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Farewell to Willie Hona

Story Published Monday 6 May 2024
Willie Hona performing with Herbs in 1986. Credit: AudioCulture.

Aotearoa musician, singer and songwriter Willie Hona, who fronted the popular and political charged group Herbs in the mid-eighties, has died.

Born in Rawene, on the South side of the Hokianga Harbour, Willie Hona grew up inspired by the guitar sound of The Shadows and Peter Posa. Moving to Dargaville at 14-years-old, Hona met Mack Tane, Mark Williams and Gregg Findlay, forming The Face - the group that would later go on to win the 1971 North Auckland Battle of the Bands.

Hona and The Face moved to Auckland, continuing to play together and separately in covers circuit bands. Playing at a Polynesian Panthers street party in Ponsonby in the early 1980's, Hona caught the attention of then-Herbs manager and Panthers co-founder, Will ’Ilolahia. ’Ilolahia later asked Hona to join the group as lead singer and guitarist, joining founding members Fred Faleauto and Jack Allen, as well as new recruits Tama Lundon and Carl Perkins.

Hona found a key songwriting partner in new Herbs key player Lundon, the pair writing and road-testing songs as a duo accompanied by a drum machine at their local pub. Hona and Lundon went on to write two of the group's best known singles, 'Long Ago' and 'Nuclear Waste'.

“‘Long Ago’ is a country song. I wrote that about my mum and things that happened long ago with my mum, really,” Hona later told AudioCulture.

Hona led Herbs throughout the mid-eighties - their period of greatest commercial success - leaving the group after a bout of strenuous touring and disagreements over the group's future. Hona released the solo album Keep an Open Heart in 1991 to modest attention and later relocated to Australia.

Herbs members, including Hona, were inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame | Te Whare Taonga Puoro in 2012.