There’s never been a band quite like Herbs. Starting off 40 years ago, Herbs reflected, and provided, a beautiful Pacific voice for all sorts of issues, national and personal, through a band of brothers who soared through the 1980s and ‘90s and who can still deliver their rich, moving sounds and words and rhythms for a new generation.
Dilworth Karaka has been there from the start. Here he is talking to Dale, who’s a rellie as it turns out, about the Herbs phenomenon.
Kia ora, Dilworth. Even though our whānau are linked, there’s plenty I’ve yet to learn about you and your music — and where and when you got started.
That was right in the middle of Auckland. I was born in Airedale St, and the CBD was my playground until sometime in the mid-‘50s when we moved out to Glen Innes, which is where I grew up.
My mum’s family had come down from Parua Bay in the north. Dad — Johnny Mita Karaka — was from the Waikato. His great-grandparents were heavily involved in the Kīngitanga movement, and that history was fed to us when we were young kids.
I had no idea, when I was growing up, that I’d spend so much time in music, but there were all sorts of music influences in the family. One of those came through my great-grandmother on my mum’s side, Bella Pohe. During the Second World War, she’d be writing from Northland to get my aunties in Onehunga to put on concerts and stuff to raise funds for the boys overseas.
And the harder they worked, the better they became as musicians. So there was a lot of involvement in entertainment, especially with dance halls, because they were really popular in those years. In fact, I’m told that when it came to fundraising for the troops, the only thing that really made money was the dance halls. When the happy times were needed, everybody seemed to turn up, have that one night out and enjoy themselves. Wash away some of the hardship they were suffering at the time.
It was Aunty Ramona May and Aunty Gloria May who made those things happen.
I remember them, too. They were wonderful characters. Ricky May was their younger brother, wasn’t he? And he became an absolute superstar as a jazz and pop singer in the early 1960s when, still as a young fulla, he moved over to Sydney.
His mum, Nana Rachael, used to play piano while Uncle Keith played saxophone when they were raising money for the soldiers, around the traps in Onehunga. And, when Ricky was born in 1943, the music was already in him. Just from his mother playing the piano, singing the songs, and the vibration of music going through her body.
He was amazing. There was music in your old man, too. And that’s where you and I are linked. He and my nana are both Ngāti Tahinga from the Waikato. Can you tell us a bit more about him?
Well, he was a full-time truck driver and then a wharfie. But, any time off from work and he was away with his guitar and his muso mates. So, I got to know a range of people from all over Auckland. But, for me, early on, the guitar was just a tutu thing.
Then, when I went to Tāmaki College, I got caught up in band competitions. There’d be eight or nine bands a year coming out of Tāmaki College. That turned into one of the main social events at college. This was the 1960s and it was all rock ’n ’roll music that was going down at the time.
And we’d go and listen to the top bands all over Auckland. We had money in our pockets, but we kept it there. We’d walk into town to the nightclubs from Glen Innes and then walk back home.
Not too many years after doing your apprenticeship with the school bands, you were making a name for yourself as a rugby league player. Big things were predicted for you in the game. But you had a terrible accident at Carlaw Park playing for the Maritime club.
In those days, rugby league was the game that the wharfies played and followed. And the Watersiders’ team was top-class. They always won the shield at the King Korokī celebrations in Ngāruawāhia each year — and they were good enough to take on the rep teams, maybe even the Kiwi team.
They were keen to get into the Auckland Rugby League club competition, and eventually they managed that. First they were called the Watersiders, but then they became Maritime. Had a huge following. Had some big name players, too, like Reuben Murray and Buster Parkes. And then there was Manga Emery, a legend who’d been a Māori All Black and a Kiwi after that.
He propped one side of the Maritime scrum, and I was the other prop. Manga made me the goalkicker, too, after seeing me land some goals from beyond the halfway line in training. In fact, on the day of the accident, I landed one from not far outside our own 25. I’m talking about 70 metres.
But then, there we were battling away in the mud on Carlaw Park, and I was tackled in the corner down by the terraces. I got my right leg out of the mud but then I got twisted around on my left leg. And, when I went to stand up to play the ball, I kept falling over.
