WHEN Sakiusa Bulicokocoko strutted onstage with the Freelancers as his backing band in the '80s, he did it with the quiet confidence that legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis had of his 1968 band - in pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Bulicokocoko's rhythmic and melodic twists and turns were ably met by the depth and dexterity of Tui Ravai's electric piano, Vili Tuilaucala's guitar, Saimone Waqa's bass groove and the unrivalled back beat of Paul Steven's drums.
Ravai was strongly influenced by the Latin jazz piano style of Corea and he was also fascinated with the US pianist's experimental use of the Fender Rhodes.
On stage and in the studio, the Freelancers were music giants who set new standards in live and recorded music in the country just as Davis' band did in the US in the late '60s and early '70s with iconic albums like Filles De Kilimanjaro.
Off stage, away from the crowds, admirers and the spotlight, the Freelancers were known as quiet men.
At home, their families relate a story different from the men seen on stage.
Despite not being rewarded financially for their unrelenting commitment to entertaining the masses, tales of love and tenderness abound.
Ravai, Steven and Tuilaucala shared more than their passion for playing jazz music.
During the day, they were husbands and fathers and at night, the musical giants would emerge out of the family cocoon and together create some of the best live music in Fiji as the Freelancers.
Those fortunate enough to have witnessed their gigs in the Capital City would have noticed the unique bond shared by the renowned keyboardist, drummer and guitarist.
So it came as no surprise when speculation spread through the music fraternity of "black magic" being used to bring the three men to an early demise in the space of four years.
Steven died in 1999 at the age of 50, and five years later in April 2004 Ravai suffered a fatal heart attack, just after his 50th birthday.
Three months later that year, Tuilaucala succumbed to pneumonia.
All three families place the blame squarely on lifestyle.
Late nights, long bouts of kava drinking, exposure to second-hand smoke in confined environments and irregular eating times.
Ravai was an exception, though. He was renowned for his strict daily exercise and swimming regime.
"But Tui, just like Paul and Vili, was scared of going to the doctor and getting needles," said Nelly, the late Ravai's wife.
"They would leave everything until the last minute and would not go to the doctor until they were in so much pain. I saw it with Vili all the time, he was so scared of needles that he would not go to the dentist if he had a toothache - he would put on a brave face and prefer to live with the pain," added Eseta Kaciwai, wife of the late Tuilaucala.
"Dad, Tui and Vili were scared of two things - needles and flying," said David Steven, the oldest of Steven's four children.
Nelly said the Freelancers was not just a band but a family.
"What people saw on stage was definitely not the people they were at home.
"For Tui, he just loved his kids to death.
"Whenever he wasn't gigging, he was like a little kid himself - rolling around the floor with them and watching cartoons for hours.
"People walking past the home would think we were having a party, the way he would carry on with the kids."
Ravai did not encourage his children to take up music but since his untimely passing, family and friends continue to enjoy the vast wealth of his recorded works - including the music he arranged and recorded for artists like Jimmy Subhaydas and Marika Gata.
And then there is Draw Blood, the Freelancers only official recorded album produced in New Caledonia in 1994 which featured two originals - Love's Dirge and Standing In The Rain - co-penned by Ravai. It featured the sultry Michelle Rounds and dynamic William Hatch on vocals.
David, today regarded in the industry as Fiji's human metronome, shared the inside story of life with one of the country's finest beat players.
"I get emotional when I reflect on the person he was," he shared.
"Dad had all the characteristics that the church teaches us - he loved and respected mum and growing up all of us, his kids, were brought up in an atmosphere of love and respect. Love, respect and humility were not just words to dad, he lived it.
"And his humility came from his relationship with God.
"One hour before every gig, he would get down on his knees and spend time talking to God."
Steven said unlike other musicians, his late father encouraged his children to pursue music when they showed talent and ability. And he equally coaxed them to diligently take up their studies at the same time.
"He always encouraged us and while I didn't take it seriously in my youth, George 'Fiji' Veikoso - my first cousin who lived with us at the time - soaked all his advice in.
"George would sit beside dad for hours listening to him practice and took dad's advice on singing styles very seriously."
David recounted that Steven his father had a soft spot for Veikoso because of the passion that the then youngster had for music.
One day his father brought home a record player and the Steven household was informed that the prized possession was strictly hands off.
"Despite his love for jazz, dad was also a big fan of reggae group Third World.
"One day George came and visited after spending time in the US and pulled out dad's record player, put on the Third World album and began rapping and scratching until he wore the needle out.
"When dad got home, the house was tense. But even though he was angry, he never said a word to George because of their bond. My mother Adi Arieta Veikoso on the other hand, chewed his ear out."
In the wake of his early demise, Steven left behind a rich music legacy. His nephew George is a renowned vocalist, composer and producer who continues to enjoy success as a performer and recording artist in the US and around the Pacific.
David has studied and performed music in Europe and is a drummer with Suva-based outfit One2Eight. He also recently established a drum school called Pacific Groove which is based in the Domain.
Daughters, Lani and Sala are singers of renowned in jazz circles and both featured as vocalists with 90s music group, Reference Point.
Tuilaucala was known as the quiet genius among the music fraternity.
He began his career playing in resorts in the Western Division before being called up to replace Tom Mawi and then Waisea Vatuwaqa at the then mecca for live music - the Golden Dragon.
He had big shoes to fill but rather than imitate or replicate the completely different styles of Mawi and Vatuwaqa, he developed a unique sound and style of his own.
Similar to Ravai and Steven, Tuilaucala was a different man at home.
Kaciwai said it was difficult to tell the renowned guitar legend apart from the children when he was not gigging.
"When he was with children, he was like a child himself," she shared.
"They were like best friends and they loved being around him because he always had a good yarn and he had so many jokes.
"I honestly don't know where he got them from but after telling one of his stories they would be rolling around the floor in laughter."
Kaciwai said Tuilaucala knew he was destined for music stardom from the moment he began making his own ukuleles from coconut shells, fishing line and pieces of timber as a child growing up in Waiyevo in Taveuni in the early 50s.
"He dropped out of school very early on and went to great lengths to learn the guitar.
"He idolised Tom Mawi and followed him around as a teenager.
"And his keen interest in jazz music has rubbed off on all our six kids. They all love to listen and sing jazz tunes right up till today."
Fiji-born jazz vocalist Michelle Rounds spent three years with the Freelancers and attributed her current success to lessons learnt under the trio's tutelage.
"Three years and hundreds of performances with them, one album and two Vakalutuivoce Awards is testimony to their music acumen and prowess," said Cairo-based Rounds.