Academic journal article Knowledge Cultures

What's Be Happen? A Dialogic Approach to the Analysis of Herbs' New Zealand Reggae Lyrics

Academic journal article Knowledge Cultures

What's Be Happen? A Dialogic Approach to the Analysis of Herbs' New Zealand Reggae Lyrics

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

On 13 September 2012 the band Herbs were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards in Auckland's Town Hall, to honor their "enormous contribution to the cultural fabric of life" over a period of 30 years. (2) What's Be Happen?, (3) the first of the band's total of eight albums and New Zealand's first reggae album, is seen as a musical and political watershed in the history of New Zealand popular music. (4) Herbs' musical fusion of reggae and Pacific sounds produced a new and "distinctive Polynesian feel," (5) and the six songs constituted a new voice for a politically-aware audience. (6)

The period leading up to the release of the album in 1981 is described by historian James Belich as a time of critical change in New Zealand's recent history. (7) Historians and social commentators agree that the social and political events and issues so fiercely contested and debated in the 1970s and early 1980s had a significant influence in shaping opinion and many New Zealanders' sense of their own identity. (8) The conflicts and campaigns were struggles over human rights, associated ethical values, and the kind of society people wanted New Zealand to be. (9) These included conflict and protest over Maori land losses that had taken place as a consequence of colonization and in its aftermath; (10) over nuclear testing in the Pacific and degradation of the environment; against racism in the form of South African apartheid, racially selected international rugby teams and local racism in police treatment of Pacific Islands "over-stayers" as well as urban Maori and Pacific Island people. (11)

Herbs' lyrics on What's Be Happen? and their appropriation and localization of Jamaican roots reggae (12) create a historically important and culturally valuable popular nexus that dialogically connects, marks and speaks to some of these significant political and social events and issues in New Zealand during the 1970s and early 1980s. The lyrics of "Azania (Soon Come)" written by Ross France refer to the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and in "One Brotherhood," written by Phil Toms, a call for unity in reference to protests against the loss of Maori ancestral lands is discursively linked to the campaign against the South African rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981. The remaining songs written by Toni Fonoti include the title track "What's Be Happen?" which addresses the loss of Pacific Island roots and the experiences of Pacific Islanders who moved to New Zealand to establish a better future for themselves and their families. The central theme of "Whistling in the Dark" is the everyday experiences and police treatment of urban Maori and Pacific Islands people. The final song, "Reggae's Doing Fine," pays tribute to Bob Marley, whose music and lyrics resonated with Maori and Pacific Island audiences in particular (13) and who died in May 1981 shortly before the album was released.

The enduring significance of some of these events and issues is evidenced in the continuing circulation of related discourses. There are frequent references for example to the polarizing effect of the 1981 South African rugby tour of New Zealand at the time (14) and to the contribution that New Zealanders' protests against the tour made to the struggle to overthrow apartheid in South Africa. (15) The Bastion Point occupation in Auckland in 1978 in an effort to prevent the sale of Maori land to developers has been revisited in television documentaries. (16) And the experiences of urban Maori and Pacific Islands people, including police harassment in the 1970s, have been re-examined in television documentaries. (17) As for Herbs' album itself, the significance of these songs for the generation that protested in the 1970s and in 1981 is illustrated by the communal singing of "One Brotherhood" at a reception held for Nelson Mandela in Auckland in 1995, (18) and the inclusion of a further song from the album, "Dragons and Demons", in the sound track of the recent New Zealand film Boy. …

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