Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Well intentioned – and necessary – as this documentary is as a salute to one of the most important bands in Aotearoa New Zealand's music history, by never having a clear focus or trajectory it falls well short of the marks it seems to be aiming for.
Herbs were this country's first overtly political group and the 1981 debut EP Whats' Be Happen (referred to as an album these days) was a landmark of socio-political comment coupled with memorable songs.
But that album and the uniquely pan-Pacific band which created it did not come from nowhere and given the volatile politics of the previous decade it would have been – as I tell my university students when we look at the band – more surprising if Herbs hadn't been political.
In the late Sixties and Seventies there was the rise of Nga Tamatoa (Young Warriors), Polynesian Panthers (Herbs' manager Will 'Ilolahia was a founding Panther), the shameful dawn raids (started under Labour and enthusiastically expanded under the new National government lead by Robert Muldoon), the '75 hikoi, land occupations at Raglan and Bastion Point, the anti-Springbok tour marches . . .
All that fed into Whats' Be Happen, and Herbs started to tour it just as the Springbok team arrived.
Herbs and the Whats' Be Happen songs (about many of those issues but also some songs like Dragons and Demons aimed at the power of the Pacific churches over their people) were at the nexus of that time.
Herbs were a frontline band, and became beloved entertainers with some gorgeous mainstream songs like Sensitive to a Smile, Long Ago and others.
Their history had shaped them and their political stance and music shaped us, those who heard the album. And they grew and grew musically.
But in the scattershot approach of this doco important period footage is often disconnected from any useful chronology, there are huge areas unexplored or unexplained, and those who don't know Herbs' remarkable story (and that is a couple of generations now) would hardly be any wiser for having seen this.
Take a 21-year old to this who has little prior knowledge of the politics of the time – and perhaps outside of some Maori and Pacific circles that would be most in my experience – and they will have no clear idea why, for example, Bastion Point was occupied by Ngati Whatua and their supporters.
The titles on the screen of many people who appear in historical or contemporary footage is frequently unhelpful or absent (towards the end Syd Jackson of Nga Tamatoa is identified in footage but there's no reference to how important he was as the articulate spokesperson of that movement) and any sense of chronology is confused because it seems the director wasn't certain about what this doco was meant to be doing.
Certainly it is a tribute to Herbs (the fact there were so many members, maybe 23, is mentioned but no clue given as to why people departed) but woven between the shuffled deck of history and songs we see the band re-forming for a 40thanniversary concert.
At those points it is a very different film as people bond, rehearse and then perform. That seems a separate doco to one about just who Herbs were and why they have won the accolades they have.
There are also some remarkable omissions (Joe Walsh of the Eagles was a member but he doesn't appear), important events seem skirted over (their album launch in Ruatoria has footage but no greater context supplied), some film is left unexplained (why were they going into Mt Eden Prison?) and by telescoping and shuffling time it almost seems as if Azania, French Letter and Slice of Heaven happened simultaneously.
That said, the recent reissue of Whats' Be Happen with French Letter added to the original EP further muddies those waters as well.
What is good is, of course, seeing and hearing Herbs then and now perform and in cinemas the sound of Azania, for example, really punches out – albeit briefly. And also hearing the various members in candid and frequently good-humoured conversation.
Dilworth Karaka says more with silence and a sad look than words can convey when he is thinking about those who have passed on or the legacy Herbs have created.
Herbs fans will feel this serves the band well enough perhaps and that seeing them on the screen is a result in itself.
But it feels like an opportunity lost and the real pity is not just that Songs of Freedom doesn't serve the more complex and important story of this singular band, but that in this country you rarely get a second shot at telling such a story.
Unless that happens – and it won't for a long while because “we've already got one on Herbs” – then anyone wanting to follow Herbs' remarkable and important story is better off starting with the many stories at audioculture.
Then undertaking this jigsaw puzzle film . . . and piecing it together differently in your head.
HERBS: SONGS OF FREEDOM IS IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW