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Rise, rebirth and zenith of Ulysses

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, April 18, 2013

THERE is no secret as to how Ulysses rose to music stardom. The boys from Toorak emerged from relative obscurity in the 70s and pushed aside musical greats at the time — The Dragon Swingers — and stamped their mark on the music scene through sheer hard work.

A brutal practice schedule combined with a wide variety of musical influences brought in by the individual members helped shape a unique sound that drew throngs of music lovers along Victoria Parade from the former mecca of live music, The Golden Dragon.

Impatient patrons queued up outside Liam Hindle's new addition to Suva's entertainment strip — Lucky Eddies — in 1976 for a chance to hear and see the new band.

"You won't believe it but we had a hard time trying to get into the club. The place was jam-packed every night we played there. You have to remember this was when there was no television, mobile phones or internet but somehow people found out about us and found the music we played interesting. We had to call out to the bouncers from outside so they could help us get in. It was an amazing time for live music," said former drummer Aneil Kumar.

"If there was a band that practised as much as we did, they would have done the same damage. We had a rule in the band that the same songs could not be played for more than two weeks. This meant we were learning a new repertoire every week. It was hard work but we loved it, it made us who we are today."

However, to find out the real story behind the band's phenomenal success, we have to wind back the clock to 1972 to the genesis of Ulysses and look at how a group of Toorak boys pooled their musical talent and set a new platform for entertainment.

Driven by the ambitions of keyboard player and Ulysses founding father, Henry Foon, the group began in 1972 largely as a no holds barred rock outfit.

"When we formed the original Ulysses in the early '70s, we were a powerhouse rock band with a take no prisoners attitude. And the first line-up included Colin Deoki on guitar and his brother Raoul on the drums, Anil Valera on bass, Patrick Chung on guitar and I had a Yamaha YC10 organ with Leslie. We got together as we were all friends and had done a bit of jamming in our younger school days," said Foon.

The original Ulysses' first gig was at the University of the South Pacific during the Festival of Arts in 1972.

Then bassist, Anil Valera, who now resides in the United States, remembers the scene well.

"We were doing rock and a bit of pop and, of course, I threw in the odd folk song. The Beatles, Donovan and Bob Dylan were big at the time. A huge crowd gathered on the lawn and swayed to the music as we played," he shared.

A huge fan of The Beatles, Valera was inspired to take up music after watching A Hard Day's Night 19 times over a two-week period in 1965 at the New Lilac theatre.

Despite the popularity of the flower power music at the time, Ulysses began a metamorphosis when Johnny Vinod Shankaran and Chanel Columbus joined the group in 1973. Shankaran replaced Raoul Deoki behind the drums and Columbus replaced Valera on the bass guitar.

Armed with new direction and a new groove, Ulysses took out the Battle of the Bands in 1975, ending The Dragon Swingers' monopoly of the coveted prize.

"Our prize for winning was recording a 45 rpm single on vinyl. We recorded the single Hang On Pretty Maiden and the B-side Woman at the Golden Dragon on a Sunday afternoon. Ken Janson did the recording and it was played on radio at the time," Valera reminisced.

In terms of popularity and fame, Ulysses was on the rise.

The group got another boost when Aneil Kumar, his brother Vimal Prasad and bassist Joseph Singh joined the band in 1976.

Kumar's percussive drum style and Singh's funky bass lines provided the perfect bed for Prasad's rock-jazz fusion guitar. The crowds at Lucky Eddies grew bigger with the fresh music played by the new line-up.

However, when 17-year-old Eni Sewale joined the group in 1978, she took Ulysses to a whole new level in terms of music entertainment.

"In the past, the band had focused on being tight and we had so many singers come through the system. When Eni came, that all changed. Ulysses centred around her and her choice of songs. She took Ulysses from where we were in terms of fame and music ability to another level. She brought a new dynamic to what had relatively been an all-male affair for many years. Many have commented to us that when Eni joined, that was the peak of Ulysses' success," Kumar said.

NEXT WEEK: Read about the singers that made Ulysses a success through the late '70s right through to the '80s. The voices that drew crowds to Lucky Eddies included Eni Kumar and hairdresser turned musician Ezra Williams among many others. Also hear about coup-maker George Speight's stint with Ulysses as a saxophonist. Ulysses' wide acclaim also drew a renowned US blues artist to join them on stage during a stopover in the country in 1978.

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