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Rock and roll leaves an impression

Backtracks By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, March 27, 2014

JIM Bentley still remembers when rock and roll first landed in Fiji.

It was in the late 1950s and the venue was the New Lilac Theatre.

The revolution that had swept through the US and England and ignited a musical frenzy of unprecedented proportions around the globe did not have the same effect when it arrived in Suva.

"Rock and roll arrived in the form of a movie called Rock Around The Clock which featured Bill Halley And The Comets," the 74-year-old reminisced.

"While everyone was excited at finally hearing this radical new music for the first time, it was a rather sedate affair."

Packed to the rafters, young girls and boys sat in silence, absorbing the new music.

"I still remember it was five cents for front row seats, 10 cents for the back and 15 cents upstairs and the place was so full."

Rock and roll left an indelible impression on the youth. The popularity of the music could not be denied and even the Fiji Broadcasting Commission broke protocol and played 15 minutes of non-stop rock and roll at the time.

"FBC was governed by very strict regulations back then and rock and roll music had previously been banned, so when they made the decision to play 15 minutes of this radical new music, it was a significant moment in Fiji's radio history."

Bentley's keen interest in all things music was not merely as an appreciator. In the late '50s he was also a key member of a musical group called Alf Bentley And His Islanders.

"Alf Bentley, who was a cousin of mine, started the band.

"He was a very good steel guitarist and together with Wayne Bentley, Eliza Kaitu, Hae Pene, Mickey Konrote, we began practising and performing around the country."

The band played at private dances before developing its reputation as one of the hottest groups in the Capital City and moved into the Old Town Hall.

"In those days there were no nightclubs, so on Fridays and Saturdays there used to be dances at the Old Town Hall or the Anglican Hall and we would play music there."

The Islanders' most notable performance was at the first Hibiscus Festival in 1956.

"It was a very special moment, I remember Liebling Hoeffinch was crowned the first queen and Suva was a sea of excitement."

As the group grew in popularity they ventured out of Suva, making the five-hour long dusty journey to Lautoka and eventually went as far as Levuka.

"We played at the Masonic Lodge in Levuka and it was an amazing experience because the whole of Ovalau turned up to hear us play.

"Music and movies were the only forms of entertainment and people would dress up to go and listen to a band perform and even to go to the movies.

"In those days, I played lead and rhythm guitar and we played mostly island music but as time went on we began to venture into pop and even rock and roll."

Bentley developed an interest in the news media and from 1956 to 1960 he worked for FBC. In 1960 he left Fiji and went for a trip to Australia.

"After a little holiday I teamed up with a guy called Everett Riley, who now lives in Pacific Harbour, and we began entertaining in restaurants with just the two of us playing guitars.

"We played at the opening of a new restaurant called the South Seas, where they recreated the island atmosphere with palm trees and aquariums."

Bentley eventually moved to South Australia and formed a group called The Two Point Fives.

"It was a three-piece group and we had the tiniest drummer, thus the name."

The group performed around Adelaide for a few years before Bentley left to work in television. He appeared on two shows, Country and Western Hour and Adelaide Tonight.

In 1968 he returned to Fiji and worked for the Ministry for Education for five years and the University of the South Pacific for 10.

After landing a job with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Bentley moved with his family to Paris, Samoa and Malaysia over the course of 15 years. In 2000, he retired and returned home.

"I've been in retirement since then and not played much music.

"My fingers have grown soft so I put them to better use and wrote a novel titled The Amazing Adventures of Tevita which was published in 2008.

"And I've also been doing some work for the Foundation of the People of the South Pacific International, an NGO that does development work which keeps me occupied."

Bentley said despite being away from the music scene for some time, he was keen to get back into it.

"My son, Adam, is continuing our family legacy.

"He is a musician in England and he's into the heavier stuff like heavy metal and hard rock which is very different to what I was into."

Bentley said while music still remained an important part of his life, his new passion was creating awareness about climate change and the effects it had on Pacific Island people.

"My work with the Foundation of the People of the South Pacific International allows me to do this. I wrote a book which contains eight fictitious stories for FSPI on climate change which will be launched soon.

"The stories I wrote are being turned into comic book form, animated cartoon form and into news format and even in braille.

"Each story demonstrates the aspects and effects of climate change and it is an attempt to get information to people in an interesting way because most of the stuff written about it is rather dull reading and too scientific."

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