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A chip off the old block

Felix Chaudhry
Thursday, February 27, 2014

WHEN she picked up a guitar for the first time in 2009, Tishala Dass played it like a professional.

Her ability on the six stringed instrument showed depth and character far beyond her tender age.

"She was only nine-years-old at the time," her grandfather and mentor James Dass shared.

The former member of the country's longest running band, the Quin Tikis, was even more astounded when the then 10-year-old St Annes School student began pulling off guitar tunes from bands like the Shadows two months later.

"I sat down and went through a Shadows number with her and she just picked it up after 20 minutes."

A visiting friend from Canada, enthralled by her ability, gave Tishala his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and an effects unit.

The now St Joseph's Secondary School student's interest developed further from there.

"I don't have to show her anything now because she has developed a style of her own."

For the Dass clan, Tishala's musical ability is the continuation of a legacy that was forged more than six decades ago.

Fifteen-year-old Tishala's great grandfather — Cecil Dass — was a guitarist with a band that went by the name Suva Swingers.

Old man Cecil's namesake, Cecil Jr said music has always played an important role in the Dass family.

"I remember my dad telling mum 'when my children hold a guitar in their hand, they will never starve' and it was as if he knew that no matter what our career path, music would be a binding force for our family."

As the guitarist for '50s and '60s group the Suva Swingers, old man Dass had earned a decent living as a musician by night and worked as a teacher and then a plumber by day.

Back in the day when live music was the only form of entertainment, musicians eked out a living, fed their families and educated their children with their earnings from playing music.

Six decades later, as he recited what had become a mantra in the Dass household to me while we chatted at Korolevu, tears welled in Cecil Dass junior's eyes.

"I still get emotional every time I hear those words or think back to how my dad would always say those words to my mother," he shared.

To say that old man Dass had a passion for music would be an understatement.

"He and his friends were so committed to learning as much as they could that they would practice under the streetlights on Johnson St in Suva."

Cecil senior, together with Peter Moore, Noel Woo and Jeff and Albert Houng Lee were among the pioneers of the live music scene in the '50s as members of the band known as the Suva Swingers.

"They were really something else," Cecil junior said.

"I remember having the privilege of watching them perform at the St John Hall when I was about 12-years-old.

"Litia Daveta was playing piano for them at the time and she just added so much colour to their music."

Daveta would later adopt the name Esther King and perform with renowned US group, The Platters from 1970 to 1974.

The Suva Swingers, as usual with bands in the '50s, featured live brass instruments and played jazz standards that were popular at the time.

Although their old man never encouraged his sons to play music, the Dass brothers — James, Robert, Cecil and Desmond — stole every opportunity to strum or pick the melody of a tune on his Gibson semi-acoustic guitar.

"Mum was always guiding us to study but any free time we had, we would spend it trying out chords and scales on the guitar.

"And we were very lucky in the sense that we all learnt how to play on a high quality American built instrument.

"Dad acquired the guitar from a US national that had visited the country at the time."

As their proficiency on the instrument grew, the Dass brothers began developing their music individually.

Robert formed a band called the Kanakas with a few boys from Namuka-i-lau near Veisari and the group began performing around the capital city.

"We played mainly instrumentals from artists like the Shadows, Peter Posa and Ventures," he said.

"Music was fun back in those days and it kept us out of trouble."

Cecil and James teamed up with Edward Krishna, Seru Serevi, Viliame Likusuasua and Saimone Vuatalevu to form what has become Fiji's longest running musical group, the Quin Tikis in 1969.

Desmond began a love affair with jazz that has resulted in him playing alongside living legend, Tom Mawi.

Fiji's undisputed king of jazz said the Suva Swingers were definitive of the music scene at the time.

"I remember watching them as a young boy and the music they played was very cool and people used to go and watch them and dance the night away," he shared.

"My older brother, Simi, used to play saxophone with them and they really rocked Suva with their dance music."

"The pianist, Geoffrey Houng Lee played stride style really well.

"Stride piano is where the pianist plays bass with his left hand and the rhythm with his right and Geoffrey was really good at it."

Mawi said, like dance bands in the '50s, the Suva Swingers played mainly instrumental tunes.

"Those days, bands played instrumentals and very seldom you would hear songs being sung.

"But it was beautiful with the Suva Swingers because there were certain songs they performed where the whole band would sing in unison and this created a unique sound.

"There were no microphones at that time so people would really project their voices and sing."

Mawi said the Dass brothers were renowned artists who had contributed a lot to Fiji's musical landscape.

The youngest of the Dass brothers - Desmond - is often used as a replacement when Mawi has to travel abroad or is over-committed.

"Desmond is a really interesting guitarist," Mawi shared.

"He can play octaves in the Wes Montgomery style but he's also developed his own thing which makes him an exciting musician to watch and jam with."

Although Desmond remains active on the professional circuit, his brothers still find time to jam together from time to time.

Nowadays, Robert operates a string of businesses in Korolevu while his son and namesake, Robert Junior, plays bass for one of Fiji's biggest musical exports, Rosiloa (formerly Black Rose).

For Tishala, music will always be an important part of her life but she also has plans to further her passion for science.

"I will always play music because I love it and it comes natural to me but I also want to continue my studies and venture into medical research in the hope of one day finding a cure for cancer," she said.

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