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Backtracks: The gentle giant of Fiji music

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, December 12, 2013

OFF stage, Joe Heritage was a quiet and unassuming gentleman. On stage in the '60s, '70s and '80s the drummer-turned-bassist was a different man.

Psychedelic clothes, platform soles and unbridled energy were the hallmarks of his every performance with the Dragon Swingers in the late '60s and early '70s and later with a band of Fijian superstars that created a stir on the music scene in New Zealand.

"When I would get up on stage, I just became a different person," he said at his home at Namaka in Nadi.

"I would feed off the energy of the crowd and get immersed into the music. The music gave me confidence that I could do anything and it gave me a natural high.

"Something would come over me and I would just get carried away with it."

Many, who know him now would not be able to fathom the heights that the soft spoken 68-year-old reached as a member of Mantis, a musical group that created history in the '70s and set a platform that no artist has been able to emulate or replicate since.

Heritage, together with guitarist extraordinaire Waisea Vatuwaqa, drummer Paul Steven, percussionist Rupeni Davui and Ronni Sammuel better known as Paspatu on keyboards created music history by becoming the first local psych-rock band to be recorded on vinyl in 1973.

The band was discovered by an agent from Phonogram Limited while playing at a gig in Wellington.

"After we performed a guy came up to me, handed over his business card and asked that we meet with his company the following day.

"Obviously, when I showed it to the boys, they all thought it was a big joke. But we went to the address and as soon as we turned up at the recording company headquarters, we knew that this was something big."

Ushered into plush carpeted offices and being feted like superstars, the band knew that something special was about to happen.

"We had no idea what to say or do because this was a first for all of us and we didn't have a clue about negotiating contracts or anything like that.

"So we began recording within a few days and it took us a week to complete the whole album and we recorded it just like how we performed live - that is why the songs sound different from other bands that recorded during the same period."

When the group arrived in New Zealand, they did not have a name. A few suggestions had been tossed around but none caught the band's fancy.

"Because we had all just literally stepped out of the Golden Dragon, where we had performed as the Dragon Swingers - there was a suggestion that we be called by the same name but a quick vote put that at rest."

A member of Phonograph Ltd suggested the name "Mantis".

"We had no idea what a mantis was so when he saw the puzzled looks on our faces, he rushed off and came back with pictures of the stick-like insect.

"We all looked at it and decided to go with the name because it sounded cool."

Released in 1973 under the Vertigo label, Mantis first and only album - Turn Onto Music - featured two hit singles, a single written for the band called Night and Day and a cover of the Booker T Jones classic Time is Tight.

"I sang Night and Day and it was an amazing feeling to hear it being played on the radio for the first time in New Zealand and also in Fiji when we returned."

The bass player's contribution to the phenomenal success of Night and Day was ironic. When he started out in the music business, Heritage was not comfortable with singing and had preferred to stand in the shadows behind his bass guitar.

His discomfort was evident as he relayed the tale of his first public performance.

"It was at my sister, Bella's 16th birthday party in 1963. I was 18 at the time. I used to sing and play the banjo and ukulele when I was by myself but when people were around, I was the shyest person.

"My family urged me to perform and after a bit of coaxing, I began singing and playing a couple of tunes and that marked the beginning of my music career."

A close cousin, Stino Tokona, heard Heritage at the party and began pushing him to perform in public.

"Stino began urging me after that so I began singing Beatles' tunes like When I Saw Her Standing There.

"My other choice apart from funky music was The Beatles because their songs had a lot of clever chord arrangements and tricky timing - so it was challenging - which was something I liked."

In 1965, Heritage travelled to New Zealand with Tokona. While there, he secured a job at the Ford Motor Company assembly line.

"In those days, it was easy because we had British passports, so going to New Zealand was no hassle.

"We were British subjects those days.

"While we in New Zealand, Stino urged me to sing. I was shy at first but my confidence developed from there and I learnt valuable lessons which helped me in my career later."

Heritage grew up in Charles St in Toorak, Suva alongside stalwarts like Waisea Vatuwaqa and Maxie Columbus.

And just as most musical greats, he spent his teenage years frequenting Popo's Grog Shop.

Inside, musically fluent guitarists and singers would congregate and share their talent while on the outside, youngsters - like Heritage - would soak it all in.

The songs and tunes that he was exposed to would serve him well when he joined the first group that performed at the Tradewinds Hotel in Lami and later at a venue known as the Knight Club before he claimed his spot at the Golden Dragon.

Joe Heritage could be referred to as the James Jameson of local music. Jameson was a member of the famed Motown band known as The Funk Brothers.

Jameson played on all the big hits with all the superstars of the soul era.

Likewise, Heritage has also played with all the local greats - from Sakiusa Bulicokocoko to Waisea Vatuwaqa to Tom Mawi.

His performance as the bassist and vocalist with Mantis marks a significant page in Fiji's music history.

Despite the accolades from musicians and fans, too many to mention, Heritage attributes his musical success to blessings from above and from being in the company of extraordinary gentlemen.

Next week: Read about how a boy from Toorak claimed his title as the premier bass player on the local music scene.