Ardijah spent the mid-80s at “church”. “That’s what we called Cleopatra’s,” says Ryan Monga, “because we packed it out every time, three nights a week.”
Their popularity only increased as the new four-piece line-up got the confidence to begin playing originals.
“I think the great thing about the covers period,” says Betty-Anne Monga, “was that we built that audience, people who dug the music, and they came with us when we started releasing our own stuff.
Betty-Anne: “The great thing about the covers period was that we built an audience.”
“I’d watch when we threw our own song into the set – ‘Give Me Your Number’ or ‘Time Makes a Wine’ – to see what happened, and people stayed on the dance floor. I was worried, you know, that they’d be ‘oh this is stink, I don’t know it.’
“So I think we had built that base, that support, and this mutual understanding that we all love this music that we play, because we weren’t ever really about the Top 40, we’d usually do the B-side to something.”
Cleo’s owner, Joyce Webb, remembers Ardijah as an intense unit. They didn’t really mix with the audience, and would move to the foyer during their breaks to be alone. “They’d turn up, play, then go home. No mucking around. The only time Ryan ever really talked to me about what was happening was when things got quiet after the ’87 crash. I brought some dancers in to appear on stage and he didn’t like that all, he did his ’nana. I said he had to do it, but it just wasn’t his scene. It didn’t last very long.”
Ryan was now very much in charge. With Betty-Anne looking after their son, he had busied himself with writing and already had an album’s worth in the can when Simon Lynch got on board.
“It was all Ryan’s songs and vision as band leader and producer, the rest of us put our flair in where we could,” says Lynch.
“He had a vision for the band built around Prince’s idea of writing and playing all the instruments, and he stuck to it. I’d help with a song like ‘Time Makes A Wine’; he wasn’t sure how that would work so Betty could sing it, so I helped with the keys. I had that sort of input, he’d say play like this and I’d embellish that idea.”
Through Ryan’s stint with Car Crash Set he had got to know guitarist and Pagan Records owner, Trevor Reekie. The connection “made it easier to communicate,” Ryan told Rip It Up in 1987. “You’ve got all this thing about, you walk into record companies, whoever it is, and you’ve got to present your demos.” After hearing Ardijah’s demos Reekie offered them a slot on the soundtrack of movie, Queen Street Rocker, which came out in 1986. They also appeared in the film as a nightclub band. “Trevor Reekie exposed us nationally,” said Ryan at the time.
One of their contributions to the film, ‘Give Me Your Number’ – ‘Gimmie Time’ also featured – was then released as a single, peaking at No.15 on the singles chart. The photograph on the back cover tells you all you need to know about who was boss. Tony and Betty-Anne might be out front on stage but here Ryan dominates everyone. The credits spell it out further: Ryan wrote, arranged, produced and played all the instruments, aside from a guitar solo.
The single’s success was aided by Lynch’s neighbour, Radio Hauraki DJ Kevin Black.
“I saw him walking past,” says Lynch, “so I went out, ‘Kevin how are you? This is our group Ardijah’s single, I don’t suppose you’d like to give it a listen?’
“He took it and the next morning played it on his show. He became an early champion.”
Two weeks later the band made its first appearance on Ready To Roll.
Ryan’s rising fortunes weren't cutting a lot of ice at home though. If his brothers were supportive the rest of Ryan’s family thought it was the devil’s work. “They were all Christians so I was kind of the outcast, like ‘when are you going to come and sing for the Lord.’ Oh whatever, far out.
“But I became an elder anyway and went on my own search for the truth. I found out it’s with us all, all the time, not with organised religion. Spirituality is everywhere, music is spiritual, so don’t judge.”
In the provinces, electro funk was unknown. “Where’s the drummer?” WAS a regular heckle.
New manager Peter Campbell was quickly making a mark. For the first time they had structure, a vague plan, and were touring, which provided a whole new challenge. If live electro funk was reasonably new in the cities it was unheard of in the provinces. “Where’s the drummer?” would be a regular heckle.
“New Zealand was still a rock country,’’ says Lynch, “and there was us in uniforms, with drum machines and dance moves. We had to win over every audience, but we were fearless. Collectively we’d done thousands of gigs, we knew we had a hot band, so I guess it’s like when the Commodores or someone hits the stage, ‘it’s going to be funky and if you don’t like it, too bad.’
“So we’d arrive with that ethos and had the confidence, there was nothing clichéd about it. Ryan just had this singular vision that was very cool, and I mean innately cool rather than trying to be.”
