Herbs - more than Songs of Freedom

Few films have the capacity to be about an entire region – the Pacific - while simultaneously being about one country’s band, which is where Herbs – Songs of Freedom comes in. The new documentary on the iconic Kiwi band had its world premiere at the closing of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Reporter LAUMATA LAUANO caught the film, directed by Tearepa Kahi (Poi E, Mt Zion), along with some feels.



Reggae band Herbs are iconic, not just for being pioneers of the Pacific reggae sound with songs you may or may not have heard your parents playing at family get-togethers, no matter your Polynesian background. Herbs are iconic because they did what no other band in New Zealand had done before them - marry their feel-good rhythms with burning social and environmental issues.


The band has always been political, with links to the Polynesian Panthers, the cover of Whats' Be Happen (released during the 1981 Springbok tour) was an aerial photo of police action at Bastion Point in 1978. Herbs didn’t just tackle race relations however, they had a strong stance on nuclear weapons in the Pacific, too, with songs like "French Letter", “No Nukes”, “Nuclear Waste” and “Light of the Pacific”.


The film brings up those social and political flashpoints, such as the occupation of Bastion Point, the 1981 Springbok tour demonstrations, and the dawn raids targeting the Pasifika community - both with archival footage of each movement and interviews recalling those moments.


The band has been around for 40 years, their first gig being as the support act to Stevie Wonder. It has had many members come and go, but the original line-up consisted of five musicians from across the Pacific whose string of hits in the 80s and 90s helped Aotearoa forge a new Pacific identity.


Now if, like me, you’re guilty of knowing the songs and not the band, or the stirring history behind them, make sure you get to a screening of Herbs – Songs of Freedom when the film comes out on Thursday August 15, 2019.


It is required viewing of the best kind - where you don’t feel like you’re being forced to watch.


The film details the band not so much chronologically but thematically, as director Tearepa Kahi introduces members and moments in a way that doesn’t follow a strict timeline.


As an audience member you’re intrigued, but never lost as the Herbs’ 40-year history explodes onto the screen in archival footage and interviews (past and present) set to a soundtrack of the band’s dope sounds - a mixture of live and studio versions.


You learn, from founding members such as Toni Fonoti (vocals/songwriter), how the band went from himself, Spencer Fusimalohi (guitar) and Fred Faleauto (drums) Back Yard in the mid-1970s and playing gigs around their Ponsonby home in central Auckland to later being joined by bass player Dave Pou and an initial part-time member Maori guitarist Dilworth Karaka and at least 23 other members/contributors that came and went.


From the start Herbs have stood for indigenous and Pasifika people, how could they not with a Pasifika and Maori core, including Polynesian Panthers members like Fonoti and PP co-founder Will ’Ilolahia as their manager, who says Herbs showed him a less dangerous way of protesting, in music.


The sentiment is echoed by Dilworth who says that Bastion Point was where he learned the power of music.


“We were up there through the seasons – the sun, the rain, and the cold. And the only thing that kept us together was the music and Joe Hawke’s words.”


The legendary activist Joe Hawke is seen in the film paying the band a visit during a rehearsal.


The film is interspersed with that classic Kiwi and Pasifika humour and you leave with a strong sense of who the band is, what they stood for and what it means to be “Herbs”.


The film comes out on August 15, 2019.