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Jamming in the 'cowboy' town

Backtracks By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, March 13, 2014

WEARY and worn out after tending to cattle or working the rice and cane fields in Labasa in the 1950s, dust-covered labourers would drag their tired feet home day after day and look forward to the weekend.

Because that was when they would let their hair down.

Dressed to the nines, local men, women and even children would gather at the Labasa Municipal Market and sit and listen or dance to the music of impromptu groups.

Apart from watching black and white movies at the Majestic Theatre, music was the only other form of entertainment in the "cowboy" town at the time and Paul Jaduram was knee deep in it.

As president of the Labasa Tourism Association, the former mayor and business mogul seems far removed from the entertainment scene but once upon a time, he was in the centre of the music business.

"We used to have a music group called the Tune Band," the septuagenarian shared.

"There were a couple of guys from the Mar, Simmons and Robinson families and we used to perform at the market.

"We had guitars, ukuleles and a bass guitar made out of a huge tea chest and a thick fishing line which was called the wa dua.

"Because it was difficult to get instruments at that time, we even created some.

"And a good example of this was the Latin American percussion instrument called the maracas.

"The original instruments were made out of gourd shells filled with rice but we made ours out of bamboo instead."

A makeshift dance hall was constructed with sackcloth sewn together and instead of alcohol being served Jaduram said locals were limited to drinking kava. "There were no nightclubs at the time so all the dances were held at the market.

"This was for the locals and kailomas, the white people had dances at places where we couldn't go.

"Whoever was hosting the dance would put up the temporary fencing and they would also collect two shillings or sixpence admission.

"And instead of liquor, they would serve grog out of a big tanoa or tharia and everyone would sit around and listen or get up and dance to the music we played."

Jaduram said the Tune Band performed around Labasa mainly to raise funds for community projects.

"Things were different back then.

"As young people, we were heavily involved in fundraising to help the community or to improve people's lives.

"We had a rival group called the Green Boys.

"They wore green bula shirts while we wore yellow and we would compete in raising funds to help the community.

"Music was used as a vehicle to help people, that's just how it was those days."

Apart from playing music, Jaduram said the group, along with other youngsters, would head down to Malau and clean up the pier area.

"Music wasn't something that we thought we would pursue because at that time, there wasn't much happening in terms of entertainment opportunities and the scope to develop music further just wasn't there."

As the doo-wop era of the '50s gave way to the swinging '60s and the flower power generation dawned, music groups grew more sophisticated.

Even in the rural outback of Labasa, music groups began to evolve as electrical instruments began replacing acoustic guitars and drum sets began appearing as new groups began to emerge.

One of the biggest musical acts to come out of Labasa was a group called the Mask'd Ones.

Band leader, Li Tick Mar said the popularity of the group was mainly because the members were in their teens.

"It was a real novelty back in the late '60s when we started," he said.

"In the '60s one of the biggest bands around was made up of the Gibson brothers.

"They were one of the first real live bands and they were very popular until we came along."

The Mask'd Ones — made up of the Mar brothers Li and Man and former Labasa soccer rep Brian Simmons and Albert Reade — shook the foundations of the live music scene in the administrative capital of Vanua Levu with a new sound and youthful exuberance.

"We played music because we had a real passion for it and along the way we developed our talent and became really good at what we did.

"The funny thing was, when we decided to form a band — no one had ever played electric instruments before and no one knew how to put together the sound system to amplify our instruments.

"You can imagine the laughs we had in trying to get our brand new instruments to work."

The Mar brothers grew up in an environment where music and musical ability was encouraged.

"My dad bought us brothers acoustic guitars while my sisters received ukuleles as we were growing up.

"Music was a way for us to socialise and relax together as a family.

"This was a common activity for most families in those days but I don't see much of this happening now.

"Music brought us together as a family and as a community and I still practise this today with my son Derek.

"We sit around nowadays and have a bit of a jam.

"I am very proud of the fact that although he has pursued a career as an engineer with the Fiji Sugar Corporation, he has also developed his talent on the guitar."

* NEXT WEEK: Read about how the Mask'd Ones were formed and how they took over the music scene in Labasa in the late '60s and early '70s.

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