Then there was the gang problem. “We saw shocking amounts of violence,” says Lynch, “because unfortunately the gangs loved us. We’d play the Black Power club in Otara, the Factory, and they’d behave themselves because the president was there, but as soon as we went out of town there was serious, serious trouble. Ryan and I both got close to getting beatings.”
As 1986 went on the supposed glamour of band life was proving hard to come by with the constant performing, touring and poverty dragging everyone down. Betty-Anne was also trying to be a mum.
“Yeah,” says Lynch, “there was always tension and friction, mostly because it was not a fun time. Of course we had a few good moments with each other, but it was the music that really kept us going. We were a great band and while we liked each other we didn’t like the situation where we were getting paid nothing ($100 a week) and we’d see others getting paid (roadies got $150 per day), then we’d be told to put up posters in Rotorua, ‘oh, and use your own cars and pay for your own gas’.
“But for me it about making great music and the chance to make a little bit of an imprint. That was my shot, that was it.”
“What we did do though,” says Ryan, “was that we upset the gig circuit. Before we came along it was all rock, the beach circuit, the pubs, all that, and I enjoyed it. I even played in the Khutze Band. But we got on too and took the funk everywhere, to the bottom of the South Island and all the way back up again, even when people were looking at us like ‘what the hell is this?’”
Their next big break came when Hugh Lynn invited Ardijah to join Herbs’ national tour. It was an interesting choice, given they were sharing the support bill with hard-out reggae bands Aotearoa and Dread, Beat & Blood.
It was a difficult mid-winter experience with breakdowns (one on the Desert Road in the middle of the night), floods, and crappy weather. And Charlie Tumahai.
The Herbs bass player had recently returned from England – where he’d played with Be Bop Deluxe – as a star, and for whatever reason he began baiting Ryan. Maybe it was that they both played Steinberger bass?
“He just kept on baiting Ryan,” says Betty-Anne, “and unfortunately Ryan took it.”
“[Charlie] would call us a bunch of upstarts from the stage because of Ryan,” says Lynch, “and he hadn’t done anything to rub anyone’s nose in anything. So Charlie would introduce us from the stage ‘and now, the flavour of the month, we’ve got Ardijah’ and stuff like that. We were pretty grizzly about that because it was supposed to be Herbs’ farewell tour so we were in front of all these big audiences.”
No matter, everything was roses when, after releasing their second single, ‘Love Is Blind’ and – despite having no record deal – winning the inaugural Rheineck Rock Award in 1987. The $30,000 prize was to go toward the cost of recording an album.
The self-titled album combined Ryan’s songs, some covers, and a Lynch composition, ‘Feeling Is Gone’.
Without a label, the Mongas approached WEA (later Warners) to handle distribution. A problem arose when Warner head Tim Murdoch tried to bring in American producer, Tony Humecke.
“[Humecke] produced two tracks [‘That’s The Way’ and ‘Give Me Your Number’],” says Lynch. “He was a friend of Murdoch’s, but he wasn’t a well-known producer and I thought his production was a little square. After that Ryan said ‘thanks, but nah, we’ll produce it ourselves.’
Simon Lynch: “Ryan took some very ballsy decisions.”
“It was pretty ballsy, Ryan took some very ballsy decisions.”
But the problems weren’t over. One engineer had to be sacked after questioning everything Ryan did, and the question remains whether a more commercial sound may have broken Ardijah off-shore.
The album provided two singles, ‘That’s The Way’ and ‘Time Makes A Wine’, which reached No.32 and No.41 respectively in New Zealand while failing to register anywhere else.
There were also growing internal ructions. Money was a constant issue and WEA was starting to get into Ryan’s ear.
“I think he was under massive pressure,” says Lynch. “We were all broke, it wasn’t fun, and he was a young father as well. Everyone, including the management, was young and trying to figure out what we were doing. There was talk of us going to America and once we’d pretty much become the top band in New Zealand I think we should have toured less and given ourselves a break. Because the pressure took a toll on Ryan, it was really rough, he also had the whole record company thing with people telling him that it’s only about you and Betty-Anne, you can get rid of anyone else at any time. That was something he’s since said he never should have listened to.
“But you know, they had their backs to the wall, they had no choice but push Ardijah as far as they could. It was that or push a broom, you know?”
Before the year was out both Tony T and Simon Lynch were gone. The first thing Ryan then did was repackage and retitle their album Take A Chance with a new song, ‘Watchin’ U’. Again, he played everything himself.
It proved a master stroke with the album going gold and ‘Watchin’ U’ eventually peaking at No.3.
