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Backtracks: Vuatalevu's music journey

Backtracks By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, February 13, 2014

FOR many, the name Saimone Vuatalevu conjures up images and sounds of lali and ukulele — two signature components of his 1986 smash hit tune Tucake Mai.

However, the Mavana, Lau, native counts among his biggest musical moments, and there are many, the day he snatched the top prize in the Fiji Sangeet Sitara in 1973.

The only iTaukei in the contest, Vuatalevu blew away the competition with his version of Kishore Kumar's classic Yeh Sham Mastani from the 1970 Bollywood blockbuster Kati Patang.

This performance, which took him on a 23-day holiday to Sydney in Australia for winning the competition, and other shows around the Suva circuit resulted in the then 28-year-old travelling to New Delhi, India, to learn basic Hindi at the New Delhi Technical Institute in 1976.

"People thought I knew what I was singing about when I won that competition but the truth was, I just loved the music and the song," the 65-year-old shared.

"One day my band, the Qui Tikis, performed at the Indian High Commission and we played quite a number of Hindi songs and the High Commissioner at the time asked me if I wanted to go to India and that's how I went there for six months and learnt the language and culture of the Indian people.

"When I returned, I came back with a lot more respect for the Indian people and I believe that's also where my journey to be an ambassador for a multi-cultural Fiji began."

After more than 40 years of service as a civil servant with the Ministry of Health and more than four decades in the music industry, Vuatalevu said he had achieved more than he could have ever imagined.

In 1999 he received the Medal of the Order of Fiji for his contribution, service and commitment to the development of the Fiji music industry.

The French Government bestowed Vuatalevu with the Knight of the Order of Fine Arts & Literature in 2003 in recognition of his contribution to Fiji music and the Pacific region.

On the national scene, the Kinoya resident has won numerous competitions and scooped many awards including first prize in the Fiji English Talent Quest in 1968, first prize in the Fiji Sangeet Sitara in '73, three awards at the 1985 Fiji National Song Contest in 1985 for Lali Ni Noqu Vanua.

He has scooped numerous honours at the Vakalutuivoce Awards, once the pinnacle of music awards ceremonies in the country.

"I am humbled and honoured that God blessed me with such a wealth of talent and my only desire now is to reach out to the people of Fiji to embrace each other, regardless of race or ethnicity or religion. My music now is focused on this."

His latest album, titled Healthy Multicultural Fiji, features 10 songs.

The title aptly describes his prayer for the country.

"People have asked me why I chose that title and I think it is self-explanatory. This is my prayer for Fiji, a people of one nation, united under God, living in a health-conscious and happy way together."

Recorded last year in his Tavola St, Kinoya studio, Quin Tiki Productions by legendary local producer Manu Railoa, the album also contains nine of his hit singles.

Songs such as Noqu Mai Tu Tani released in 1979 right through to his 1994 hit Noqu Waqa Ni Dodomo have been revamped by Railoa.

"After working with people like the late Waisea Vatuwaqa, who produced Raica Lesu, my biggest selling album which was released in 1986, the late Filipe Racule who re-programmed Tucake Mai and produced the international award winning Meda Dua Sa Au Voce Kina Yabaki 2000 and Keli Livai, I have found in Manu, someone who understands me and my music."

Vuatalevu said his decision to step into the studio and begin recording again was in response to interest from the general public.

"Over the past decade, people have been asking for new music and re-recording my past hits is the first step in this process."

Vuatalevu said piracy was a big issue faced by all recording artists in the country but it should not be an excuse not to keep creativity alive.

"All local artists need to start recording again and putting out some new music.

"I manage piracy by not selling my music through the traditional outlets.

"If people want my music they can contact me and I will deliver CDs to them or they can come and meet me and pick them up from home.

"I feel that this way they get to meet me and I get to know who my fans are. It's a different approach but it works for me."

The experienced musician said he had kept his ear to the ground and was disappointed with many of the local artists that have released albums in recent years.

"They have lost the art of song writing. And I'm not talking about all of them because there is some really good iTaukei music around but there is also a trend now where all the songs tell you everything about a certain situation.

"They don't know how to tell a story using poetry and suggestion.

"And this is something I try to share with all the songwriters I come in contact with. There are three ingredients that make up a great song — simple chords, great melody and poetry."

NEXT WEEK: Find out how Saimone Vuatalevu was recruited into the Qui Tikis in the late 1960s and how the veteran musician managed to keep the band running until today.

The Qui Tikis are Fiji's longest running musical group ever.

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