Reggae stalwarts Herbs celebrate their 30-year anniversary this month with a new Best Of album. Guitarist and co-founder Dilworth Karaka tells Scott Kara the stories behind five of their best songs

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In the early days, Herbs used to open for punk bands in Parnell playing songs such as Azania (Soon Come) - a heavy, Bob Marley-meets-Afrika Bambaataa slab of reggae.

"Supporting the punk boys was great fun," remembers guitarist Dilworth Karaka of the gigs in the early 80s. "My mum used to come along, and I said to the guys on the door, 'Don't let my mum pay', but they'd come back and say, 'Hey, we had to take her money because otherwise she was going to jump all over us'. She refused to take the free ride and she wanted to see what was happening in the music scene. She wanted to know why I wasn't singing She Wears My Ring," he smiles.

While Azania (a word for South Africa often used by opponents of apartheid) references anti-apartheid leaders Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko, Herbs were also writing about issues closer to home on songs such as Dragons and Demons and French Letter.

"People asked us who wrote those songs. 'Is it a Marley or Peter Tosh song?' But we said, 'Nah, we wrote these songs.' We started to nail our own musical identity, which is different to traditional reggae, but to coin a phrase UB40 came up with, Pacific reggae, and it's a Pacific sound we've managed to tap into and develop."

Over the years Herbs have written songs of protest and rebellion as well as peace and love, from the toe-tapping, party anthem Long Ago, to the family song Sensitive To A Smile, and their collaboration with Tim Finn on Parihaka. These are the stories behind the songs as told by Karaka:

Azania (Soon Come)
(off What's Be Happen, 1982)
Azania is a very powerful song. Herbs started out a political band and we still maintain that today. The song educated all of us. It's the voice of people who are hard done by, socially, economically, and the working-class voice of the people that couldn't be heard through regular outlets.

The sound of it was pretty raw. The majority of Herbs tracks were written in the backyard, with a slab of grog, a bag of inspiration, and a couple of acoustic guitars. But by the time we went into the studio sounds got added, which made an impact, and atmospheric sounds, that didn't have to be loud and heavy because sometimes they were quite subtle, were added too.

The guy from Killing Joke [Jaz Coleman] walked up to me one day, this Pommy guy with an accent and said, 'Man, you guys write some heavy shit.' I never really understood what he meant until a few years later.

French Letter
(off Light of the Pacific, 1983)

We had whanau from Tahiti and the outer islands of the Cooks coming to New Zealand sick and having to go to hospital. But you'd go to their homes at the time in the islands and they would have these enormous photos of nuclear blasts in the atolls. To them, at the time, they believed that was the sort of thing that was going to keep them safe in the Pacific. They were pro-French, but over the years that has been broken down, not only by our songs, but because of the things that have happened to them.

When the song came out the radio jocks had to change the name [French letter is slang for condom] to get it played on the radio. Instead of French Letter they'd say this is Herbs' new track Letter To France because of the innuendo - Tony Fonoti [who wrote the lyrics to French Letter] and Ross France [who wrote Azania] were great at playing with words. They'd always find certain things that would piss people off. We always said, 'You guys do the lyrics and we'll do the music', but before we knew it we started to understand a bit more about the words. Music for the soul, message for the brain.

There ended up being a Tahitian and New Caledonian embargo on Herbs material so we thought, 'Argh, we must be having some effect because now it's going underground'. And when anything goes underground in the music world, everybody wants a bit of it.

Karanga Ra/Long Ago
(off Long Ago, 1984)

Great song. When the gigs finish, people are singing it walking out the door - every time. And in the music business you're always trying to write that hit song yet it's the simple things that make a hit song. It was a party song. It was easy for everyone to sing, and when you're at a party - although it doesn't happen very often nowadays, but we still do it at our family parties - and the guitars come out, it brings everybody into the circle to share the song.

We took some flak from the traditionalists over putting the karanga on the front of it because they were quite concerned that we had awoken the spirits. But as I said to them then we did it with the utmost respect and we wanted to take our Polynesian culture with us. We had Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders and Maori in the band and we are all of the Pacific Ocean. We wanted to call the album Brothers In Arms of the Pacific, but then another famous band used that name so we steered clear of it.

Sensitive To A Smile
(off Sensitive To A Smile, 1987)

We'd just finished doing Slice Of Heaven with Dave Dobbyn and Sensitive To A Smile was almost ready to go too. But what happened was Slice Of Heaven took off. We held [Smile] back and had to ride the dog. We released Sensitive To A Smile with the idea of launching the album in Ruatoria - a volatile area in our own country. They were ready for war down there and we wanted to take the power of music and play for the community. Unfortunately, a few years later, a couple of guys lost their lives and paid the supreme price.

Sensitive To A Smile is very much a family song. It was written by Todd Casella, an American poet, myself, Charlie [Tumahai] and Willie Hona. Todd was a guy from San Francisco, and he and his wife Nancy lived at Wainui beach in Gisborne. We'd done a gig there and he'd made himself known to us and how much of a Herbs fan he'd become since being in New Zealand. As far as he was concerned, we were the only band who could do his stuff.

By Sensitive To A Smile Charlie had joined the band and he took us up a few notches and we could feel the weight of a song that had so much meaning to it - musically, lyrically, and visually, with the video [shot in Ruatoria].

Until then, we always just thought we played this shit in the backyard at home but then we realised we had a musical accent that existed nowhere else in the world.

(single, with Tim Finn, 1989)

I remember reading a book years ago called Ask That Mountain and that's how I got on to Parihaka. And Tim, who wrote the song when he did an album in LA, came back to New Zealand and he wanted to do the song with a New Zealand band. We gravitated to it. We'll jump on his waka.

It's been one of the most popular songs we've ever played and it's about the power of peaceful protest, what they went through at Parihaka, and the two prophets Tohu and Te Whiti.

They influenced people like Mahatma Gandhi and our young people need to hear about the people we used to have living here. Once you realise the power of peaceful protest, it's so strong - and that's what it's about, the strength of love.

Who: Herbs
What: Reggae act celebrating 30 years as a band
New album: Lights of the Pacific - The Very Best of Herbs, out now
See also: Light of the Pacific (1983); Long Ago (1984); Sensitive To A Smile (1987)