In the mid 1970s the founding members of Herbs – Toni Fonoti, Spencer Fusimalohi and Fred Faleauto – were playing in a band called Backyard. They asked Dilworth Karaka to join, and considered renaming themselves Pacific Herbs, before settling on Herbs. Other early members of the band included Dave Pou, Phil Toms and John Berkley, who designed the band’s distinctive logo.
They pulled in Will 'Ilolahia as their manager. He was a co-founder of the Polynesian Panthers, a group of young activists based in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, who also included amongst their members a young Tigi Ness (Che Fu’s father).
At the time of the release of their debut EP/mini-album What’s Be Happen? – on the eve of the controversial 1981 Springbok tour, Graham Reid recalls the band were playing lunchtime concerts at schools in their neighbourhood.
“They'd unload their own gear, play to wide-eyed teenagers and then load up the van again taking their few bucks – and for men with wives, partners and kids there were embarrassingly few bucks – without the suggestion there was any indignity in it. Herbs were more than a band, they were a flashpoint. The kids in the hall liked them, those in the staffroom often much less certain what to think. Herbs were special. They were in the vanguard of Pacific reggae, their multi-racial make-up meant they brought various PI sounds to bear, and they were urban Polynesia.”
The cover of their debut Record showed their political colours: the infamous police eviction of the Bastion Point protestors in 1978.
The cover of their recording debut also showed their political colours, with a black and white photo of the infamous police eviction of the Bastion Point protestors in 1978. It set the tone for where this band was coming from. The band pulled together a strong set of six originals for What’s be Happen? – they knew they were doing something right when people started asked them about the song off the EP, ‘Dragons And Demons’, wanting to know which Bob Marley album it was from.
What’s Be Happen? came out on Warrior Records, the label founded by Mascot Studio owner Hugh Lynn, where the band frequently recorded. Lynn got 'Ilolahia to manage the label.
Lynn would later take over from 'Ilolahia as the band’s manager. “I handed over business manager reins at end of 1983,” says 'Ilolahia, “When I self-exiled myself to Tonga after my two year trial over the anti-Springboks tour protests. I still continued with the band but as international tour manager and co-director of Warrior Pacific Records.”
The band went thru many line-up changes, totalling some 27 members, over the years. 'Ilolahia reckons that by the time he finished working with Herbs, "it was something like Herbs Mk 14 or 15."
Hugh Lynn told The NZ Herald (3 September 2012), “I could see they were different and they wanted to do things their way. Back then you needed a lot of confidence to make that jump [to recording] and I could see it was bubbling up from them. But it wasn't going to be easy, they were a New Zealand band and Maori and Pacific Islanders at that – some people thought they looked like a gang – so they had a whole lot going against them."
When Herbs played mid-afternoon at the 1981 Sweetwaters Festival in Ngaruawahia, their set reached a colourful climax when Cook Island dancers suddenly shimmied to the front of stage. The crowd responded warmly to the Pacific percussion and the beautiful PI dancers. There was an added bonus to the girls’ performance: “The Sweetwaters Festival organiser Daniel Keighley was worried about gangs being present,” says 'Ilolahia, “The girls threw leis to gang leaders to quell potential tension and it worked.”
Alan Perrott noted in the NZ Herald in 2012 that after their performance, “The group spent a long night convincing reggae legend Toots Hibbert of the validity of Pacific reggae. He eventually grudgingly accepted their version of the Jamaican form as authentic.”
in 1982 ‘French Letter’ stayed in the singles chart for 11 weeks, with almost no radio airplay.
Their next recording was 1982’s album Light Of The Pacific, which featured the hugely popular single ‘French Letter’. It stayed in the singles chart for 11 weeks, with almost no radio airplay. The radio stations that did play it took it upon themselves to rename it to the somewhat less racy ‘Letter To France’.
Herbs often chose to do things a little differently, such as their album launch for Sensitive To A Smile in 1987. They decided to head down country to Ruatoria and launch the album at the Mangahanea marae, after that area had seen rising conflict between local Rastafarians and the community and a spate of arson attacks. The band hoped to unite the community and bring people together through music.
Director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) accompanied the band there and filmed the concert at the marae, which was used for the music video for the album’s title track.
