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How the director of Poi E took on 40 years of Herbs

Thom Nepia singing and Tama Renata on guitar (left) at the Herbs reunion show. Photo/Supplied

Director Tearepa Kahi hoped to throw Herbs a birthday party with his movie about the band, but his unconventional documentary evolved into something sadder and deeper along the way.

A few years ago, as he was considering a film about the band Herbs to follow his Poi E: The Story of Our Song, Tearepa Kahi wandered into a secondhand bookshop in Lyttelton. There, he found and bought Hey Boy!, a 1961 photographic journal of a Māori kid’s life, by husband and wife photographer and writer Bernie and Jane Hill. With its black-and-white photos, it reminded him of Ans Westra’s later and better-known Washday at the Pa.

Kahi recognised where it was set: in the Auckland streets known as Boot Hill, where Ngāti Whātua-o-Ōrākei, who once lived in a village that is now Orakei Domain, were shifted by the government in the early 1950s – booted up the hill to tidy up the place for the 1953-54 royal tour. Later, up that hill would come the Bastion Point/Takaparawhā occupation of 1977-78 and the ensuing 1987 Treaty settlement. Bastion Point looms large in the story of Herbs. The cover of first EP, What’s Be Happen?, was a photo of the police breaking up the occupation in May 1978.

RelatedArticlesModule - Herbs: Songs of Freedom

The book, though, was a tale of simpler times. “Boy is what they call me on our street. But my real name is Charlie, like my Dad’s,” it began. “My Dad’s people come from Tahiti and my mother’s people are northern Māori, who were famous warriors. So, as Dad says, that makes us half hula and half haka.”

Weeks later, a friend of Kahi’s pointed out that young Charlie, who talked about how much he likes guitars and got piano lessons at his grandmother’s, grew up to be Charlie Tumahai – the very Charlie Tumahai who took his bass-playing talents around the world before heading home and joining Herbs in 1985 for what would be their most successful period. The band’s fortunes never revived after his death from a heart attack in 1995.

“Charlie Tumahai in my hands, while walking through Lyttelton,” laughs Kahi at his find. “I couldn’t believe it and yet it made perfect sense.

Charlie Tumahai in 1987; and the 1961 book Hey Boy! he appeared in. Photo/Jane Ussher and supplied

“What this book told me is that Boot Hill wasn’t a battleground on May 25, 1978. It was a place where little kids ran around singing songs, going to school, playing with toi-toi and getting haircuts from the uncles and it was [through a] man I know that I know that. So that was the goosebumps moment.”

Using the images and text of the book, Kahi fashioned the opening of his Herbs: Songs of Freedom. At its New Zealand International Film Festival world premiere this month, the full house laughed as a voiceover mentioned another film starring a kid called “Boy”.

It’s but one imaginative touch in Kahi’s unconventional music documentary about the pioneering, politically powered Pacific reggae band that is produced by his wife, Reikura Kahi, and Cliff Curtis. His movie doesn’t so much tackle the band’s ragged and complicated history as attempt to show what they and their songs meant while staging a musical reunion of a dozen-plus musicians who have passed through Herbs’ ranks.

Willie Hona, Tama Lundon and Dilworth Karaka on stage. Photo/Supplied

“I wanted to tell a story about these men and their relationships with each other in the relationship to that place called Boot Hill.”

Tumahai isn’t the only absentee. Original drummer Fred Faleauto died in 2001. At the premiere, the framed photographs on the Civic Theatre stage of guitarist Tama Renata and percussionists Thom Nepia and Carl Perkins told another story – all three feature in the movie and play in the reunion show filmed in May 2018. All three have died in the past year.

There’s a moment in the movie when Renata, the powerhouse guitarist behind the Once Were Warriors theme, is talking about Tumahai, the group’s other super-musician. Off-camera, Kahi asks him to play a song for his late bandmate. Renata pulls out a quietly devastating version of Jimi Hendrix’s Angel in reply. It’s beyond poignant.

“It started off as a birthday – seriously,” says Kahi, sitting outdoors at a Pt Chevalier, Auckland, cafe where he and the band’s mainstay, Dilworth Karaka, often met to discuss the doco about Herbs’ 40-year history. “We were, like, there are candles to blow out. We’re going to have a big birthday; everybody come. And then real life took over.”

Hona and Karaka in rehearsal. Photo/Supplied

Perkins’ battle with cancer is featured in the film, and his sons, with whom he played in House of Shem, also feature in the rehearsals and reunion show.

When Kahi got the news of Renata’s sudden death last November, he was doing a final sound mix at Park Road Post in Wellington. When he was there a few years earlier working on Poi E, the facility’s director of engineering, John Neill, took Kahi aside and, on the studio’s big speakers, played him a Herbs recording he had made at Victoria University in 1985. To Kahi, who had never seen the band live in their heyday, it sounded incredible. “I realised Herbs had a real place inside the cinema. That was one of the first seeds for the origin of this film.”

Kahi went with his idea to Karaka, who spoke to other Herbs veterans. The director flew to Brisbane to persuade founding frontman and songwriter Toni Fonoti to participate.

Despite past disputes, which have occasionally involved lawyers, eventually they were all in. It was a feat of diplomacy.

Lundon and Karaka. Photo/Supplied

“I thought if we made the right catch-cry, everyone would come, but there was still a lot of difficulty and complications. It wasn’t about lawyers; it was about them getting in the same rehearsal room together and plugging their guitars in together.

“If we could create that space for them to actually just soundcheck and dust off the cobwebs and see what was there, then we could start a conversation.”

The initial interviews turned into an idea for a filmed reunion performance. Kahi hoped for something akin to The Buena Vista Social Club, the Wim Wenders film about a gathering of veteran Cuban musicians. Songs of Freedom spends time in the band’s Kingsland rehearsal space observing the members, who are mostly in their late sixties, readjusting to playing together.

Director Tearepa Kahi and producers Reikura Kahi and Cliff Curtis. Photo/Supplied

The doco is standing on the shoulders of some film giants, too, using footage from Merata Mita’s documentaries Bastion Point: Day 507 (co-directed by Leon Narbey) and 1981 Springbok tour film Patu!,as well as Lee Tamahori’s doco about the band launching the hit Sensitive to a Smile album in the then-troubled East Coast town of Ruatoria in 1988. But Songs of Freedom gets its main spark from putting the band back together and leaving them to it.

“This is about the uncles, and sometimes with uncles it’s best to get out of the way and just put a guitar in their hands – they become themselves.

“It wasn’t about people confronting their mistakes or where they got it right or wrong. No one’s repenting; no one is seeking each other’s forgiveness. It’s just guitar in the hand, man.”

Herbs: Songs of Freedom is in cinemas from August 15.

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.