One of the boys says to me: “Dil. Look at your leg. The back of your leg is round the front!” So, that’s what happened. Nine days later, at Middlemore Hospital, they said they’d have to amputate my left leg because, by then, gangrene had set in and it was starting to travel.
I was in and out of consciousness, but I remember my mum telling the doctors: ”Just do whatever you have to do to keep him alive.” And here I am, today. Still alive.
After they amputated that leg just below the knee, all I wanted was to get back to work and to fit into the life I’d known before my injury. Coming from our working-class family and being brought up like that, it was natural for me just to want to work and look after my family. But I never thought I’d end up in a band and making that my career.
Bastion Point was another milestone in your life. It must’ve had an impact on your thinking.
Well, we (my first wife and I) took our three kids along and we stuck up a tent with a couple of families. It was just a friendly occupation and, at that stage, we never envisaged that it would grow to what it did. But people were coming from everywhere and our leader, Joe Hawke, was providing us with information about our history and how things might develop.
The whole way through, it was a learning curve. There was huge support from the workforce in Auckland. From the union movement and other organisations. And, all through the protest, Joe was right on the money. He knew how it was playing out, and he never got upset.
And here we were with our caravan and our tent to the side — and there was the wind and the rain. But, in the summer time, we built a stage and started to attract some musicians and bands. It didn’t take long before the production companies were supplying us with PAs and sound systems. And they’d encourage top bands to come up and perform.
All of us were learning about the land issues and how it wasn’t just about Bastion Point. It was also about a lot of Māori issues throughout the country and about Māori being alienated from their papakāinga.
And, when it came to eviction day, the old people were singing their songs and they had their say before they walked off the land. Even the police, as much as they were there to enforce the Riot Act to get everyone off the land, they just didn’t move at first.
Neither did we, until these old people had their say. And that came about because a couple of ex-coppers told us, a few days before, that we had to take the wives, the kids, and particularly the old people, out first. They feared that, if they stayed, it’d turn violent because Ngā Tamatoa wouldn’t stand for their families being treated roughly.
I’m glad that part of the eviction went peacefully, even though, when we got evicted, they dragged us through the mud and shit and everything out there before they locked us in the vans. But we’d made it clear we were serious. We’d been living there for 506 days.
Thank you, cousin. It’s an amazing venture. But now let’s talk about Herbs. Deliberately multicultural — Sāmoan, Tongan, Māori, and a Pākehā as well. Some wonderful songwriting and singing. And now there’s the movie, Songs of Freedom, introducing us to people like Toni Fonoti, another founding Herbs man, and stories we didn’t know before.
Well, the multicultural aspect was just us reflecting our society as it was at the time. And, as for Toni, he just had a special way with words. He could write lyrics with a double meaning. Like French Letter, which he chose as an insult to the French in response to their nuclear testing in Mururoa — which we saw as an insult to Polynesians.
That song was your first recording, back in 1981, wasn’t it? But you rolled through the ‘80s with five albums and a series of singles including Nuclear Waste, Slice of Heaven, E Papa and Parihaka. Just great songs. And, through those songs, you were establishing yourselves as the masters of Pacific reggae. When did it strike you that you were part, an important part, of this wave of change?
When UB40, an English reggae band, came out here, we supported them. And, we had a couple of concerts in town with them at the top of Queen St. At rehearsal, when we were doing sound checks and things like that, they heard what was the start of new world music for them. And they coined the term “Pacific reggae” for the sound we had. It stuck. And we just accepted it.
We’d always tried to mimic the reggae thing from Jamaica. But, at the same time, we were still trying to establish our own identity in how we played. But once our music was identified and then known as Pacific reggae, we didn’t have to go outside to look for something else.
Many of your songs reflect a political focus of their time. Rust in Dust, No Nukes, French Letter, Dragons and Demons, Sensitive to a Smile. These are great songs, but with very challenging lyrical content. When you look back at all the songs that you and your team have recorded, Dilworth, are there any lines that stick in your head. Do you sometimes think: “I loved singing that line”, or “I loved hearing that.” I know each waiata has its special qualities. But is there a line or two that you think really epitomises what the band, in that period, was about?