Herbs managed to score numerous opening slots for big name touring acts, thanks to Lynn’s promotions company, which toured many international groups. They opened for Tina Turner, Rick Wakeman, Black Slate, UB40, Stevie Wonder and many others. The band also toured overseas, around the Pacific and across Asia.
Herbs collaborated over the years with some of the big names of the local music scene, such as Tim Finn (‘Parihaka’), Annie Crummer (‘See What Love Can Do’) and most successfully with Dave Dobbyn on his massive hit single ‘Slice of Heaven’, off the movie soundtrack Footrot Flats (1986). It shot to No.1 in October and stayed there for eight weeks.
The band were invited by UB40 to tour Europe in 1987, opening for them, but the cost of getting there proved prohibitive, and they had to pass up the opportunity.
The band released the album Homegrown in 1990, recorded with former Eagles member Joe Walsh, but the resulting album failed to fire, hardly surprising, given Walsh’s rock pedigree.
A Best Of compilation came out in 1993 – there have been other similar compilations of the band’s material since then, in 2002, and again in 2008.
In 1995 the band were struck by tragedy, with bass player Charlie Tumahai dying of a heart attack, at age 46. The band soldiered on but Dilworth decided that they needed to take a break: "I told the guys we're taking a sabbatical. I need to walk with him for a while, do my grieving, and then send him on his way."
The band returned to live work performing occasionally as Herbs, and Herbs Unplugged, with Karaka and Tama Lundon performing stripped down versions of Herbs classics.
The band were rocked again, when former member Fred Faleauto passed away in 2001.
Herbs took legal action against several former members in 2010 over plans to perform Herbs songs under the name Pacific Herbs at Raggamuffin Festival, the same weekend Herbs were due to play at the Parihaka Festival in Taranaki.
The NZ Herald reported that the case cost Herbs $30,000, money they had planned to use to record a new album. The line-up that was due to appear at Raggamuffin in 2010 featured former Herbs members Toni Fonoti, Spencer Fusimalohi and Carl Perkins.
Herbs were inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame at the 2012 APRA Silver Scroll Awards.
Given the legal case a few years back, there were some tensions among former and current members of the band leading up to this momentous night. The clever folk behind the APRA Silver Scrolls got the assorted band members together the night before, put them in a room with a few boxes of beers and left them to sort out their differences, which proved successful.
Che Fu spoke about the band first, talking about the band’s history and his connection to them. He said he used to call them “uncles”. He called them that because back then, there were two reggae bands in Auckland – his dad’s band (Unity), and Herbs. He talked about Herbs coming around to visit his dad, and all the kids being sent outside to play while they sat in the kitchen and this funny smelling smoke came wafting out the window.
Seventeen of the band past and present came up onstage, where Dilworth made a short but moving speech honouring his band members including those who had passed away, and Willie Hona led them singing ‘E Papa’ (something they’d also sung at a previous Silver Scrolls back in 1999, when Dilworth led some Herbs past and present members in that song).
Herbs members inducted were: Dilworth Karaka, Toni Fonoti, Phil Toms, Spencer Fusimalohi, John Berkley, Fred Faleauto (deceased), Charles Tumahai (deceased), Maurice Watene, Tama Lundon, Jack Allen, Carl Perkins, Willie Hona, Thom Nepia, Tama Renata, Gordon Joll, Grant Pukeroa and Kristen Hapi.
To coincide with this momentous event, five of the band’s out-of-print albums were digitally reissued – Homegrown, Light Of The Pacific, Long Ago, Sensitive To A Smile and What's Be Happen?
Three members of Herbs passed away in 2018 after battling cancer: Thom Nepia in February, Carl Perkins in May, and Tama Renata in November
The documentary Herbs: Songs of Freedom was released in August 2019. It was made by Tearepa Kahi, the director of the acclaimed 2013 feature Mt Zion and 2016 documentary Poi E: the Story of Our Song.
On December 7, 1984, Herbs played the opening set in a free concert in Aotea Square that deteriorated into the Queen Street Riot. The Thank God It’s Over concert marked the end of the school year and also featured the Mockers and headliners DD Smash on the bill. Police shut the concert down during DD Smash’s set and thousands of concert-goers poured into Queen Street, smashing property and looting, causing an eventual $6 million worth of damage.