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The day two musical greats crossed paths

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, June 06, 2013

WHEN Tom Mawi met Ken Janson in 1964, they both had no idea of the profound influence one would have on the other.

The encounter marked the beginning of a musical revolution in the country and the birth of a guitar icon.

They were both musicians and had their own unique expressive style but it was Janson's passion for performing and his unrelenting drive that provided the impetus for Mawi to firmly establish himself as the greatest guitarist and musician Fiji has ever produced.

Mawi still vividly remembers the day their paths crossed.

"I was at Suvavou Village and a taxi came and some guys came running and told me that a Chinese man was looking for me, that was the first time I met Ken," the now 68-year-old shared.

"I was shocked when he asked me to go and play at the Golden Dragon that night.

"But even though I was a bit scared, I decided to go.

"And from the moment I played there, my life changed."

While Mawi can't recall who held the field alongside him at the first gig, one detail that has never slipped his mind was the fact that Janson had a huge collection of records.

"It was all orchestral music but I found it interesting so I tried to pick out the melody and this really helped me with music discipline.

"When Ken returned from a trip to Hong Kong, he came back with a whole heap of guitar records from Chet Atkins and Al Di Meola, Tommy Mottola and Tal Farlow.

"The music I heard really blew my mind and I practised hard every day just listening to those tunes."

Mawi's thirst to develop his guitar style beyond the rock and roll and funk that was prevalent at the time took another turn when Janson brought back a record called the Poll Winners.

"That was the first time I heard Barney Kessel and oh boy, that guy just knocked me out when I first heard him.

"The way he played was dynamite and he had two greats with him on the record — Ray Brown on bass and drummer, Shelley Manne.

"I listened to that record so many times and practised until I knew every song and played them note for note that I ended up wearing the record out."

Mawi shut himself out after gigs at the topmost floor of the Golden Dragon and practised all night until daylight.

He would be roused by the sounds of workers turning the nocturnal music mecca into a café in the early hours of the morning.

"I did this for one whole week.

"After having breakfast at the café, I would stroll down to the Botanical Gardens and sleep on a bench.

"Sometimes, I would wander to the bus stand and pay 10 cents and shower at the public convenience there."

At the time, Mawi lived in Wailekutu, just outside Suva and wanted to save on busfares.

After some time, the Golden Dragon house band, led by another guitarist of renown only known as Extra, left to pursue musical journeys outside of the nightclub scene and Mawi was tasked with forming a band that could fill the void.

He looked closer to home and formed the first Dragon Swingers with his brothers — Ben Rabaka on drums and Simione "Shucks" Rabaka on saxophone. After a short stint, the Rabaka brothers departed and Mawi put together a formidable group. A musical outfit that set the benchmark for bands that followed thereafter.

"I began searching for musicians that shared my drive and my passion and found Samisoni Koroitamudu at Popo's grog shop in Toorak.

"He was an outstanding musician and a great guitarist.

"He played a mean rhythm and had a way of supplying chords and providing the bass at the same time, he was a real soul brother.

"He freaked out when I told him that I wanted him to play alongside me at the Golden Dragon.

"When we first got together I had my brother, Ben, on the drums and then after that Paul Stevens senior (uncle of drummer with same name that was a member of The Freelancers) joined us when he left."

With the dynamic duo behind him providing a strong and versatile rhythm section and Ken Janson taking centre stage as the main vocalist, Mawi's prowess on the guitar went up another level.

"It was a great time for live music and we were so fortunate to be a part of it.

"We would start off the evening with some jazz standards and then progress to Latin numbers and move into rock and roll, soul and funk music after.

"The place was jam-packed and people would be dancing while others would just sit and watch, it was a great time and I will never forget the experience."

Aside from the crowd inside the club, hundreds would gather outside on Victoria Parade — families, musicians-in-the-making and music lovers would crowd the sidewalks listening to the slick guitar lines and syncopated rhythms from a band that defined live music for generations that followed.

"I know people have said a lot of things about my music and how I play the guitar but it has never been about me, it has always been about the music.

"In my musical journey, I met a lot of wonderful musicians who have helped to shape my music and what I have become.

"Every musician is unique and they all have something to offer, no matter who they are or where they're from.

"And if you have the patience to sit with them and feel what they have inside, then you have learnt something and that something becomes a part of you and you take it and share it with someone else and the musical journey continues."

NEXT WEEK: Read how Mawi once featured in the world rankings of guitar greats as he shares musical memories with some of the local industry's greats.

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