31 May 2016

Blackbirder Dread by Unity Pacific

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 31 May 2016
Unity Pacific's Tigilau "Tigi" Ness

Unity Pacific's Tigilau "Tigi" Ness Photo: Dru Burger

Nick Bollinger discusses the Polynesian reggae of Unity Pacific.

It’s a long time since the Caribbean rhythms of reggae embedded themselves in this country; something I was reminded of listening to the latest album by one of this music’s earliest local adopters.

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Unity Pacific is an Auckland-based group led by Niuean New Zealander Tigilau Ness. Ness is the father of Che Fu, who wrote ‘Rock Away’, the album’s opening song. Father and son sing the song in duet, and as they slip between Niuean and English over the familiar beat it is as though the reggae one-drop were as indigenous to the Pacific as the pate or the haka. It is a meeting of music and messages from islands in different oceans that runs right through the album.

Tigi Ness has been fronting Unity Pacific since 2002, but his musical roots go much deeper. He already fronted a band called Unity in the 70s, long before Bob Marley’s defining visit, and even earlier - as a schoolboy in the 60s - had been a singer and acoustic guitarist. Back then, his repertoire consisted mostly of folk and country, and a bit of Elvis; ‘Four Strong Winds’ was a favourite. And I still hear traces of that folk-country flavour today in a beautiful, heartfelt love song like ‘Hold Me Close’. The way the sweet melody wraps itself in the skanking rhythm is typical of the easy fusions that run through this lovely album. Tigi Ness has a terrific band, too, who play in a kind of pre-dub style, like one of the great rhythm sections out of Kingston in the 70s.

When Tigi praises Rastafari, as he does in several songs, Bob Marley comparisons are almost inevitable. But political protest is as crucial as praise to Tigi’s world-view. There’s also a powerful song in honour of the Palestinian people (one of the few tracks here he didn’t write.)

Mostly, though, the history he honours is closer to home, and one of the most moving odes here is ‘Girl I Never Knew’, composed in memory of Joannee (Jo-Annie) Hawke, the five-year-old who died in a fire during the Bastion Point occupation of the 70s.

Then there’s the song from which the album takes its name, ‘Blackbirder Dread’. Again it casts a light on a historic struggle; in this case, the rarely-mentioned history of blackbirding - or slave-taking – that occurred in the Pacific. It’s the album’s longest track, and perhaps the one where Unity Pacific carves the deepest groove.

Unity Pacific’s Blackbirder Dread is not as innovative as the early Herbs or as experimental as Fat Freddy’s Drop, nor does it replicate the classic Marley sound as faithfully as Katchafire, yet it’s as great as any of these groups at their best. Passionate, poetic, Pacifican.

Songs featured: Girl I Never Knew, Hold Me Close, Praising Rastafari, Give The People, Rock Away, Blackbirder Dread.

Blackbirder Dread is available on A Moving Production.

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