Reggae in Aotearoa, New Zealand
DISCLAIMER: This section is to provide some brief background information to the development of reggae in Aotearoa, New Zealand. It is a work in progress and we welcome ideas and contributions so we can add to it. If you have feedback please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
How did Reggae Music Develop in NZ?
For years, a bold claim has floated around this island nation – that we consume more reggae than any other country except Jamaica. The claim can’t be confirmed: no definitive information has been compiled, and there is no reliable comparison available. It’s an urban legend, often told, but never confirmed. But what is clear is Aotearoa, New Zealand’s, on-going love affair with the Jamaican musical form.
Bob Marley is often referenced as playing a central part in the development of reggae in New Zealand. However, New Zealand’s exposure to reggae pre-dated Marley’s recordings and his seminal concert in Auckland in 1979. Global hits like Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’ and Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ were among the first Jamaican tunes to grace the country’s airwaves. The people who would become New Zealand’s first serious reggae fans recall the striking difference of the early reggae, in comparison to pop and rock of the era.
At the same time, Bob Marley’s influence on the nation can not be underestimated. His one and only New Zealand concert, at Auckland’s Western Springs in April 1979, left an indelible mark on a country still striving to define its cultural identity. With the Wailers pounding out the riddims and the I-Threes in perfect harmony, Marley reached out to more than 30,000 fans of every race, creed and colour.
Reggae music spoke to New Zealand’s Māori and Polynesian populations , many of whom were struggling with the same issues of poverty, inequality and hunger that was sung about in Kingston and London. The music resonated with lefties and liberals, socialists, and members of the community the rest of the country would likely have considered drop-outs.
Access to reggae
Reggae had been imported into New Zealand, albeit in limited quantities, before Marley’s 1979 show. As its popularity grew, it became more accessible, with artists such as Burning Spear, Third World, British act UB40 and Toots and the Maytals gaining popularity with listeners and smattering of specialist reggae radio show hosts throughout the country.
The particularly serious, like pioneer BFM radio broadcaster Duncan Campbell and Festival Records representative, Victor Stent, brought in music privately, but by the mid 1980s, reggae vinyl was filling bins in New Zealand’s record shops. Kiwi punks were in on it too, as they were elsewhere, with The Clash and The Sex Pistols either adopting or following reggae in their own recordings. The music spoke of justice, rebellion and what was right.
Aotearoa makes reggae
Marley’s visit also spurred enthusiasm for New Zealander’s creating their own take on the genre, with a small cluster of bands forming before and after he performed in Auckland. Pioneers such as ‘Unity Pacific’, ‘Herbs’, ‘Sticks ’n’ Shanty’, ‘Dread Beat and Blood’ and ‘Aotearoa’, launched into recording their material, many of them picked up by the fledgling yet influential ‘Jayrem’ label, helmed by enthusiast James Moss.
Over twenty years, Moss’ label would go on to release a plethora of local reggae, with some recordings incorporating te reo and the native Polynesian languages of their purveyors. ‘Herbs’ would become one of New Zealand’s most enduring acts and are still performing today. Tigalu Ness, a political activist, founder of the band ‘Unity Pacific’, and co-founder of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in Auckland, has also made a longstanding impact on New Zealand reggae.
As reggae grew, so did interest in Rastafari. The messages contained in the teachings of Marcus Garvey and other black prophets resonated with under-privileged Māori, particularly in isolated rural areas.
Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, reggae blended with hip hop music through the likes of ‘Upper Hutt Posse’ and ‘MC OJ’ and the ‘Rhythm Slave’. And an increasing number of now-veteran reggae selectors began plying their trade, including the late ‘DJ Big Matt’ Watson, ex-pat Londoner Danny ‘DJ Lemon’ Scotford, his compatriot ‘Stinky Jim’ Pinckney, Patrick ‘Dubhead’ Waller and Cameron ‘DJ Atmosphere’ Frethey, and one of the first DJ/MC combinations, Asterix and Oblex, among them.
As electronic forms of reggae and dub gained traction through student radio, groups such as ‘Salmonella Dub’ and ‘Unitone Hi Fi’, and the ‘Kog Transmissions’ label pushed the genre ever forward.
At the same time, more selectors and sound systems emerged, out of Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington, often gaining coverage on independent student radio, and at the increasing number of warehouse parties and raves. And also eventually at large outdoor festivals such as ‘Kaikoura Roots’, and into the 2000s, ‘Soundsplash’, ‘Parihaka Peace Festival’, ‘Raggamuffin’, ‘Splore’ and even at commercially-focused events such as the ‘Big Day Out’ event.
The Internet and digital music delivery in the twenty-first century has opened up reggae even further for New Zealanders, with increased availability of music and the ability to easily connect with the reggae community worldwide.
There are more reggae, dub and dancehall deejays and sound systems than ever before. Sound system culture has been steadily growing, with New Zealand now having a number of custom built sound systems, including Vital Sounds (Wellington), Kindred Sound (Christchurch), Jafa Mafia Sound System, Ghetto Vibes International and Lion Rockers Hi Fi (Auckland).
In recent years, following in the steps of Katchafire, a large number of New Zealand reggae bands have emerged and have become a strong component of the New Zealand and Australian reggae scenes. These bands often combine Jamaican and Pacific influences in their music to create a unique sound, sometimes called ‘Island Reggae’.
There are specialist reggae shows and events in every major city, and the influx of African people, some vocalists or musicians, has added a further dimension to the mix. NZ receives regular visits by international reggae stars, some of these including Lee Scratch Perry, Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley, Mad Professor, Sly and Robbie and Luciano. There is also a strong group of new-school New Zealand reggae and dancehall artists coming through, who continue to keep the fire burning.
While reggae’s popularity ebbs and flows among the general population, its hold on a small community of ardent followers’ remains strong. Reggae and its associated forms first emanated from Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s, and in this small island nation we connected with it strongly in the 1970s. We were well and truly hooked back then, and we have been ever since.