Higher stepping man

Last updated 00:00 21/09/2007

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Once a radical always a radical. Just ask veteran Auckland reggae musician and urban poet Tigilau Ness. He's only too happy to talk.

In the '70s young Ness was rebellious as hell. Conservative white New Zealand, and Auckland in particular, was being shocked by a brown wave of immigration from throughout the Pacific and wasn't coping with it.

Bastion Point, housing protests, the Polynesian Panthers, the Springbok tour. It was a time of conflict as different worlds collided, and young Ness was there in the front line, agitating, shaking things up.

He stood side by side with Syd Jackson in the anti-Springbok tour protests in 1981.

"You couldn't get a more passive person," Ness recalls.

The cops didn't think Tigi Ness was passive. They came to Ness' home and threw the book at him. Unlawful assembly. Assault on 14 police. Destroying government property.

Ness was taken to Auckland Central police station where they identified him from the security camera footage they'd taken during the Auckland protests.

"It was one of the first surveillance-type actions that the police ever took in New Zealand." Ness spent nine months in jail from 1982 to 1983.

It was an ugly time in New Zealand history and, Ness says, "a necessary time, too, because if apartheid was spreading its tentacles all over the world New Zealand was easy pickings because we love our rugby here".

"It came to a head in this country because the majority of us are not that way inclined." Ness had served his apprenticeship in activism as a founding member of the Polynesian Panthers, which formed in Ponsonby in June 1971. They were a group of young Polynesians, many of them new to the country, who modelled themselves on the Black Panthers from California.

"We had a 10-point platform and programme. We were involved in a lot of the activism that was happening mainly in Auckland." Members were made up of the first influx of Auckland Polynesians.

"We were young and rebellious. We wanted to change things." The Panthers felt Polynesians were being dealt a raw deal in all aspects of their lives, most notably education and housing.

"We felt the education system wasn't geared up for Polynesian people.

"Pacific Island people and Maori people were being charged exorbitant prices (for housing) – in effect being ripped off." The Panthers employed passive protest to highlight the issues.

"We did a lot of sit-ins.

"It was the first time in Aotearoa's history that this type of immigration happened in large numbers. It's similar to what's happening now with the Asian people and now with the Middle Eastern people.

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"It always happens world over where you get immigration and new people moving in, except with this difference: we felt as Polynesian Panthers that this is a Pacific area so that we in the Pacific have the right to determine our future.

"In the '70s (New Zealand's) attachment to Mother England was very, very strong. We still hadn't found our feet yet." Ness is adamant the Panthers helped to break down the barriers and led to true multiculturalism.

"A lot of the things we did back then, people are getting paid to do today ... Back then it would have been radical because nobody had done those kinds of things before." Ness was born and bred in Auckland city, of Niuean parentage, which makes him a "traffic Islander", he says with a hearty laugh.

Tigilau Ness was raised on the old language from the King James version of the Niue Bible and can read and write the language.

It's important to know your roots, Ness says.

He's taught his own kids their ancestry too, including his oldest son, hip-hop star Che Fu.

"Even though Che was born and bred in New Zealand he knows how to speak and read and write Niue." His (Che's) Maori mother has also taught him his whakapapa, so "he has three cultures to choose from, which makes him very strong, very rich".

Ness says he was always musically inclined but during his radical years music had to take a back seat.

He does recall, however, playing as a schoolboy with one of his European mates at 21sts and parties.

"We ended up getting paid a crate of beer and $20.

We'd made it in those days!" The motivation for a radical change in lifestyle came when Tigilau Ness saw Bob Marley play at Western Springs on April 16, 1979.

Ness, through his biblical upbringing, was spiritually aware but it wasn't until he saw and heard Marley preaching the message of Jah Rastafari through his powerful reggae music that everything fell into place. Marley opened up Ness' eyes and lifted his spirit.

He decided straight away to follow in Marley's footsteps, becoming a committed Rasta and reggae musician.

The religion made perfect sense to Ness.

Rastafarianism is a Christian-based religion that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s.

Its followers worship the 20th century Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I as the second coming of Christ.

Selassie, known as the Lion of Judah, is said to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, through King David.

Although Selassie himself registered only polite interest in the Rastafarian movement, there's little argument the man was a great leader, preaching a doctrine of tolerance, forgiveness and acceptance between people of all faiths.

Ness embraced these ideals with a passion.

"We are of one blood but many nations. There is no green blood, or blue blood or purple blood.

"It's all red ... we're all the same.

"There's no real difference, just ways of thinking and where we live that determine who or what we are, but in the end we're all the same.

"If a Communist helps my brother, or helps a poor person or helps a person in need then he's my brother. If a Buddhist does that then he's my brother.

If anybody in any faith helps another human being then he's my brother or she's my sister.

"His Majesty (Selassie) said those words. I haven't heard any leader who speaks like that.

"They're all saying 'I, me, mine'. Nobody's saying, 'we've got to look at the past and recognise the oneness of it'." Rastafarians believe, as do other Christians, the Bible's prophecy in the book of Revelations that mankind has to plumb its depths and destroy itself before it can be reborn.

"We've got to go through this whole course because after all those years of war and killing each other we still haven't learnt anything.

"But I believe that in Aotearoa we have a hell of a lot to show the rest of the world how to live in peace and love and unity, because we're not ducking bullets and there's no poisonous snakes here.

It's the land of milk and honey." Music was the natural way for Ness to demonstrate his faith and minister to the people and a succession of reggae bands gradually evolved into Unity Pacific.

It was a long time coming but the band's first album, From Street to Sky, was released in 2003.

Four years later the band has produced Into the Dread, an uplifting and vibrant collection of autobiographical reggae songs.

"It's all about my life. I tried to stay true as poss." Ness has got the taste for it now and promises the next two albums, under contract to EMI, will come quite quickly. It's easier for him, now that he has a stable lineup of musicians to complement his lyrics and wonderful, rich voice.

It's a true democratic band, with musical writing input from several Unity Pacific members including Robert Halcrow, formerly of Invercargill and lead guitarist for 1980s Southland bands Covert Action and London Polyplop.

"Rob's pretty deep. He represents the European in Unity Pacific," Ness says.

So how did the skinny white punk from Invercargill end up in a brown reggae band? Not quite the Yellow Pages, but close.

When Ness was forming Unity Pacific he needed a keyboards player and guitarist.

His wife found what he was looking for in the Trade & Exchange.

Halcrow had been the longtime guitarist for Auckland ska band the Managers, and it was a natural step from one form of Jamaican music to another.

Throughout Into the Dread, Halcrow's delicately understated scratch guitar riffs are a complex and colourful counterpoint to Ness' insistent chop-rhythm guitar chords.

The defiant tone of the album is stated and set in the magnificent, urgent opening track, which shares its title with Unity Pacific's first album: "Had religion in my system, I was poisoned in my sleep/The factory was my future, the ghetto was my grave/But look at me now, did you ever see a higher-stepping, cooler-looking man to equal mine." Ness explains: "When I was young they rubbished us all (Pacific Islanders).

"My (school guidance counsellor) told me, 'Ness, factory for you'.

"I was poisoned in my sleep when I was young when I was told that, and now look at me.

"With my son Che being who he is and an icon, same thing.

"I was told, 'you're on the rubbish heap, Ness' but look at me now – I'm still alive, kicking and still praising God to the fullest."

- The Southland Times

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