The band name is a reflection of its multi-island make up on the one hand, and its musical sense of purpose on the other. The beating heart of Unity Pacific has however always been one, Niuean-born Aucklander Tigi Ness, legendary conscious protester and famously father of Che Fu. It would, of course, be possible to talk about the songs on his band’s new third album, ‘Blackbirder Dread’, in musical isolation, but that would risk completely missing the point, as Trevor Reekie illustrates.
A first generation New Zealander from Niuean parents, Tigilau Ness released the debut Unity Pacific album in 2003, some 20 years after forming the band. Considered the patriarch of Aotearoa reggae, Tigi and his band Unity Pacific have just released their third album called ‘Blackbirder Dread’.
It’s an album that references the cultural and personal values that have defined Tigi’s identity. His life journey has traversed many forks in the road but his “faith, family, life-long friends… and this blessed country,” have been the primary factors that have helped sustain him through the years.
Tigi looks the way he sounds. Relaxed and friendly, he carries himself with a confident modesty and self-effacing charm. His wonderful plaited white beard lends him an additional dignity that compliments his dreads. If Charles Frederick Goldie were still around today he may well have painted Tigi’s portrait. Such is this musician’s mana.
Tigilau was named by his father who was Niuean born, but lived in Samoa for 15 years. It’s a name that is common through the Pacific, but in the legends of Niue, Tigilau was the first whale rider. Tigi himself believes it’s a name that applies to someone possessing a rebellious spirit, and given that Tigi has been a dedicated activist from a young age, it’s a name he has lived up to.
However his father died when Tigi was just six years old, and it was his mother who taught him and his two sisters how to read and write from the Niuean Bible. It was the first language in the family home.
Tigi also read much of the collected works of Shakespeare belonging to his oldest sister. Little wonder he has always been a voracious reader with a passion for words. It’s obviously the sort of self-education that later shaped his creative process. They were poor, Tigi’s mother raising her family on a widow’s benefit. She was a major influence in shaping much of the man he has become.
“I have lived the life I have because of her,” he states plainly.
Growing up in suburban Auckland, Tigi attended Newton Central Primary School and Kowhai Intermediate,where he made his debut stage performance with a school friend singing the old Frank Ifield classic, I Remember You. Nailing the song, Tigi was applauded by the class and the teacher – the buzz for performing live starting right there in that assembly hall.
“I guess that was the start of it… being praised for doing something that I liked.”
At Mt Albert Grammar Tigi excelled in History and English and was put into an academic stream where he also learnt Latin. However, Mt Albert Grammar was also an awakening time. When his Hendrix-inspired afro caused a disturbance it was to prove a major fork in the road. Despite other palagi kids having long hair, and despite trying to explain to his headmaster that long hair was part of his Niuean culture, he was cut no slack. Tigi’s refusal to cut his afro resulting in his expulsion, and he immediately knew he had made a terrible mistake. He had to tell his mother.
Tigi says he “…floundered around for a long time – doing nothing really,” and was eventually invited by one of his old school friends to join the Polynesian Panthers.
The Panthers placed great emphasis on insisting they weren’t a gang, and had a 10-point program that included helping new arrivals from the islands adapt into their new lives, deal with housing issues and exploitative landlords. They provided homework programs for kids, food co-operatives and distributed a free legal pamphlet on dealing with the police, written by a young David Lange.
This was the infamous era of the dawn raids. Often random, sometimes the result of information received from the public, the early morning raids conducted by the police targeted Pacific households looking for ‘over-stayers’.
The Panthers would frequently follow the police to observe and make their presence known. They also retaliated by conducting their own ‘dawn raids’ of politicians’ houses, dousing their houses with floodlights.
“I was one of those ones that went and dawn-raided Bill Birch, and I apologise again… It must have been pretty freaky and scary at that time, but I think also about the Pacific Island and Maori people who were frightened and scared at 3am, so yes, I was guilty of dawn raiding that family out in Howick early one morning. Going out there with loud hailers and spot lights, and waking them up and demanding to see their passports.”
The legacy of the Polynesian Panthers continues to inspire generations of Islanders. Tigi believes that history needs to be passed on to the kids, and they are still invited to talk at schools about the time because it is an important part of the history of this country.
Equally, he talks of that time having such an effect on him that he found himself entering a dark place. Encountering the music of Bob Marley, where he heard the polemics of revolution translated into a message that resonated, gave him a way forward.
“The lyrics of Bob Marley, like Get Up, Stand Up was where we were at… but we weren’t aware that the lyrics of what he was talking about was all Bible talk. We were coming at it from a political angle – Polynesian Panthers, revolution and power to the people – and then along comes Bob with the music and he’s going, ‘Jah is the power, (providing) the spiritual connection to what we were doing’. Being in that dark place, your community doesn’t like you because you are making trouble, the system doesn’t like you because you’re making trouble… who do you turn too? So that’s when I sought a higher power…”
Embracing Marley’s music, Tigi also embraced the Rastafarian faith. He was on the Land March in 1975, then part of the Bastion Pt occupation and protest, and later the anti-Springbok rugby tour protests – the closest this country has ever come to a civil war.
