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The power of music

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, January 09, 2014

WHEN the French Government began testing nuclear bombs at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia in the '60s and '70s, a young Indo-Fijian boy from Toorak in Suva wrote a protest song that became the unofficial anthem for those opposed to the tests.

At the time, music was not just a form of entertainment. Music became a movement for social change beginning with Woodstock, the festival that changed the world by showing how music could be used to protest wars and express the dissatisfaction of the masses.

The concert, billed as three days of music and peace, was held at New York native Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskills in the town of Bethel, New York, from August 15 to August 18, 1969.

Thirty-two acts including artists such as Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix, performed outdoors before an audience of about 400,000.

Rolling Stone magazine listed the event as one of the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.

Woodstock, which was used as an anti-Vietnam War spectacle, spawned numerous anti-establishment concerts across the globe and inspired the anti-nuclear movement in the Pacific.

In 1973, hundreds took to the streets of Suva and Auckland in New Zealand in protest against the Mururoa tests as the song, Destruction of Humanity — composed, recorded and performed by Anil Valera from Toorak — was beamed from then pirate station Radio Hauraki on board the motor vessel Tiri which was anchored three miles off the Auckland coast.

Valera, a member of Suva-based band Ulysses, said he was driven to action after reading about the effects of nuclear fallout in the media.

"It was a song about the French Government testing bombs at Mururoa," he explained.

"I was listening to the news and reading Time and Newsweek magazines and learning about the ill-effects of the testing and decided to write a protest song.

"There was a huge protest march on the streets in Suva at the time and Radio Fiji supported the cause by playing my song."

Antinuclear protests fuelled by Valera's song, and later by tunes such as Nuclear Waste, courtesy of Kiwi reggae band Herbs, combined with pressure from the New Zealand Government, forced the French to abandon atmospheric tests in 1974.

The last underground test was reported to have been conducted in 1996.

Although actual figures have not been established, various reports published at the time said anywhere from 170 to 180 tests were conducted on the atoll which forms part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia.

The outrage by the Pacific people was highlighted regionally and internationally through music and songs such as Destruction of Humanity and Herbs' signature tunes — French Letter, Nuclear Waste and Rust In Dust.

On the local scene, Ulysses led the charge with a series of antinuclear concerts at the Suva Civic Centre and the University of the South Pacific.

Valera played a key role as the bass player and lead singer of the group that was formed in the early '70s in Toorak.

The first line-up of the band included Colin Deoki at guitar and his brother Raoul behind the drums, Henry Foon played a Yamaha YC-10 organ amplified through a Leslie rotating speaker, Patrick Chung on second guitar and Valera on bass guitar and lead vocals.

"We were a no-holds-barred rock band that sometimes drifted into pop and the antinuclear concerts were places where we could express the disenchantment of the Pacific people through music to the nuclear tests that were being conducted," said Foon.

"And Anil had all the right songs and the look for that generation."

Valera played a key role in Ulysses until he migrated to Canada in 1977.

His fascination with music began as a five-year-old growing up in Toorak in the '60s.

"I started playing harmonica when I was five," he shared.

"My older brother Nitin Lal, who was a photographer at The Fiji Times, used to play around the house and I guess I just picked it up by listening to him.

"Nitin also taught me my first guitar chords when I was about 13 years old.

"At that time I was very much influenced by listening to the Beatles music — like the rest of the world was — and to this day The Beatles have always been my favourite group."

The folk singer confessed to watching The Beatle's classic 1964 black and white comedy A Hard Day's Night 19 times at the New Lilac Theatre in Suva.

"This was from January 1 to January 15 in 1965.

"And I still watch it on DVD today. So I guess you could say that The Beatles really inspired me to play."

Valera later discovered the music of cult hero Bob Dylan and his Scottish imitator, Donovan.

"One of my all-time favourites was Catch The Wind, a Donovan song.

"Because I was one of the only artists into folk music, Ken Janson asked me to play at the Golden Dragon on Sunday nights and I did that for about three years."

He also performed at the Hillcrest Hotel (now the Peninsula), Garrick Hotel, Biddy's Steak House (now Traps), Mocambo (now Novotel Nadi) and the Captain's Table Restaurant at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva before taking on his lead role with Ulysses.

The group's first gig was at the South Pacific Festival of Arts held at the University of the South Pacific grounds in 1972.

John Shankaran took over drum duties from Deoki in 1973 and Chanel Columbus replaced Valera on the bass guitar later the same year.

Ulysses took part in the annual Battle of the Bands competition held at the Suva Civic Centre in 1975 and won as a prize, the opportunity to record a 45rpm single.

"We recorded the single Hang On Pretty Maiden with another song Woman on the flip side with Ken Janson at the Golden Dragon on a Sunday."

Vimal Prasad also joined the band as lead guitarist and his brother Aneil Kumar as a percussionist later that same year along with Joseph Singh on bass guitar.

Ulysses became the resident band at Lucky Eddies in Suva when the nightclub opened on Victoria Parade in mid-1976.

Valera left Ulysses when he migrated to Canada in July 1977.