By Peter McLennan
Tigilau Ness has taken his own sweet time arriving at his debut CD. After over 25 years playing music and helping bring up his kids (his older son is hip hop musician Che Fu), he has finally released his own album as Unity Pacific.
'From Street to Sky' is a sweet blend of laid back reggae vibes with thoughtful, intelligent lyrics about events in Tigilau's life, from the Springbok tour to his own children.
So, why did it take him so long to release his own music?
"Well, I'd been working and raising my family and paying my mortgage, all that kind of thing," Tigilau explains.
We're sitting in his garden shed out the back of his home, the walls lined with photos and posters from gigs. It's his little music lab. "Music never paid well for me, 'til I met the co-producers (of the album) David Allan and Prajna Moodley. They came to me with the offer of producing the album in September 2001, putting up the money and expertise to put it together.
"We slowly got together with the rhythm section we have now, 'cos our drummer at the time, a Tongan guy who was our drummer from way back, he'd gotten himself into trouble and couldn't get out of it. So we had to look for another drummer and at the same time, a keyboardist and a guitarist. My wife found them in the Trade & Exchange! True story. They were from The Managers, a ska band, so they were up with reggae and ska."
The current Unity Pacific lineup is Teinakore Winau (bass), Steven Keys (drums), Robert Halcrow(lead guitar), David Parry (keyboards) and Tala Niko on percussion.
The recording process was straightforward, using mostly live takes with minimal overdubs.
"We went into Revolver Studios in March last year, and recorded it in one weekend and did the guide vocals. We left most of those on and the following weekend we cleaned up any mistakes or off sounds, and that was it.
"'Cos we all work, we had to book the studio to go back in and mix it down, one song at a time. I was more in favour of just going in, wham, bam, just do it, you know? But it doesn't work like that. It took us the good part of a year to mix it down and we sent it off to Australia at the end of last year, and it was released February 10."
The process of selecting songs for the album drew on Tigilau's back catalogue of tunes, which he had been worked through with previous bands.
"Over the years I'd played with other musicians and had worked out the songs, so they were down pat. All it needed to do was get the right group of people and record it. I can look back on it now and say that those times weren't right for recording. The Springbok tour, that took up a chunk of my life, raising a family, that took up a chunk of my life. It's taken me a lifetime, but I believe the experiences I've had, and the people and the time in this country are unique."
Not only do some of the songs on the album go back some way; several of Tigilau's musical cohorts are also linked to his adoption of the Rastafarian faith, which he discovered through the music of Bob Marley.
"The bass player, the drummer and myself go back to 1983, '84, '85. We were in the 12 Tribes of Israel, when it first formed in New Zealand. The Twelve Tribes is the organisation that Bob Marley belonged to, and quite a few other Jamaican and English reggae artists too. It's an international organisation, totally Rasta. There're affiliations in Germany, Sweden, England, most of the Caribbean.
"Hensley Dyer, a brother from Jamaica travelled down this way. We teamed up together about 1983; could've been before that, 'cos I was in prison in 1982 over the Springbok tour. When I came out, some family and friends were involved in setting it up here, so I got involved in that. We'd read about theTwelve Tribes, and heard about it on reggae albums like Bob's, but didn't really have any connection with people in Jamaica. So this brother put us onto that connection, and we slowly built up the organisation here in New Zealand."
Tigilau's incarceration resulted from standing up for his beliefs, a trait that is clearly reflected in the album's lyrics.
"I've always been one to do that – if I'm going to sing about it, then I must live it and mean it. I was protesting against the Springbok tour, in the protests, and I was still playing music then, in a band called Unity (who formed in 1975) and a lot of the reggae we were playing was quite militant stuff, like Get Up Stand Up, a lot of social commentary lyrics. I was politically involved in my teens, when I left school."
(He was thrown out of school for refusing to cut his afro – how staunch is that?)
"I joined the Polynesian Panthers, a political activist group based on the American Black Panthers. When the Springbok tour did go ahead here, I got involved in the marches, and provided a lot of music for it too. Like going along the side of the road singing 'Amandla nga wethu' (power to the people) and the crowd would sing back. A lot of my training was on the road. Prior to that I was on the Hikoi, the Maori land march. I was involved in the Bastion Point occupation, and a lot of Maori land issues.
"That was a time of upheaval. Bob's music and reggae came along at just the right time. When the protests came in 1981, I was in the front line. I suppose I stood out because I was one of the marshalls and having the voice and chanting and stuff. They picked me out a few months before on the road; 'This man's a troublemaker!'"
Sentenced to a year in jail, he got out after nine months on good behaviour, but the experience left its mark on him.
"I hated every minute of it, to tell you the truth. Even now, most nights I stand outside (on the back porch) and I look up at the stars, and I appreciate my freedom. That was 20 years ago, and I still feel like that."
The album is marked by songs with a message; about Tigilau's life, his experiences, coming from Nuie to New Zealand, the social changes he's witnessed and been involved in. He sings about the ghettos here in the '70s, about struggling to provide for his family, about faith, things that really matter.
He's grateful, to be here, as heard on the song Thank You.
"That song is about my feelings on being a Pacific Islander in New Zealand, of being allowed to retain our own culture and be who we are. A better life; for that, I'm really grateful. Also, it's to do with our faith. Being Rasta, we give thanks all the time, to the Almighty, especially for the many blessings in this country. Nobody has really thanked anyone, here. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider, so a little bit of love goes a long way, you know!
"It's like when the South African rugby players asked (All Black) Michael Jones; 'You say you're a Christian, Michael, then how come you're so violent out on the field, and you always deal to us?' And Michael says 'Oh, you know, brother. It is better to give than to receive.' I've kept that ever since!"
Che has been encouraging his old man throughout the album process. "He's always coming to us, to see what we think (of his tunes), 'cos he values my opinion. I've told him, 'I don't want to know until it's finished, then I'll tell you what I think'. 'Cos I hear something and I go 'I really like that', and then he comes back with it, and it's changed! And I did the same to him. I told him about it, and left it 'til it was finished. He would always go 'how's it going, dad?' 'Oh, good, good.' Not until I finished it, then I gave it to him."
And Che's response? "'Oh yeah, dad, cher cher! You da man!' He was encouraging, 'cos he knows I've been at it for so long."
Despite the ups and downs of his life, Tigilau believes that New Zealand is unique. "We're not shooting at each other, we're not ducking bullets, and there's no poisonous snakes! Don't tell anyone, just leave us be! It's the perfect climate and country for people to live together, and learn to live together."