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Vananalagi's deft touch

Backtracks By Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, April 17, 2014

PUTTING his carpentry and plumbing skills to use is how Asaeli Vananalagi makes a living these days. But when the cellular network allows calls to reach his mobile phone at Baba in Levuka, the 56-year-old slips on his dungarees, steps onto the early morning bus to Viti Levu and makes his way to various parts of the country to put his fingers to work in another fashion.

Vananalagi's prowess on the guitar and bass prompted industry greats like the late Waisea Vatuwaqa and Sakiusa Bulicokocoko to journey to Ovalau to seek his services.

The 56-year-old has jammed with anyone and everyone.

From his early forays into music as a 14-year-old student to playing alongside jazz great Tom Mawi in the '80s and '90s, Vananalagi has proven his prowess on the guitar.

"None of my parents played music or entertained but for some reason the gift was given to my siblings — Meli, Apenisa, Kesa, Gu, Eminoni, Waqa and Niki," he shared as we chatted at his corrugated iron home at Baba.

While all the Vananalagi siblings were musically adept, three of them excelled and performed in various groups around the country.

Meli, who works at the Royal Hotel, once performed as a musician in the Old Capital and younger brother, Gu, has toured the Pacific with bands like Sneak Preview.

"I used to follow Arthur Bucknell around and because of my interest in music, I got my first gig with a band called Old Capital in 1974.

"The Bucknell family was very well-known because of Percy who was a very famous composer of some of the most popular iTaukei songs."

Vananalagi said music was omnipresent in Baba in the '50s and '60s with family groups and house parties littered all over the hillside area.

"When I was a young boy, I used to follow Arthur's uncle, the very famous Percy around.

"In those days music was also played on banjos and mandolins and not just guitars and ukuleles.

"And the type of chords and songs they played were very challenging, not like now where every song has three chords and most of the young people are just playing sigidrigi.

"The musicians of today have lost that sense of musical adventure and passion for learning their instrument in favour of learning the simplest chords and playing music that is not challenging.

"This has resulted in the standard of music going down and it is a pity because at one time we had some of the best musicians in the Pacific."

The guitarist also places blame for the demise of live music on the advent of computer-generated or programed music.

"Programed music was supposed to be a tool that we used to better ourselves but what has happened is that musicians used this tool to replace musicians and this has killed live music and killed the skills of emerging artists."

Although he depends on his tradesman's work for survival, Vananalagi has a daily practice regime and is rehearsing with local music legend Jimmy Subhaydas.

Dubbed "the man with the golden voice", Subhaydas is planning a career comeback after being away from the music scene for close to two decades.

"We're getting ready to perform at Sukuna Park in Suva later this month as part of 50th anniversary celebrations of the Pacific Fishing Company.

"It's a great feeling to be a part of Jimmy's team again after so many years."

Vananalagi can look back and make comment on the music scene because he has earned his stripes and done the hard yards over the past 40 years.

From his early days as the bass player for Old Capital 2 with vocalist Jale "Foxy" Bale, drummer Eroni Drivationo and lead guitarist Duri, through to when he moved to the Travelodge Hotel in Nadi from 1975 to 1979, he has remained steadfast in his support for live music development.

In 1979, he had a brief stint at the Country Night Club in Nadi before moving to JP's a club owned by John Pettit which later became Main St.

"I went to the Naviti Resort from 1979 to 1984 before working for Tony Stephens at the Flamingo Night Club in Suva."

Here, he rubbed shoulders with renowned keyboard player Henry Cork, music superstar Sakiusa Bulicokocoko and Nesbitt Hazelman, now CEO of the Fiji Employers Federation.

"In 1985 and 1986 I finally earned my way to perform at the Golden Dragon.

"It was an amazing experience to perform on the stage where the greats once stood and brought joy to so many."

An invitation to perform on Mana Island for a Millennium concert on December 31, 1999, resulted in Vananalagi staying on the island for three years.

"I returned to Levuka in 2003 and just went into hibernation for a while.

"I only come out of Baba to perform when people like Seru Serevi and Jale Mareau need me.

"Now that Jimmy is back on the road, I can feel the excitement building up again."

When he's not fixing pipes or windows and not performing, Vananalagi spends his time teaching interested youngsters the intricacies of the guitar.

"I'm getting on in age and I feel the need to share the skills and knowledge that I have acquired over the years."

During a visit to Subhaydas' home at Draiba, the renowned vocalist said Vananalagi was the perfect choice for his musical comeback.

"Asaeli has been a part of my music career for many years and we practically grew up together," he said.

"He is an amazing guitarist and one of the few guys that can adapt to any music from Fijian to Hindi."

* Next week: Jimmy Subhaydas shares his experience of being back on the road and performing after a lapse of close to 20 years. Also find out about his link to the chiefly island of Bau.

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