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Makare, the clarity of revival

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, January 02, 2014

"THIS was the way it used to be".

These were the words of one of the legends of iTaukei music, Gilman Lasaisuva.

Speaking at the launch of Lautoka-based band Makare's album at Traps bar in Suva two weeks ago, the 68-year-old said if anything, 2013 was a year of rebirth of live music in Fiji.

"Back in the '60s and '70s, we used to get together at events like this and support each other," the Kabara man shared.

"We didn't have money but we had each other and found a lot of strength in that.

"There were concerts and jam sessions held almost every month where different bands would get together and share their passion for music with their fans, and I can see that the scene is heading in that direction again."

Apart from composing some of the most iconic iTaukei tunes like Lakeba and Vorolaki Au, recently remade by Makare, Lasaisuva was at the forefront of the live music scene as the drummer and then bass player for the Dragon Swingers alongside music great Tom Mawi.

It is ironic that many living music legends, Lasaisuva included, continue to struggle to eke out a living more than 50 years later. Some would lay the blame on lifestyle choices and mismanagement. But that is only half the story.

Local musicians and dancers played a huge role in the success of tourism's early years by providing the only entertainment available at the time. They drew huge crowds with their exceptional musical talent.

From outdoor concerts in Levuka in the 1950s, through to the Korolevu Beach Resort's moment in time as the Riviera of Fiji music in the swinging '60s and the Dragon Swingers' reign as the best in the business from the 60's through to the '70s, legends like Marika Gata, Sakiusa Bulicokocoko, Wise Vatuwaqa, Paul Steven, Vili Tuilaucala, Rupeni Serevi, Gu Vananalagi, Lasaisuva, Bill and Mick Beddoes, Robert Verma and others too many to mention have all but faded into obscurity.

Forgotten and ignored but for tales of outstanding musical prowess shared around the tanoa at places like the Bilolevu Club in Suva where some still find time to strum and share a tall tale or two.

Fiji music has never died. Legends like Ken Janson and his band The Hearts, Tom Mawi, Joe Chang and the Fiji Five and bands like the Brotherhood, Overtime and Willie's Knights followed by One2eight have kept the scene alive in the Capital City.

A band of musical brothers from Raiwaqa called Kalabline emerged this year and set the scene abuzz with anticipation of the possibility of a Rootstrata-like revival of street music with all the gritty details about life's struggles and the reality facing many in their day-to-day living. After a series of successful outings at Traps under the tutelage of Ioane Burese, youngsters left on expeditions to other groups like the Brotherhood and beyond.

In the West, groups like Rosiloa, Divine, Sneak Preview and many more continue to entertain the hundreds of thousands of visitors that choose Fiji as their preferred holiday destination.

While resident resort bands have simply continued a long-honoured tradition, other acts have sought to rekindle music's past glory. Beginning with the Corona Fiji Musicians Reconnect Tour in June last year, the rebirth of local music and revisit of Fiji's rich musical past sparked a renewed interest in the "industry".

Seasoned player Nesbitt Hazelman dusted off his Fender Stratocaster and began playing a residency at Sand Dunez on Thursdays before moving to Traps, a gig his group, One2eight, does every Friday.

Jazzman Sam Waqa teamed up with his soulful daughter Kat and formed Overtime and began a regular stint at the Bad Dog Café.

Johnny Bola of Knox Brotherhood fame reformed the group after the departure of Knox for bigger and better things, including the subsequent release of his new single Candy and a successful Australian tour.

The reconnect tour held at the Royal Suva Yacht Club in Suva and New Nadi Farmers Club in the tourist centre brought together musicians that have created life-long memories, sparked romances and marked moments in time. Legendary giants like Mawi, Rupeni Davui and Serevi rubbed shoulders with Bobby and Johnny Shankaran of Ulysses fame, while Janson found himself singing alongside saxophonist Darrel Bryson who now resides in Sydney, Australia.

"It was like flipping back the pages of time because in the '70s Darrel shared the stage with me at the Golden Dragon," the pseudo-godfather of Fiji music reminisced.

