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Mar's era of instrumentals

Backtracks By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, March 20, 2014

DICKSON Mar was in awe of his older brothers' — Li Tick and Man Sing — uncanny ability on the guitar. However, he has mixed feelings when he recollects the first time his siblings performed with their band, the Mask'd Ones, for their father, Mar Chiu Kwong.

It was in 1968 and old man Mar — a bakery owner — had requested a command performance at the family home in Labasa.

"By this stage, the Mask'd Ones was famous all over town," the now Lautoka resident shared.

"Because of space restrictions, the band decided to set up and perform outside our house.

"I was so excited as crowds of people began to gather inside our yard.

"I was jumping up and down and clapping after each song but when the band finished up and the crowds began to clear, my excitement turned to anger because people had trampled all over my tavioka plantation just to watch the Mask'd Ones play."

Li Tick chuckled as his younger brother relayed the tale.

"I really felt for Dickson because he had put so much time and effort into his tavioka plantation but we just couldn't control the crowd.

"We were a novelty at the time because we were so young and we were playing the latest music of the time."

For Li Tick, being a founding member of the group was a fulfilment of his old man's motto: "If you're a Mar you have to know how to play guitar".

Back in the '50s, old man Mar had no qualms about his children's passion for music. In fact, he encouraged playing and singing at home.

His children's musical attempts aside, the head of the Mar family would pour himself a drink and listen to Chinese music played on a hand-wound gramophone after a long day at the family bakery.

In Labasa in the '50s and '60s, apart from the occasional public meke performances, music was the only leisure activity that almost every family indulged in.

It was not unusual to see relatives huddled in groups playing ukuleles and guitars.

Dickson remembers the time well.

"I was a little kid but I remember how much dad loved music," he said.

"He had a huge collection of records and to this day we still haven't worked out where he got them from.

"We were fascinated with the gramophone and took turns winding it up for him.

"Apart from listening to his Chinese music, he encouraged all of us kids to play musical instruments.

"The girls learnt to play ukulele and us boys learnt guitar.

"We took his family motto seriously and have kept the tradition alive from way back then until now."

Li Tick and Man Sing took old man Mar's family motto to another level and began a serious study of the guitar.

In 1968, the Mar brothers got together with neighbour Brian Simmons and Albert Reade and formed the Mask'd Ones.

"When Brian suggested we start a band, the first thought that came to my mind was 'how are we going to do this?'

"I had just started working and everyone else was still in high school."

Li Tick and Simmons began putting aside whatever they could lay their hands on, saving up for musical instruments.

After asking for a loan from family members, the Mar brothers travelled to Suva to purchase equipment.

"At that time, there was only one shop that sold musical instruments and that was South Sea Souvenirs in Suva."

Buying the gear was just one of many hurdles the group faced.

"When we took the instruments back to Labasa, a funny thing happened.

"Nobody knew how to put the equipment together.

"Eventually, we managed to put the amplifiers together but it took a while for us to work out how the pieces for the drum set fit and we had a big laugh after that when we finally did it."

The group's inexperience was no measure against their enthusiasm.

"All the excitement drove us to get our act together as quickly as possible.

"When we bought the drum set, it didn't come with a drum stool so we ended up using a normal chair but even that didn't work because Albert was a tall guy.

"My sister used a tin container to store rice and that worked out to be the best seat for him and he used that as a drum stool at gigs."

Old man Mar bought the band some English records and that set the ball rolling.

"I don't even know where my father got those records from but they were the first tunes we learnt as a band.

"Our first set of 15 songs were from artists like the Shadows, Peter Posa and Chet Atkins.

"Those days, people danced to instrumentals, so those were the first tunes we learnt."

The Mask'd Ones' first gig at the Holy Family School concert in '68 was an experience that the Mar brothers never will forget.

Apart from nervousness because the event was their first public performance as a band, nerves were sent into overdrive when they discovered that a renowned group made up of the Gibson brothers had also set up their instruments at the venue.

"They were a very experienced group and everybody knew who they were.

"David Simmons, our manager at the time, noticed that we were nervous so he took us aside and made us nip some rum.

"After that, we were ready to rock Labasa."

The venue for the concert, the Elite Theatre, was crowded from roof to rafter.

"The place was so packed and what made it worse was all our brothers and sisters and family members were there."

However, the rum seemed to have done the trick. From the first song, the Mask'd Ones were an instant hit.

The band flawlessly executed an instrumental version of a Hawaiian song called Pearly Shells.

"We played everything just right and everybody freaked out because we were an unknown band of kids playing beside one of the most popular bands in Labasa.

"And I think we made it through because we connected with the crowd.

"Music is all about connections, connections between the musicians and the connection between the band and the audience."

Albert Reade eventually left the group and was replaced by Morgan Billings and the newcomer brought a new dynamic to the band.

"Morgan was a great drummer and also a good vocalist, so when he joined the band we began performing songs and that made the Mask'd Ones even more popular.

"And we had to keep learning new songs too because Labasa is such a small town, after a while everyone knew our songs so we had to keep changing the repertoire."

In 1973, the band broke up as musicians forged new alliances with the fairer sex and priorities switched from practising and performing to establishing house and home.

After six years on the circuit performing at black tie events, social gatherings, fundraisers, weddings, parties and birthdays, the Mask'd Ones called it quits.

Li Tick now whiles away the hours with his son, Derek, who is also an accomplished guitarist.

"He has revived my interest in playing and we spend our leisure time playing the old Shadows and Ventures numbers.

"As long as these fingers are working, I'll keep playing guitar," he said in parting.

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