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A young star turned musical giant

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, May 02, 2013

ROBERT Verma's passion for music developed during his childhood days in Nasinu Village on the island of Ovalau in the 1950s.

Inspired by his maternal uncles, he took up the ukulele and was fascinated with the way the nylon strings wove rhythms in between the stomping drones of the sigidrigi guitars.

"As soon as they got back from the plantation they would shower and begin tuning their guitars. Come evening, the melody of the guitar and ukulele music would fill the air and it was magical, haunting and inspiring all at the same time," he reminisces.

However, it was his mother Nanise Daunaqaqa who taught him how to play music and inspired him even further.

Nanise played guitar, harmonica and accordion and was a big influence in his formative years while growing up near the Old Capital.

"Whether it was playing in church or at family events, she was always making the scene happen," he shared.

"That was the social scene at the time, people got together and played music and sang songs."

By the time he was six, Verma was the star attraction at gunu-peni fundraisers around Nasinu Village because of his extraordinary skills on the harmonica.

At the time, Levuka was swinging with live music. The deep chugging drone of sigidrigi guitars interspersed with the twinkling tones of pianos blended with the sounds of harmony and laughter.

"Apart from sigidrigi favourites, we played Gene Autry and Roy Rogers numbers like Have I Told You Lately, Love Letters In The Sand and Bimbo.

"And then I heard Louis Satchmo Armstrong and that changed my world forever.

"When the American soldiers who were in Levuka during World War II went home, they left records behind and because of this we had a wealth of classic jazz and rhythm and blues music."

Verma's first taste of music and musicians other than his family and what he had experienced in Nasinu Village and Levuka was when his father, who was heavily involved in soccer, brought home a friend called James Columbus.

"I remember it was in 1960 and I was in Class Eight at Saint Columbus (now known as Marist Brothers Primary).

"He came with another guy called Karuna, whose nickname was Shorty. I was mesmerised by their ability and dexterity.

"I called my uncles over and they just sat and listened and watched in awe. Then another guitarist called Smiley from a band known as the Havana Boys came over.

"We were in shock because coming from the village, we never thought our Indian brothers could play guitar so well."

Entering Marist Brothers High School in 1961, Verma met up with guitarists Robert Southey and Joe Chang.

"Robert had an expensive guitar called Hofner which he gave me to play sometimes.

"I used to play left-handed guitar back then but watching him play all these amazing chords, I was ambitious and didn't want to be left behind, so I swung the guitar the right way up and began emulating him."

With his new found knowledge, Verma began hooking up with Indian bands and playing at weddings and parties.

"The fringe benefits were good — lots of chow, money and a few drinks. I was in Form Four at the time, you can imagine the thrill of climbing out of the window of my Samabula home with nothing but shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops.

"The band boys would bring along a pair of long trousers and a shirt and off we'd go and play until 2am and then I would creep back in.

"I got found out eventually but my parents let me play music after that."

One afternoon, while tuned into Radio Fiji, Verma heard a guitar tune called Tea for Two. The intricate music piece caught his attention.

"I was stunned when the announcer said that the group, Bay of Islands, was local and the guitarist was a 17-year-old boy called Tomasi Mawi.

"That was a life-changing moment for me.

"Mawi inspired me to become more than ordinary and explore music beyond the sigidrigi and guitar boogie."

After leaving MBHS in 1963, Verma formed Limelight, his first musical group.

"I had Tito Rabaka on drums, Atma from a well-known Indian band called Ashiyana played rhythm guitar and a guy called Jelebi used to be our singer.

"A friend of mine called Marika played percussion. Ken Simpson from Nausori was our bass guitarist. He used to play for Robert Southey's band called The Pretenders back then."

The group played at weddings and functions and often wandered down to The Golden Dragon and joined the throngs gathered on the pavement listening to the Dragon Swingers play.

"We'd stand outside the Dragon and just listen to Mawi and get blown away. "

He was playing Barney Kessel while we were trying to learn Peter Posa and The Shadows. Mawi was just so ahead of us."


Read about how Robert Verma's passion turned into a career that continues to this day. And how the boy from Nasinu turned into a musical giant and toured Australia, New Zealand and even played on a cruise ship that sailed to Alaska.

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