But Ryan was now feeling a backlash and doubting the support from WEA. He feels the initial radio support they got from ‘Give Me Your Number’ disappeared when the stations realised they were from South Auckland rather than America.
“We had to mime to it,” says Ryan. “I had a recording of ‘Watchin’ U’, then I picked out some mates who were there in the audience. ‘Sweet bro, jump on the drums and do the beat and you play the guitar.’ We did it and then the phone at Warners went crazy, ‘I want to buy that song, where do I get that song?’ and that was it, that was pretty much the full impact right there. It started to get played.”
If their fortunes on a national level were reaching new heights, the relationship with their distributor was hitting new lows. Despite covering the bulk of their album’s recording costs with their Rheineck award, they discovered they were only getting 16 per cent of the revenue.
“So we told them: ‘You’re not going to pay us properly or sign an actual record deal with us? Okay then, we’re going to Australia.’”
In 1990 Ardijah landed in Sydney with three months of work to look forward to.
A brand new Ardijah line-up landed in Sydney in 1990 with three months of work to look forward to.
As an exploratory mission, the intention was to test the waters and meet the local industry heads. A meeting with WEA/ Warner Australia quickly followed and the mutual enthusiasm seemed to suggest a new future was imminent.
“Then they rang back to New Zealand to get our master tapes from [Tim Murdoch],” says Ryan Monga, “and it was ‘No – that’s my band, you’re not doing anything with them.’
“So they come back to us: ‘Sorry mate, we can’t do anything with Ardijah, our associates in New Zealand won’t let us.’ I mean there was no contract, they just did it like, ‘they’re a couple from South Auckland, what are we going to do?’ Then we even had people at home saying we weren’t loyal, that we’d been disloyal to Warners, you know?
“That was the sad thing, we ended up having a two-year legal fight with them, and having to stay in Australia. We got the money together to get the band back home, but we were stuck. We had that three months’ work and then the label thing fell apart with two years of fighting.
“Here we were, we’d been feeling top of the world and then we got smashed by some wannabe bloody opportunists. I can say that now without feeling worried about it, but they ripped us off and everything just fizzled out to nothing.”
With their band gone, the Mongas – now with two children aged one and five – found a rental in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west, just around the corner from expat-New Zealand pop star, Mark Williams.
Williams did as much as he could, he tried them out as a backing band, got Betty-Anne work as a session singer, and introduced them to the local musicians. They also managed a few television appearances including Tonight Live With Steve Vizzard. They also opened shows for Mick Jagger, Simply Red and Bobby Brown.
Ryan was still writing and soon had a new album’s worth of material. But without any cash or a label to support them he agreed to a contra deal with Australian producer Mark Overdon, to record the songs on the agreement that he’d get any cash they made.
After winning their court case they battled on in Australia until 1995, when Ryan’s father died: “Mum was alone so we came back to breathe new life into the house.”
If Australia had been a depressing five-year bust with only an album they didn’t like much to show for it, at least the Mongas were back in charge.
“I don't regret anything,” says Betty-Anne Monga, “not at all. What happened over there, when other people got involved, that was out of our control. But in the end, the experience gave us independence [from the label], it gave us freedom.
Breaking with WEA NZ forced the band to become independent.
“Say we’d stayed with Tim Murdoch, we’d have had to say ‘yes bwana, whatever you want bwana.’ We wouldn’t have owned all our material, we wouldn’t have become independent. So even though we had to start paying for and organising our own recordings, we now had a real say in what we were doing.
“So Australia taught us lots, even if we were a young family with two kids who only thought we were going over of three months … ha, it was a really stressful time.
“And we were really homesick.”
Not that the welcome they received made them feel any better. “We got came back here and the doors were slamming in our face,” says Ryan, “it was, you know, you’ve had your time, see ya.”
“Starting all over again wasn’t very nice,” says Betty-Anne. “After five years, it was “oh yous, what happened to yous?”
“I mean you’re already feeling it yourself, you’ve got your self-doubts all that stuff, but people watch too many movies and think that if you do well here, get on TV, and then go overseas, it’s all going to happen like that, you know? Even artists who get really good support still don’t make it, whatever that even means. What’s ‘cracking it’ even mean?’ As a funk band there was nothing to crack.
“Then we were back in Otara and I remember our accountant, he was looking at the numbers and he asked, ‘How are you guys living? How are you surviving?’ It was quite scary. Even if it’s good to be home, you don’t get the phone calls anymore, you’re right back at the beginning again.”
If anything, their problems only steeled Ryan’s determination to prove everyone wrong. “I was like, we did it before all those guys came on board, so we can do it again,” he says.
