Herbs: Songs of Freedom directed by Tearapa Kahi is a heartwarming film, giving a valuable overview of the godfathers of New Zealand reggae.
From the opening karanga, the whole crowd singing He Honore together as a waiata tautoko (support song) for the kaikōrero, right through to the speeches from the band members at the end. It felt good to be so close to such an integral part of NZ music history, and the audience felt just as much an interwoven part of this history as the band members up on the big screen.
Following up on Kahi’s kiwi classic Poi E, the film loosely follows the band reorganising and rehearsing for a successful reunion show while giving an effective overview of their music and the environment that it was created from. This is an impressive feat, considering the 40+ revolving band members of Herbs 30+ year run.
Herbs are recognised at the first of NZ’s great reggae bands. There would be no Sons of Zion, no Katchafire, no Fat Freddy’s Drop, no Six60, and probably no me without them. This film gives them credit where credit is due.
New Zealand musicians have been taking music influences from overseas and putting their own unqiue kiwi spin on it since ‘aaages ago’ (insert Jermaine Clement’s voice here from that L&P ad). Herbs did exactly this with reggae. They took something that was inherently Jamaican and made it relevant to their own struggles and political, socio-economic environments. The documentary covers this well, giving us a good backdrop of New Zealand in the late ’70s and ’80s. From Pacific migration, the dawn raids, the Polynesian Panthers, the 1981 Springbok tour, to the French Nuclear tests, it brought back all of my Year 10 social studies curriculum (though it was definitely more engaging than Mr Smith’s 5th-period powerpoint presentations). This environment spawned songs like Nuclear Waste and French Letter.
The cover of Herb’s debut EP Whats Be Happen was even an aerial photo of Bastion Point. It was cool to learn a bit more about Bastion Point in the film, as my generation has their own Bastion Point going on right now at Ihumātao. The waiata, the peaceful nature of the protests, the full whānau friendly vibe shown at Bastion Point all reminded me of the day I spent at Ihumātao. This protest had Herbs to release songs on their behalf, and we now have artists like Rob Ruha, Maisey Rika, Troy Kingi, Seth Haapu and more who have just released an Ihumātao reggae support song Ka Mānu.
Throughout the film, Herbs live up to their name of being a ‘band of the land’. They performed at marae, they sung with Nikau trees on stage. They made being Māori, being P.I., and being Pākeha Kiwi cool. Their version of E Papa, performed at a New Zealand music awards ceremony, brought chills to my spine, reminding me of playing rakau games and singing this song with my mum when I was little.
Herbs: Songs of Freedom also serves as a memoriam for the band members who sadly passed away soon after they finished shooting. Carl Perkins, Thomas Nepia, Tama Renata all having passed away last year. Towards the end of the movie, there are some nice moments with Carl and his whānau, where the cross-generational power of music is shown. Music really does help us connect across generations, across age gaps and across completely different life experiences, allowing us to break down the divisions that our minds build up between ourselves. Perkins’ whānau band House of Shem feature also, showing that NZ reggae is in good hands for the generations to come.
As a bi-lingual hip hop/pop musician, heavily influenced by American and UK hip hop music, Herbs: Songs of Freedom reminded me just how important it is to stay true to yourself in your music. It’s fine to be inspired by overseas music, but make sure you make it your own. There’s already plenty of Americans that are great at making American music. So just be you, and enjoy being you. Ngā mihi Herbs and Tearepa for this valuable reminder.