Pacific reggae legends Herbs were one of Aotearoa's most distinctive bands of the 1980s. The band scored ten Top 20 singles, including hits with fellow Kiwi legends Dave Dobbyn ('Slice of Heaven') and Tim Finn ('Parihaka'). Though infectiously upbeat, Herbs' music was always politically conscious (1982 hit 'French Letter' became the sound of New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance). Along the way Herbs featured vocalists Dilworth Karaka, Willie Hona, and the late Charlie Tumahai — plus Eagle Joe Walsh. In 2008, the band reconvened for 30th anniversary compilation Lights Of The Pacific: The Very Best Of Herbs.
In this video, languid Pacific Island imagery (poi, hibiscus, tamariki, breaching whales) and gorgeous reggae pop are contrasted with images of French nuclear testing. There are punchy 'no nukes' slogans and graphics, but a great performance from Herbs does the work effortlessly in this simple, well-crafted video. 'French Letter' was originally released in 1982 and began an eleven week stay on the Kiwi singles charts — despite very little radio play. It was rereleased in 1995 to protest the resumption of nuclear testing: "Let me be more specific - get out of the Pacific!"
Herbs visited the troubled East Coast town of Ruatoria in 1987, bringing music and aroha. They left with a documentary and this music video, which shows the band meeting and performing for the locals. Both The Power of Music and the music video were co-directed by Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors ) — in one of his earliest turns as director —and cinematographer John Day (Room that Echoes). The ode to love and harmony was judged Best Music Video at the 1987 New Zealand Music Awards.
Herbs released this ‘no nukes’ single the same year David Lange smelt uranium, while debating nuclear weapons at the Oxford Union. The video mixes on-the-beach Pasifika dancing with shots of the band performing at Western Springs, and protests against US nuclear warships and submarines visiting Kiwi waters. DIY visual effects show the band looming over Mt Eden Prison, and nuclear explosions punctuate the laid-back reggae beat. From 1984’s Long Ago album, the song was written by then frontman Willie Hona, keyboardist Tama Lundon and Rob Van De Lisdonk.
As was often the way in the early 80s, this is a fairly basic TVNZ-produced video, filmed on a studio set to a DIY marae backdrop under red, green and yellow rasta lighting. But the band are natural born performers. There's puffer vests, Hawaiian shirts, and wristbands; and singer Willie Hona’s sleeveless leopard print top worn with bone carving necklace somehow feels just right for the Pacific reggae charms of the music. 'Long Ago' was the title track from the band's third release, which also featured their no-nukes anthem 'Nuclear Waste'.
'Dragons and Demons' is a track from Whats' Be Happen? — the first release from the Auckland pioneers of Pacific reggae. The album had a shot of the Bastion Point protest on its cover, however the emphasis in this song — written by original vocalist Tony Fonoti — is more personal than political as it exhorts people to control mental dragons and demons. Fonoti’s devotion to Rastafarianism made him uncomfortable with the band’s growing commercial success, and led to his departure. ‘Dragons and Demons’ received a new lease of life in 2009 when it was featured in Taika Waititi’s film Boy.
'Azania' is an impassioned anti-apartheid song written for the Auckland reggae band by law student Ross France. Led by original Herbs vocalist Toni Fonoti, it helped to establish the band’s political credentials at a time when New Zealand was split by the 1981 Springbok Tour. Azania was the name given to a post-revolutionary South Africa by the Pan African Congress. There are name checks for black African leaders Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela; and the chant “Angola! Mozambique! Zimbabwe! Azania!” was quickly incorporated into anti-tour protest marches.