He was one of four people to go to prison because of his stand against apartheid during the 1981 Springbok tour, when protesters invaded the grounds at Eden Park and violence erupted on a scale unprecedented during the entire tour. The events of September 12, 1981 are something that he says he still re-lives almost every day.
“It brings out a lot of emotions because I know there was a lot of people other than myself that were involved, and as the Bible says, ‘greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friend’. It’s that deep for me.”
The day after September 12 the police came to Tigi’s door and took him down to the central station, with a few others. He was shown photos taken during the course of the riots.
“They pointed out individuals and said, ‘This is such and such, he’s a gang member…’ so they obviously had been watching and taking photos and keeping records of who was involved. All I could say to them was, ‘No, that person is a protester protesting against apartheid.’ They would say, ‘This is such, and he’s a gang leader.’ ‘No, he’s a protester.’ That was my answer all the time.”
Sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, he told music journalist Graham Reid, in a NZ Herald interview in 2003, that he realised he was a Rastafarian when entering prison.
“Before you go in, on the wall, there are prisoners’ rights and it’s about half an hour’s worth of reading. So I read the whole lot and close to the end it said, ‘No religious persecution’.
“There was me with my locks, not professing I was Christian, and I got up to the warden and he says, ‘What religion?’ ‘Ahh, Rastafarian,’ and he wrote it down.”
Through the nine months of incarceration his faith acted as his spiritual compass, keeping him resolute.
“I will never change, ’cos God gave me the reason and the power to speak out and I must.”
“He got a raw deal, but for all that he seemed to come out of it stronger,” says his son Che.
Much of the ’80s and ’90s passed creating music and taking stock of his situation, practising his faith and raising a family. But always the music. His own bands included I-Unity (prior to imprisonment), Second Power in the 1980s, Unity (reformed in early ’90s to 2001) and Unity Pacific from 2001 to the present.
With the release of ‘Blackbirder Dread’ in May Unity Pacific’s album count goes to three. Their 2003 debut, ‘From Street To Sky’, was followed by ‘Into The Dread’ in 2007. All three albums have been released by Moving Production, with his friends Prajna Moodley and David Allan.
He was applauded with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2009 Pacific Music Awards. Tigi laughs at that memory. Clearly humbled that his life and journey has been recognised, he laughingly notes:
“I also thought I was too young for this.”
‘Blackbirder Dread’ was recorded live, with minimal over-dubs, at Roundhead Studios. Besides Tigi on lead vocals and rhythm guitar the band includes Tala Niko (percussion), Tau Harawira (rhythm keyboard), Vinnie Brbich (bass guitar, bvs and percussion), Lisiate Langi (drums), Clayton Holloway (Korg, B3 Hammond, piano, wurlitzer etc.) and Senio Brown (electric and acoustic guitars, lead and rhythm).
The album features a glorious track called Rock Away, a collaboration with son Che that was written before they went to Niue in 2011 to play a concert there. It’s a song both are proud off.
“I was ever so grateful that I had the opportunity to go back to my parent’s origins, and it was a completion of the cycle,” Tigi recalls. “More than anything I wanted to go Niue, just to see and feel that I am who I am. Every child wants to know what their parents are like, which is why we have to plead for the fatherless… It’s about identity, and once we know who we are then we can go forward. It’s the same psyche for the whole country – I believe all the immigrants who come here must find out about their roots first, bring it back here, take the best out of it and that’s the way NZ goes forward.”
Unsurprisingly, the third Unity Pacific album doesn’t shy away from protest or social commentary. The Bastion Pt occupation and the album’s opening song, Girl I Never Knew, is a tribute to both the history of this time and Joanie Hawke, the 5-year-old daughter of Alec and Miro, who died in a fire at the campsite. It’s a powerful song.
Written by his life-long friend, Roger Fowler, We Are All Palestinians is about the plight of the Palestinian people. Fowler is a co-founder of Kia Ora Gaza, an organisation supporting medical aid to the people of Palestine, Gaza especially.
“I can’t rest easy here knowing and seeing what’s happening to families and children over there. It’s apartheid. I’m prepared to fight for anyone… like the Bible says, ‘relieve the oppressed, plead for the widow and the fatherless’. We have them here in NZ too, and we must realise that, we as men are responsible and have to act responsibly and change it.”
The album closes with its title track, Blackbirder Dread, a profoundly spiritual contemplation about the men, women and children stolen from their Pacific homes. It’s a dark piece of Pacific history that has never been taught in schools. The slave trade was active in the Pacific during the 1860s when blackbirding ships coerced workers to mine the guano deposits in Peru and heaven knows where else. Many never returned home. Sieke Toa Taihia’s hand drawn cover artwork for the new album is a continuum of that story.
At 60 years of age, Tigi’s lyrics remain strongly informed by the political awareness of his journey through life. His personal values and concern for standing up for individual rights, equality, peace and just plain human decency may be a more considered stance these days, but he has never deviated from his personal roots and a life well lived.
As he sings in the title track of Unity Pacific’s debut album, From Street To Sky, ‘I was born in the city, I was raised in the streets, had religion in my system, I was poisoned in my sleep… the factory was my future, and the ghetto was my grave… Look at me now.’