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Rasigatale's reign as the music king

Backtracks By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, May 23, 2013

WHEN he was 21 years old, Manoa Rasigatale formed a musical group called Maroc 5 that toured the nation and gained legendary status in the '60s.

Jumping into adoring crowds, duck-walking across the stage and swinging the microphone around like a machine gun, Maroc 5 gave Manoa Rasigatale his first real taste of live performance.

In many ways, performing with Maroc 5 set the stage for Rasigatale's fascination with theatre and the establishment of Fiji's first indigenous dance theatre at Pacific Harbour in 1974.

"It was the best time of my life," the now 66-year-old Nabuli Rewa native said.

"Before The Beatles came along, the United States gave us Elvis Presley and England had Cliff Richard who was my idol.

"I performed all his hits at the time, songs like The Young Ones, Summer Holiday and Move It.

"I didn't realise it at that time but music is theatre.

"You have to immerse yourself in each word and how it's sung and expressed to make the audience believe the performance.

"And I have loved every minute of it."

To learn about how his love for music developed, we have to wind the clock back to the '50s and travel to a school in Rewa.

Rasigatale's fascination with English tunes developed while he was a primary school student at Naililili Catholic Mission in the late '50s and early '60s.

"My first music teacher was an American nun Sister Luke.

"The English songs she taught us really appealed to me and when I went home to Nabuli, I would be the only kid walking around the village singing English songs while everyone else was singing sigidrigi."

When his family moved to Suva in 1962, the music-curious teenager took to travelling to the city to listen to jazz legend Tom Mawi and drummer extraordinaire Ben Rabaka.

"I was a small kid then and the way these musicians played really fascinated me.

"Sometimes I would wander down to the Grand Pacific Hotel and listen to Meli and Rupeni Serevi.

"One day they asked me to sing and I did not hesitate, I just jumped right in and every Saturday after that, I would sing Cliff Richard's songs there."

The real turning point in Rasigatale's music career was when he won two talent quests in the mid '60s.

"I was 17 when I won a talent quest held in 1966 at the Regal Theatre which was housed in the same building where McDonald's is today.

"When I won the same competition a year later, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara — who was the Natural Resources Minister at the time — was the chief guest and awarded me my prize which was a gold watch."

Rasigatale's double win was no easy task, given the enthusiasm of his fellow competitors.

"My biggest competition came from a guy called Joe Nair.

"He used to sing Elvis songs and I did Cliff Richard numbers and we really got the crowd going.

"And the best thing about these contests was the fact that there was a live band backing us, not like the talent shows on TV now where they use computer music."

As part of his prize, Rasigatale travelled to perform in Noumea which proved to be an eye-opening experience.

"When I asked for a tap to drink water, they gave me bottled water.

"I was so used to drinking from the tap that I refused and that's when they told me about the nuclear fallout from tests conducted at Mururoa Atoll that had affected water supply.

"It was also the first time I saw television and you can imagine my shock when I was asked to perform live on TV and got to watch myself later."

Spurred by the live music scene in Noumea, Rasigatale recruited four extraordinary musicians and formed Maroc 5 in 1968.

"The lineup included rhythm guitarist Hiram Whippy, Tifere played lead guitar, Vili Likusuasua sat behind the drums and a guy called Semi was on bass.

"The original lineup changed when Tifere left the group and was replaced by Naca Naceba and Semi was replaced by a guy called Pacolo."

"Naca was a fantastic player and he really lifted the band to another level and when a guy named Peni took over on the drums — Maroc 5 was ready to rock."

While Naceba was renowned on the local music scene for his extraordinary prowess on the guitar, rhythm player Hiram Whippy caught the attention of seasoned musicians at the time.

"Hiram was an awesome player, there were no keyboards but he compensated by playing all the right chords and lines — he was one of the best, if not the best rhythm guitarist in the country."

After a six-month lockdown doing nothing but rehearsing, the group burst onto the live scene with 65 songs under their belt.

"What made Maroc 5 special was our commitment to being the best and giving the people their money's worth.

"We practised seven days a week for six months and came up with a slick sound and well-rehearsed repertoire and did everything from The Animals through to Elvis through to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles."

Maroc 5's version of The Beatles' Hey Jude proved to be a trump card for the group and drew repeated encores at live performances around the country.

"It was one of the longest songs at seven minutes and we were often asked to play it three times a night.

"People would stop dancing and just sit around and watch us like a rock concert instead of a dance every time we performed this number."

The group also became renowned for playing non-stop sets for over an hour and for some of the most bizarre on-stage antics ever seen in the country at the time.

"I decided to take local music to another level by dancing around the stage and jumping into the crowd.

"I used to swing the microphone around and fall on the floor without missing a beat or a lyric and the crowds went crazy every time.

"It was something new to them but as far as we were concerned that was entertainment."

Rasigatale claims that Maroc 5's popularity led to the group being the highest paid during their reign on the local scene.

"Some groups had great singers and musicians but lacked the stagecraft that we had and that was our secret weapon.

"We became so popular that we were hired every week and I can confidently say that we were the highest paid band in Fiji, receiving $75 dollars a night.

"This was big money at the time because other bands were charging between $35 to$45 a night to play from eight to midnight."

Maroc 5 had a huge impact on the live music scene from 1968 to when the group finally disbanded in 1971.

During its tenure, the band toured all over the country — from Suva to Tailevu and from Vatukoula to Savusavu — and performed at venues off the beaten track.

Rasigatale said there were no regrets when the group finally called it a day.

"There was no disappointment because we gave it our best shot and brought joy to thousands of people along the way.

"And that is something I would like to see in the entertainment and music groups that are out there today — more commitment to delivering a memorable performance at every gig."

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