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Fiji Time: 6:27 PM on Thursday 24 April

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Backtracks: Joe Heritage and his musical moments

By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, December 19, 2013

WHEN Tom Mawi met Joe Heritage in primary school in the early '50s, neither had any idea of the impact both would have on Fiji's music scene.

Ironically, their shy introductions in Class One at Saint Columbus School in 1952, now Marist Brothers Primary, would be a far cry from their on-stage persona two decades later.

Mawi went on to become the only world-rated musician that the country has ever produced and claims the title of the undisputed king of jazz while Heritage created history as a key member of Mantis, a group that recorded and released a psych-rock album that remains a collector's item so far.

Mawi said meeting Heritage in primary school did not create as much an impression as when he first heard him in the Golden Dragon in the mid '60s.

"I remember he was a drummer back then and he really surprised everybody because he just had something special in him that people loved playing music with him or listening to him play," the 70-year-old jazz great shared.

"And that was the amazing thing about Joe. Nobody knew who he was or where he came from until he just blew everyone away when he played in the Golden Dragon.

"His style and feel was just so different from everybody.

"He had an energy and feel that made it a joy for any musician to play music with him."

Mawi's praise for Heritage's bass playing skills was echoed by fellow musician and bassist, Gilman Lasaisuva.

"We developed and came on the scene at the same time and when I went to Tahiti in 1966, Joe replaced me in the Golden Dragon," Lasaisuva recollected.

"Apart from being a great musician, Joe was a very disciplined person and a real leader.

"And he knew how to converse with the kaivalagi hotel management and negotiate deals which was something most of us found difficulty doing.

"It's a real shame that Joe is not active in the industry as a musician anymore and spends his time doing production work.

"But his dedication to doing church work is something that all musicians could learn from."

For Heritage, giving up his time and talent to the service of God and the Mount Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Nadi is a divine calling.

"I have some knowledge and skill that God gave me which I can put to good use in church and this is where my heart is, serving God and his people," the 67-year-old explained.

When he walked away from the live music scene about two decades ago, Heritage also shrugged off all the vices that had been a part of his life for about four decades. What he can't erase, however, are the musical moments that he was a part of and the magic moments he witnessed during his career.

"I had so many great experiences in my career like touring New Zealand and recording with some of the most amazing musicians Fiji has ever produced in Waisea Vatuwaqa, Paul Steven, Rupeni Davui and Ronnie Sammuel.

"But one of the moments that really stands out was when a very famous Kiwi guitarist called Peter Posa toured Fiji in 1968 or '69. Peter's most famous tune was an instrumental called White Rabbit. People packed out the Golden Dragon just to hear him play this one song. But after hearing the way Wise Vatuwaqa played it, Peter just freaked out and refused to come on stage.

"This is one of the most talked about moments in Fiji's music history and people who were there at time will remember how Peter had to be begged to come on stage after Wise turned his song inside out."

An amazing feat against an artist who recorded a total of 17 albums which featured 13 hit singles, including White Rabbit, which reportedly sold in excess of 100,000 copies in the '60s.

Apart from the overshadowing influence of Mawi, Vatuwaqa was the biggest influence on Heritage's life and music career. Heritage, not one to blow his own trumpet, said sharing the stage and recording with Vatuwaqa, Steven, Davui and Sammuel was a memory that he would always treasure.

"I can say this now but I wouldn't have said it 30 or 40 years ago.

"We started a formidable band and I can say the group was formidable only because Ken brought in music that wasn't even played on radio in Australia, New Zealand or even Fiji.

"We were at the forefront and we were fortunate because after we broke songs at the Golden Dragon, radio stations would pick them up at a later stage but people who followed our music always knew and appreciated the fact that we played it first."

Being trail blazers, however, came at a price.

"The journey was not easy.

"We were not familiar with these new tunes and a lot of blood sweat and tears went into our music and how we would recreate these sounds. It was easier for Wise, Paul and Paspatu but for me being a new kid on the block, the going was tough."

Heritage faced a lot of criticism from the industry because of Ken Janson's decision to pick him as the resident bassist at the Golden Dragon over seasoned and experienced players such as George Vokai, Tony Kapio and Rupeni Davui.

"All the critics went quiet when they heard that the recommendation did not come from Ken but came from someone they all respected and admired, Wise Vatuwaqa."

Heritage developed his singing and playing style under the tutelage of the albino guitar great.

"I had to sit with Wise every night and work things out because Ken kept saying I was not getting it right. It was difficult but it made me a better musician.

"I owe a lot to Wise because he picked me up when I was down and he encouraged me even when I didn't believe in myself and this is something that I hope experienced musicians can do today.

"Instead of standing on the sidelines and criticising we should be encouraging and advising all the emerging young talent if we want to see music develop in Fiji."

Apart from Vatuwaqa's influence, Heritage said Ken Janson played a key role in his career and was also responsible for him seriously taking up singing.

"Ken told Wise that he wanted me to sing, and I had a lot of difficulties singing and playing bass but with Wise's mentoring I developed this skill.

"My first song was a tune that I didn't really like. It was called Long Tall Cowboy - country western with a touch of funk - it went down well with the crowd.

"This taught me one of the biggest lessons of showbiz.

"You have to perform for the people and not yourself. So even if you have to do a song you don't particularly like, you have to learn it and perform it to the best of your ability because that is what you are paid to do."

Heritage may not be a performer on today's music scene but he continues to work behind the scenes at Stage Tech, a company he operates with the son of his former mentor, Jerry Vatuwaqa.

When he's not doing production work, Heritage spends his time finetuning audio production at Mount St Mary's Catholic Church at Martnitar in Nadi.