They didn’t have a band, but they did have a completed album up their sleeves. Except that when they played it back, well, “it just didn’t sound right,” says Betty-Anne, “it had that Australian ambience about it.”
Top bad, they needed to get back out there, and so their second album, Influence (featuring a couple of tracks from Mark Williams and Renée Geyer), came out on their own Polyfonk Productions label in 1997. With only a shoestring budget, friends were enlisted as much as possible, while distribution was handled by Metro Marketing.
When Influence barely registered on the charts it was back to door knocking.
“We tried all the record labels,” says Ryan, “and no one wanted us, so we went back to Warners. [Tim Murdoch] had gone and there was a new guy, James Southgate. He was awesome to us. Then I was listening to what was going on and thought ‘everyone’s doing covers, we can definitely know how to do that.’ So I put together [Bee Gees ballad] ‘Love So Right’.”
Southgate got behind the single (Ardijah’s 12th) and while it didn’t chart, ‘Love So Right’ was later recognised as the most-played track on New Zealand radio for 1999. This success only reinforced Ryan’s belief that his one-man-band fusion of R&B, reggae and Pasifika was the way forward. He even had a name for it, Polyfonk.
“I was getting into the sound I had in my head and trying not to listen to anything else. So I’d recorded the song and then thought, add some ukulele – and back then playing the uke was not hip, it was down there with the accordion.”
It felt like the start of something, so he had another crack in 1999, this time reworking Wings’ ‘Silly Love Songs’, and out of nowhere Ardijah suddenly had their first ever No.1 single.
“After that the flood gates opened for everything Polynesian. We led the way and then you had all these other groups like Jamoa Jam and Nesian Mystik. OMC [Pauly Fuemana] eventually complimented us for it.”
Their third album, Time (featuring a reworking of their classic ‘Time Makes A Wine’), came out in November, reaching No.6 on the album charts and eventually going platinum.
To top things off Betty-Anne was named top female vocalist at the subsequent New Zealand Music Awards while the album’s third and fourth singles, ‘Do To You’ and ‘Way Around You’, both made it to No.7.
There remains a hint of regret: success should have happened earlier.
Obviously this was all great news for the band and put urgent life into the family business, but there remains a hint of regret. It should have happened earlier.
“Yeah,” says Ryan, “and I’m over all of that shit, I am, but our shot should have been earlier. We were offered deals with Geffen over in the States. ‘Nah,’ says Tim, ‘these guys won’t want to do that, they’re a couple from South Auckland, they want to live here.’ I really don’t think he wanted anyone else to have anything to do with us. He even grabbed Betty-Anne’s arse and said ‘Now don’t you go having any more babies on me now.’
“Then Irene Cara wanted to remake ‘Time Makes A Wine’ … that didn’t happen either. It was so short-sighted, and they didn’t understand how those decisions can impact someone’s life by making them successful or blowing it completely.
“I see it all as a lesson in life, so we’re in control now. We won total freedom, even if it’s just a name and a way to release stuff. Our children are even in the band.”
After leaving Warners, their fourth album, Journey, came out on their Polyfonk imprint in 2004. At the 2005 Pacific Music Awards they were finalists in the best group and best song categories before winning best album.
A few years later they regained ownership of their master tapes which enabled them to self-release a best-of compilation The Best Polyfonk in 2010 (it peaked at No.11 on the album chart).
In 2015, their son Beau won the second series of New Zealand Idol while oldest son, Kaitapu Monga, now performs bass, drums and vocals in the family business. In June 2019, to mark the band's 40th anniversary, Ardijah released a version of Paul McCartney’s 1970 hit ‘Every Night’.
As an ongoing musical entity, Ardjiah’s membership continues to follow a revolving door policy: their Wikipedia page lists 39 current or former members, and even the Mongas have lost track. But if the stresses of living and breathing band life every day have taken a personal toll, the band remains in demand both here and offshore in Asia and throughout the Pacific.
“I think after everything we’ve been through,” says Betty-Anne, “people really come into their own. Even with the last 10 to 15 years, I’m like ‘I still love this music, passionately.’ But really, right from the start, we’ve never had a plan. It’s been a lifestyle I suppose, we don’t have anything like Kiwisaver or holiday pay, it’s gigs, travelling, and the whole experience. Let’s just say it’s been unique.”
“For me,” says Ryan, “I think we take that Polyfonk sound with us everywhere we go and every time we play it feels like we are representing the people in the poorer neighbourhoods. And I don’t care what anyone says, we do our thing our way.”