One moment I’ll never forget, is to do with the vibe that we were all aiming for, when each of us felt we’d done our part. And the moment was when Charlie Tumahai said: “One day, Dil, we’ll all be on stage and we’ll all get that fuckin’ oneness. And, when you do, it’s like you’ll feel it.”
Now, I didn’t have that oneness feeling just once. I’ve had that oneness feeling three or four times. And I’ve heard some people remark that when they’ve come to hear us at a live gig, and then gone home and played the album, their reaction has been: “Wow. We’ve gone to a Herbs live gig and it sounds better than what’s on the album.” And I think that’s a great compliment.
It sure is. Sadly, you’ve lost a few of the brothers along the way. Fred Faleauto. Tama Renata recently. Charlie as well. It’s difficult, isn’t it, because it feels like they’re more than just band mates. The term brothers might be a better way to describe the relationships. But the band still goes on.
You do miss them. And you miss the vibe that they all bought to the gigs. You miss their mannerisms. You miss what made them individuals. But there’s been some consolation in them making the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. We never expected that. None of us did.
As far as we were concerned, though, our music is recorded history. No matter what happens down the road, when our time is up, our music will still be there. And there’s a message in the number of gigs we’ve been asked to play in recent years, including 21st birthdays.
These kids wanting our music are being brought up by their grandparents. So that means their grandparents were Herbs fans. And they’ve shared our music with their own children and their moko. So there’s a new generation listening to Herbs. And in churches they sing some of our songs.
It reminds me of Fred Faleauto. Once a month, his mother used to get Fred to organise the church choir. She had a bunch of songs that they’d practise. And every time Fred took them for choir practice, he made them sing a Herbs song. So, at his funeral, the choir sang a couple of songs that Fred had got them to learn. That was Fred. He was proud to be a Herbsman.
And my 10-year-old mokopuna from Sylvia Park School said he’s learning Sensitive to a Smile in his choir.
There are some great renditions of that song. In school choirs, too. I’m pretty chuffed hearing all that.
Sensitive to a Smile. Who wrote that one?
Me, Charlie, and a guy called Todd Casella.
I tell you mate, the words — and that’s why they’re singing that song — the words are so beautiful. Good on you guys. Which reminds me. What a taonga you have now with the film Songs of Freedom. And what a special reunion it must’ve been for the Herbs whānau at the premiere of the film.
Exactly. It was a reunion. And Tearepa (Kahi) and his team, all through the shooting, whatever the obstacles, they found a way around them or through them. He was just so determined to tell the Herbs story. And even though the whole project was draining for us old-timers, we stuck with it. We wanted to be there.
And there was a nice touch, downstairs at the premiere, when your youngest daughter, Elizabeth, spoke on your behalf and announced that she was the “proudest daughter in town”.
I had a feeling she’d do that because she knew I wouldn’t have gone downstairs. Leading up to the movie showing, I’d been on crutches and she realised that it’d be a mission for me to get down there.
She said: “Oh, I’ll go downstairs and sit in your seat.” I said: “Yeah, well, you know what that means, eh? If there’s anything to be done, you’ll have to do it.” She said: “That’s the easy part.”
She’s grown up with the band. Ever since she was born. She breathed it and hung around us, hung around the band. When she wasn’t with me, she’d be with Uncle Charlie. And her younger brother (Thomas), too. Always around the band. They knew the whole history.
She’ll always speak on my behalf if I can’t make the podium. She’ll go up there and represent.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Songs of Freedom, the documentary film about Herbs directed by Tearepa Kahi, is now playing in New Zealand theatres.
In 2012, 17 Herbs band members were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame: Dilworth Karaka, Toni Fonoti, Spencer Fusimalohi, Phil Toms, John Berkley, the late Fred Faleauto and Charles Tumahai, Morrie Watene, Tama Lundon, Jack Allen, Carl Perkins, Willie Hona, Thom Nepia, Tama Renata, Gordon Joll, Grant Pukeroa, Kristen Hapi.
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