GILMAN Lasaisuva is renowned as the composer and performer of one of the biggest iTaukei hits ever — a nostalgic ode to his maternal homeland called Lakeba.
And while many have pegged the Kabara, Lau native as a purely iTaukei artist, they would be surprised to learn that in the mid '60s, he was singled out by guitar virtuoso Tom Mawi as his drummer and bass player of choice at the Golden Dragon.
There, he performed a diverse range of styles from the tricky time signatures of Latin jazz to straight-ahead English rock and roll hits of the '60s.
Mawi was so impressed that he asked the then 21-year-old to join him in Tahiti in 1966, an invitation that would lead to Lasaisuva spending close to two decades in the French Territories.
Early childhood and career
"Born into a poor family, I learnt to appreciate the little things in life at a very early age," Lasaisuva shared.
"And it gave me an inner desire and determination to look for a better life and because I chose music as a career, it drove me to always perform to the best of my ability all the time."
After dropping out of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial School because of financial constraints in 1962, Lasaisuva enrolled at the Suva Youth Centre, a place where students who failed to complete secondary education could take up vocational studies or pursue interests in different sports.
It was during this time that Lasaisuva got his first taste of the stage.
His first public performance was singing Elvis Presley's One Night With You at the Deans Cup rugby finals after-match function at Ratu Kadavulevu School.
"I ended up there because I was playing for the Suva Youth Centre intermediate team and during the party, I somehow was asked to sing, so I chose Elvis's hit at the time One Night With You," he said.
"This was without a microphone or backing music.
"Everyone stood up, clapped and cheered and that was my first taste of live performance and I loved it. The audience loved it too because they asked me to sing it three times, it was an amazing feeling and I still remember that day because it changed my life. I made up my mind at that very moment to pursue a career in music."
Succumbing to his father's wishes, Lasaisuva enrolled at the Derrick Technical Institute, now the Fiji National University, at Samabula.
It was there that he formed his first band, a musical outfit called Sombrero.
"Jai Prakash was the guitarist, Wise Vatuwaqa played rhythm and I was the drummer.
"We didn't have bass guitarists at the time but somehow we made the music sound good, and we became so popular we played in every single hall in Suva and even went as far as Nausori."
It was during this time that Lasaisuva, whose first name was Gucake, acquired the tag Gilman.
"I used to love FBI movies that were popular at the time, so my friends started calling me G-man, the nickname for FBI agents.
"From G-man, somehow it developed to Gilman and has stayed that way ever since."
Call to the Golden Dragon
In 1964, Lasaisuva was literally summoned to play at the mecca of live music by the grandmaster of guitar, Tom Mawi.
Being invited to play at the Golden Dragon meant you had earned your stripes as a musician and had received a rare welcome into the sacred inner sanctum of the music order.
"When I got the message that Mawi wanted me, I was in shock because playing there was like going to Hollywood.
"You have to remember that I was coming from a band that played rock and roll and going into a group that everybody looked up to was going to be a challenge.
"So, getting a call from Mawi was a big deal."
Lasaisuva sat behind the drums with the Dragon Swingers until he was replaced by Ben Rabaka and he recalls how every gig was a learning experience.
"I'm so blessed that I played music with Tom Mawi and Samisoni Koroi because they taught me so much and made me the musician I am today.
"I learnt all the different rhythms from rhumba to samba and Latin jazz because with Sombrero, we just played rock and roll music."
After playing for up to six straight hours, Lasaisuva would join Mawi at the top floor of the Janson Ho Building and practice until the break of dawn.
"Because of my interest in learning, Mawi asked me to join him up on third floor and while he would run over guitar lines, he taught me the bass lines for songs and when Ben Rabaka joined the group, I became the bass player."
Later that same year, Mawi left for a gig in Tahiti and was replaced by Mitchell Evans.
Tahiti and New Caledonia
Lasaisuva remained with the Dragon Swingers until Mawi asked the bassist to join him in Tahiti.
"I can still remember the day, it was November 3, 1966.
"I had just turned 21 and I was a bit scared because it was my first-ever plane ride and first-ever overseas trip.
"Mawi was a big star in Taaone Hotel in Tahiti, an Australian guy called Paul Daynes played saxophone and we had a French bass player and pianist.
"The rhythm guitarist was a guy called Charlie Tumahai, who later became the bassist for Herbs."
Keen to develop his singing talent as well as his prowess on drums and bass, Lasaisuva learnt French and Tahitian songs along with jazz standards and kept himself updated with the latest rock and roll tunes. Over time, he even developed his skills on the keyboard.
"Because of my interest in culture, I learnt French very quickly and surprised guests and management at the venues I performed. They couldn't believe that I was from Fiji.
"I went to Tahiti with an initial contract for five months and ended up staying there for five years."
In 1971, Lasaisuva accepted an offer to perform at the Coco Beach Resort in New Caledonia.
His initial contract was for six months but because of his popularity and local demand, the Kabara man stayed there for 15 years.
"It was an exciting time.
"I worked my way up to band leader and had a couple of Australian musicians and Frenchmen working with me."
During a return visit to the country, Lasaisuva married Olivia Raikuna. She returned with him to New Caledonia.
"Three of my children were born there — Charles, Pita and Adi Maitoga.
"Having my family with me helped me get over homesickness and this was made even better when I brought over Tui Ravai and Lela Seruvakula in the mid '80s.
"The New Caledonians loved Lela because she had such a unique voice and also because they thought she was a Kanak."
Lasaisuva even scored a role in the hit television series of the '70s and '80s, The Love Boat, and acted alongside movie star Patrick Duffy.
"The producers wanted a Melanesian-looking man who could speak English, so I was at the right place at the right time."
New Caledonia had opened Lasaisuva to a whole new world in terms of entertainment and creativity.
It was here that Lasaisuva composed and recorded Lakeba and a host of other iTaukei songs that became huge hits.
"I was on a beach in New Caledonia in 1984 and it just reminded me of my mother's island.
"I got so homesick at that moment that I rushed back to my hotel, closed the door and wrote Lakeba."
The excitement of playing in New Caledonia had begun to wane and Lasaisuva returned to Fiji in 1986 together with his family.
In 1990, applying management skills learnt in the French Territories, Lasaisuva scored a residency at the Sheraton Fiji Resort that lasted until 2006.
He returned to the local music scene but shifted his focus to composing and performing iTaukei tunes.
In all, the man from Kabara has penned close to 20 original tunes and recorded about 50, including songs written by other notable songwriters.
After about 50 decades on the music scene, his contribution to Fiji music is notable as is his role as a music ambassador to the French Territories and even as far away as North and South America during recent trips made with Tourism Fiji.
Lasaisuva fills in as an interpreter during regional government meetings because of his proficiency and understanding of the French language.
He continues to perform at weddings and functions in the Western Division and has plans to return to the studio to record an album of iTaukei originals and his rendition of classics.
"When you have music inside you, you have to follow where it takes you and I am blessed to have been taken on a journey that began from a very poor background in Fiji to Tahiti, New Caledonia and as far away as the Americas.
"If I could live my life all over again, I wouldn't change a single thing."