and Simon Lynch, a 24-year-old from Papakura who’d mostly been playing Dr Feelgood-style R&B.
Lynch’s first look at Ardijah came when his band returned from a marae gig in Napier.
Ardijah, the youngest band on the scene, were filling in for the weekend and Sidewalk arrived to drop off their gear during their Sunday show.
“There was almost nobody there, but they sounded good, if not as good as they became. They were doing pretty standard covers, stuff like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, which didn't really suit them, but after about year or so they were wearing matching uniforms and had a groundswell going.
“You’d walk into that club and swear it was the sound system playing, they were that good. Not necessarily as copyists, it was like ‘wow there’s something going on here’ because their music was changing. They’d been funk, old school funk, they’d have a horn section come in when needed, but the change to the electro thing really started when Janet Jackson and SOS Band got big. Even Grandmaster Flash and especially Prince, that stuff started taking over the dance floor and Ryan got this vision of creating a band that played to a drum machine.”
Aridjah started at Cleopatra’s as a six-piece – although the line-up could change from night to night – with Ryan, Betty-Anne and Ritchie Campbell as the core trio. Jay Dee came and went a few times, Paul Drury was on keys, and when James Tuiara left, in came Tony Nogotautama, aka Tony T, a Niuean guitarist-vocalist.
But band politics began having an impact. With Ryan now asserting himself, Jay Dee began spending more time with a new band playing at Aladdins. After a few years it would rename itself Moana and the Moahunters.
The internal stresses weren’t helping them write music either. From 1980 to 1986, says Ryan, “the band would attempt to write originals together and then drop a demo into a night’s set. But we could never complete a song from start to finish. There were a lot of strong minds with many different directions, so the only song we finished was one I wrote titled ‘Do to You’ which we performed on TV.”
Still, Ardijah was evolving. To begin with Campbell swapped to electronic drums, but, says Ryan, “he ended up smashing them because he hit them too hard.”
Even Cleopatra’s had an influence. The venue had been run by Joyce Webb since the mid-70s as a tight ship with a strict “no gang patches” door policy. Ardijah had developed a following in Otara through their shows at the Black Power’s Factory venue – Webb had helped them obtain their liquor licence – but the gang members would have to ring in advance if they wanted to visit Cleo’s. And they had to leave their colours at home.
Webb was also bringing in American acts through Hawaii-based Morrison Entertainment. The first act she flew over was the show band, Ibis. After checking each other out, Ryan got talking to them. “They told me, ‘Ryan you guys are real good, you know, you do it well, but it’s one thing to copy other people’s music, it’s an another thing to get your own sound.’ I clocked that big time.”
Further inspired by the show band’s uniformed look they decided to get one of their own, to stand out from the crowd.
“It was out there at the time,” says Ryan, “but I liked the military look the (Sgt Pepper) Beatles had and then the Commodores did the same thing and I thought ‘that’s a funky outfit’. So I designed my own.
“We knew some Otara kids who could sew and they made our gears for us. I couldn’t stand seeing bands who turned up in their T-shirts and jeans, all ripped up. We got criticised for dressing up, like ‘what are you wearing that for? Man, I wouldn’t wear that” and I was like ‘and you are …?’”
It was all progress but, as noted, Ardijah was far from a stable group and after keyboardist Paul Drury finally walked, followed by the departures of drummer Ritchie Campbell and guitarist Teina Benioni, they essentially broke up. No problem – Ryan had his drum machine and so they began looking for a replacement keyboard player who could provide the new electronic sound they were after. They would start all over again.
Simon Lynch not only owned two synthesisers, he could play them. But Ardijah wasn’t the only band chasing his skills. The new funk sound being driven by Prince and SOS Band had made synth players highly sought after and another big south Auckland group, Papatoetoe-based 42nd Street, also needed one.
“There were only really three [synth players] around at the time,” says Lynch, “Me, Eddie Rayner, who was with Split Enz, and Stuart Pearce, who’d been with 42nd Street but was off to Australia.
“Up until then I’d been in a couple of real journeyman bands, but after joining Sidewalk I was finally making a living from playing, so when these opportunities came up – I’d always wanted to do something and make some kind of name for myself – I went to Murray Cammick for advice. “Murray, I’ve got offers from these great bands, what should I do?” He said I should join Ardijah, ‘they’ve just got a record deal with Pagan, they’re young and they’re going places.’ So I followed his advice.”
Crucially, Lynch also brought along a friend, Peter Campbell, who became the band’s manager.
Having largely performed as a conventional covers band, Ardijah was ready to take their new electro show to the country.