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Fiji Time: 6:03 PM on Friday 18 April

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Backtracks: When Mantis created musical history

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, December 05, 2013

THERE is no recent recorded music that has made a huge impact in the region, let alone on the international scene.

While artists such as BSQ, Bigwilz, Daniel Rae Costello, Knox, Phil Dakei and Underdawg Productions have kept the local English scene somewhat alive, it pales in comparison to the new tunes churned out almost on a weekly basis by the numerous iTaukei groups.

The script for the production of English music, however, was not always like this.

Wind the clock back 40 years - 1973 when a group of local musicians rocked New Zealand with a sound that was new, raw and funky.

This was the year that Mantis, a band made up of the cream of Fiji's musical crop, recorded their only album titled Turn Onto Music while playing a residency at one of the top clubs in Lyall Bay, Wellington.

The band featured Joe Heritage on bass guitar and vocals, Ronnie Samuel better known as Paspatu playing keyboards, mister rock steady - Paul Stephen behind the drums, the electric Waisea Vatuwaqa on lead guitar and Rupeni Davui on guitar, percussion and vocals.

The album is now a sought after collectors item for music buffs.

Radio Live New Zealand labelled the group "a far out band from Fiji".

The National Library of New Zealand has the first single off the album recorded in its archives, a historic triumph for Fiji music.

An excerpt from the library's website says: "The first record catalogued in the vinyl collection (it proudly bears the catalogue number Phono 0001) is Night and Day by Mantis. Mantis were a Fijian funk band who came to Wellington and cut an album called Turn Onto Music, released on Vertigo in 1973. Night and Day was the first single off the album, with the flip side a cover of the Booker T Jones' classic Time is Tight. If you have one of these, or any Mantis record, sitting around at home, treat them well as they're worth a fair bit of cash."

And Last FM - one of the biggest online music sites in the world - has this to say: "Tops the New Zealand releases of the time, a real funk album with serious chops."

And if you look up Rate Your Music - an online database of musical and film works - it highlighted one of the singles off the album, Shake That Fat, as "Blues-funk-rock? Shake That Fat has a sweet slide guitar part and pounding beat, but the highlight is the 13 plus minute finale where the band gets really funky with fast high-hats, sweet funk basslines, wah-wah guitar, congas and psychedelic organ to back the extended guitar solo."

In early 2000, Raremusicshop.com heaped praise on the album and welcomed the CD reissue of the original vinyl.

"This psychedelic funk classic is firmly established as one of the most collectable albums of all time," it said.

"Recorded by a quartet from Fiji, it was only released in New Zealand where it appeared in tiny quantities on the legendary Vertigo label in 1973.

"An irresistible blend of originals (notably the epic Island Suite) and covers (including material by Mountain, the Wackers and Jo Jo Gunne), original copies have sold for well into four figures, making this CD reissue especially welcome."

Apart from creating more than a stir on the New Zealand music scene, Mantis fast gained popularity in the country in the early 70s as their songs became a regular feature on Radio Fiji and as vinyls went on sale in Suva. Turn Onto Music featured originals - Island Suite, Firewalker, Back at the Village and Hurricane Bebe.

Praveen "Spooky" Sharan, a former musician and radio personality, said when Turn Onto Music hit local shores, it created a musical tsunami that swept across the nation.

"Well nothing like this had ever happened in Fiji," he shared.

"So it was a big deal and you must remember only one family out of 100 might have had a record player in those days. So whoever had it would have to vosota because everybody would gang up at that home to have a listen.

"It was one of the biggest moments for local music because here was a local band, in an industry that was still developing, putting out an album on vinyl.

"Everyone went crazy but, I have to put it in perspective and say that radio and the Golden Dragon was what made people notice Mantis music.

"Word of mouth was not that effective in those days .

"Mantis was the first local psych rock artist to go on Radio Fiji so they were the pioneers of that genre and what they achieved in 1973 has not been repeated to date."

Bharat Jamnadas now works as an issues assistant for parliamentary services in New Zealand but in '73 he was knee deep in the local music scene and interacted with the members of Mantis on a regular basis.

Waisea Vatuwaqa was a personal friend.

Jamnadas would watch with pride as the albino guitarist squeezed out psychedelic rock licks at the Golden Dragon and then join him and other musicians at keyboard player Ray Foster's place on Gordon St. Here, copious amounts of kava would be consumed into the wee hours.

After recently contacting him in New Zealand, the former journalist and television personality said there were plans to reissue Turn Onto Music.

Jamnadas said a friend called John Baker had the master tapes for the Mantis recording and was looking at putting out the album again.

Mantis' Turn Onto Music was recorded in Wellington, New Zealand in 1973 by Michael Grafton-Green and produced by Ed Morris.

According to Jamnadas, the three surviving members of the group - Davui, Sammuels and Heritage - were not receiving their dues despite the album's relative success.

"There is so much buzz about this album but the three surviving members of the band don't know anything about it," he said.

Unfortunately, this is a reality for a lot of groups - not only in Fiji but also around the world.

At the height of their success in the late '60s, it is well documented that one of the planet's biggest rock bands - The Rolling Stones - were struggling financially.

It took consistent tours in the '70s and '80s for the group to begin earning some decent money.

Together with the most popular band of all time, The Beatles, the Stones used to earn less than one penny per record.

As with most musical groups in the country, past and present, prudent management has not been a strong point.

Perhaps the time has come for the establishment of a national agency where all groups and individual artists become members and where releases are monitored to ensure that intellectual property is not reproduced by unscrupulous parties.

Next week: Find out how Mantis was formed and how the trip to New Zealand came about. The Fiji Times speaks to one of the remaining members of the group, bassist Joe Heritage.