Bobby, a progressive and experimental guitarist since his first outing with Ulysses at Lucky Eddies in Suva in the '70s, wowed the close to 600 crowd that turned up walk down memory lane.

Shankaran, who plies his trade as a session musician on the Gold Coast in Australia, was more than impressed with the abundance of what he termed "world-class" local talent.

Lautoka bassist Filimoni 'Bubba' Kama and keyboard player Samisoni Mawi were singled out as outstanding.

Tour organiser Lawrence Foon handed over a cheque of more than $10,000 to the St Giles Hospital Patient Comfort Fund from ticket sales and promised to make the show an annual event.

The Western Musicians and Entertainers Association, led by Lasaisuva and Homer Fare, spearheaded a campaign to revive live music in the West in September. The sell-out show at the New Nadi Farmers Club was a resounding success and proprietor Tom Liu has to be commended for providing a venue for musicians to get together, perform and raise funds in the name of music development.

Local music aside, perhaps the biggest event for the country was the surprise tour by internationally-renowned band Common Kings in October. Many expressed disbelief on social network sites when this newspaper began putting out advertisements and stories that the US-based rhythm and blues reggae group was staging two shows in Suva and Nadi.

As expected, the Suva event drew a record crowd at the Vodafone Arena with thousands jiving away to songs like Wade In Your Water, Alcoholic and Sickness.

The tour was historic in more ways than one. Apart from it being a visit by a major artist, the Common Kings' arrival in Fiji was also a homecoming for bassist Ivan Kirimaua who was born in Suva. The bassman shared vivid memories as he reminisced about his childhood in Fiji.

"Some of the best recollections of my childhood in Fiji definitely have to be the times spent with my late grandfather, or tutu, Lui Young," he said.

"I miss him dearly along with one of my favourite uncles, Uncle Tukai.

"There are a lot of other memories but for some reason, I always remember having to drink copious amounts of layalaya whenever we got sick."

The Common Kings' Nadi show was also a resounding success despite the less than favourable turnout. Held on the main day of Diwali celebrations and also on a Sunday, a day sacred for Christians, the enthusiasm of the small but robust crowd more than compared to the raucous reception the band received in the Capital City.

Speaking of reconnections, Brisbane-based hip-hop artist Sam Ratumaitavuki ,better known in the business as Fortafy, slipped into the country in February and made a number of appearances in Suva and Nadi. Apart from performing with renowned New Zealand rappers like Scribe, J Williams, Young Sid, PNC and Savage, Fortafy's claim to fame also includes being featured in a Top 10 hit single by Kiwi rhythm and blues and soul artist Donell Lewis called Missing My Love. During his visit the now Australian resident caught up with local hip-hoppers including pioneer Dave Lavaki.

International composer Igelese Ete, who is the head of performing arts at the University of the South Pacific, added another feather to his illustrious career by being asked to contribute music for Hollywood flick Dolphins.

Ete has contributed significantly to the local music scene since the establishment of the Pasifika Voices Ensemble a few years ago. Apart from inspiring a new generation of choral singing and making choir cool, Ete was instrumental in the musical production Vaka: The Birth of a Seer which received critical acclaim in Suva last year.

The dawn of 2014 brings with it the promise of a new and exciting chapter for live and recorded music in Fiji.

Recent releases by Saimone Vuatalevu and news that iTaukei icons Seru Serevi and Laisa Vulakoro could be hitting the studios soon is a sign the rebirth of Fijian music is in progress.

Fiji Hotels and Tourism Association president Dixon Seeto said Fiji used to be the yardstick for Pacific music at one point and that the time had come for the country to reclaim the lost crown.

"Just like the country's prowess on the rugby field, Fiji also had a lot to offer in terms of entertainment but there is a need to establish pathways and platforms to ensure the entertainment industry is developed in a more professional manner," he said.

"We have some of the greatest musicians in the region and maybe even in the world but the question is how do we harness and nurture that talent.

"I believe a lot more can be done.

"Our entertainers have the potential to become very successful and this in turn could be of immense benefit to the country."

Perhaps the time has finally come for music created or performed in Fiji or by Fijians to be given due recognition and protection with Fijian Crafted labelling and licensing.