Che and Tigi Ness: sons for the return home
Sep 22, 2011
There’s a gorgeous song on The Navigator, the 2001 album by this country’s sweetest soul singer, Che Fu, called Catch One. With a melody that recalls Stevie Wonder in his prime, it describes the flashpoint in which two souls meet and recognise their love for each other. In the song’s narrative, that moment takes place in the maelstrom of a protest march.
Sitting opposite me in a cafe in Auckland’s Grey Lynn, the singer nods emphatically when I ask if the story is true. “And to be honest, if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “That’s about my mum and dad.”
Both Che’s parents were born in New Zealand. His mother is Maori, from Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Whakatere, his father Niuean. Che’s paternal grandparents came to New Zealand from their village on the island of Niue in the early 1950s, at the start of a wave that would eventually bring about 22,000 Niueans to live in this country and leave fewer than 2000 on the island. Che’s father, Tigilau Ness, was born in Auckland a few years later. “That makes me a traffic islander,” Tigilau says with a chuckle.
Tigilau – or Tigi, as he is known – grew up in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. At primary school, he shone in English and developed a passion for poetry. At home, there was always music. Cousins and uncles taught him island songs on ukuleles, Elvis Presley and Jim Reeves tunes on guitars. He remembers his class erupting in applause when he and a friend performed a version of Four Strong Winds at a school concert. By his mid-teens, he was getting weekend work playing at parties and 21st birthdays.
Tigi went on to Mt Albert Grammar School, where his academic excellence was noted. His friends were put into agricultural and commerce classes, but he was streamed into a class that studied Latin and French.
At this time, the black civil rights movement was in full swing in the United States and the curious young reader began to devour the radical writings of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. His new musical hero was Jimi Hendrix.
“Hendrix was, to us young Polynesians, a black man who was doing well, so every-one who had fuzzy hair grew afros. I grew an afro and got expelled for it. But a lot of students from university heard I was being expelled, and the Polynesian Panthers had just been formed, so as I was leaving school they came up with placards and chanted, ‘Racist school, racist school!’”
It is here that Tigi’s story intersects with the song his son would write 30 years later. Che explains: “The day Dad got expelled, he was sent to a social worker, and that social worker was my mum. She was already fully politicised, and they hooked up.”
Che’s mother, Meriama, was part of the Maori activist group Nga Tamatoa. She and Tigi became members of the Polynesian Panthers. Tigi translated the writings of Karl Marx into Niuean. In 1975, they took part in the hikoi that became known as the Maori Land March.
That year was marked by another flashpoint: it was the year Tigi heard Bob Marley. “A couple of friends who had been in LA came back with the Natty Dread album. I related to it straight away. First of all, the lyrics. He was talking Bible talk and I was raised on that. But he was also singing, ‘It takes a revolution to make a solution.’”
Like Hendrix’s, Marley’s hair exuded a powerful symbolism. “He wore dreads, and in Niuean culture to grow the eldest boy’s hair long and have a haircutting ceremony at the end of it is a cultural thing. So hair was always important to us.” Marley’s Auckland concert in 1979 – which Che, then five, still vividly remembers – was a game-changer. Tigi: “Because we actually saw with our own eyes the Rastaman talking about Rasta, we thought, ‘Okay, we’ll find out more about it.’
We found out that Bob Marley belonged to an organisation, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and thought, ‘Okay, we’ll go for that.’ So we put money together and sent Che’s mum and Toni Fonoti, the original frontman for Herbs, to Jamaica. They made contact with Bob and the Twelve Tribes and found out exactly what we had to do in order to start an organisation in Auckland.”
The young Che (named after Guevara) heard reggae at Twelve Tribes gatherings, where his father would often play. But he was also making his own cultural discoveries. “I was playing at a Twelve Tribes function,” recalls Tigi, “and I looked out into the crowd, and they weren’t looking our way, towards the stage. They were all looking at something in the middle of the hall. It was Che doing a breakdance.”
In the same way that Hendrix and Marley had galvanised his father, hip-hop – with its dancing, rapping and graffiti art – became a catalyst for Che’s music. “Essentially, it was poor people’s stuff from New York City, which we felt a kinship with because we were of the same ilk socially.”
Adding the stage name “Fu” – a light-hearted nod to his kung fu heroes – Che would go on to become one of New Zealand’s most revered performers, first with Supergroove, then as vocalist on DLT’s hit Chains and ultimately with his own records.
Tigi has continued to make music (his 2007 album as Unity Pacific, Into The Dread, is a great reggae set reminiscent of early Herbs), and father and son have also teamed up for occasional family events and festivals, including this week at the Christchurch Arts Festival.
The most significant of their collaborations was in April when they headlined at the second Niue Arts and Cultural Festival. It was the first time either had been to the island. “I’d been talking for years about taking my son to Niue,” says Tigi. “And then he goes, ‘Dad, I’ll take you to Niue!’”
With a sound and lighting rig shipped from New Zealand, Che’s crew provided the technical support for the week-long event, which included films, exhibitions, dance and workshops as well as music.
For Che, seeing his grandparents’ village helped him appreciate their courage. “There’s less than a hundred people. Coming from there, Auckland must have been like an alien world.”
For Tigi, returning to the home he had never seen made him think about today’s immigrants. “Look at people coming to New Zealand from the Middle East, or wherever. You don’t know what the law of the land is. It’s so far away. You’re going to the bottom of the world.”
The music Che and Tigi performed there mixed the influences they have picked up on their respective journeys, from rock to reggae to rap. Che says: “To me, music is a language, a way to communicate stuff, but the stuff is me. I use all these different mixes, but the stories are mine.”