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Fiji Time: 2:22 AM on Tuesday 29 July

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The golden voice of the Old Capital

Felix Chaudhry
Thursday, April 24, 2014

THE boy that no one paid attention to became the voice that defined a generation.

That's probably the best way to describe Jimmy Subhaydas' rise to national fame from the relative obscurity of the country's Old Capital.

In Levuka in the '60s and '70s, the youngster was known more for pedaling his father's bicycle and running errands into town.

No one would have guessed that within the lean and long-haired boy was a voice so magical that it would strike a chord in the hearts of many.

"I sang a little bit while I was at Marist Convent but nothing fancy, just lines from the latest songs at that time like The Beatles," the now 59-year-old shared.

School did not capture his imagination and he left Saint John's College in Cawaci to pursue a fishing career with his father.

"My dad, John, used to sing a little bit but he was more renowned for playing ukulele, guitar, banjo and mandolin.

"In those days in Levuka, there were many musicians that played all these different instruments.

"He was a member of a band that went by many names that used to perform at a place called Vale Vatu, where the grog bottling company Taki Mai is today."

In between fishing expeditions and checking on fish traps, Subhaydas would sneak into his elder brother Brij's room and fiddle with his guitar.

"No one was allowed to touch it because he had saved up and bought it.

"I didn't know anything about chords or strumming so I would just place my fingers on the fret-board and try to come up with sounds that worked and eventually I taught myself how to play the guitar."

One of the first tunes he learnt to play was Ek Hans Ka Joda, the 1975 smash hit by Ajit Singh from the movie of the same name.

"We used to have a tape recorder at home, the old cassette tape kind.

"I tried to record myself singing the song but could not get the effect I was looking for.

"So I took the recorder and went to an empty house that was under construction in Draiba.

"When I recorded it in the bathroom, I got the sound I was looking for. I didn't know it at that time but this experience helped me when it came to recording my vocals and using reverb in professional studios later on in Suva."

Subhaydas heaped praise on a Rotuman guitarist called Pita Romanu for kick-starting his music career.

Romanu, a guitarist of note on Ovalau, often gathered with family and friends around a tanoa in the afternoons.

The impromptu jam sessions at Draiba housing was where the boy with the golden voice was discovered.

"I used to sit around trying to choro chord but no one knew I could sing.

"One evening, some of the guys asked me to sing a song. But the way the request was made, I knew they were making fun of me because they said 'sing Dua Tiko Noqu Toa'."

Subhaydas picked up the guitar and sang a sigi-drigi love song titled Noqu Dodomo.

From that moment, the jeers turned to awe and the boy on the bicycle became an overnight sensation in the Old Capital.

"Pita asked me to come and try out for the band he was playing in called Ajit's Feelers.

"They practised at VM Narseys store.

"I was excited at the thought of performing with a full band but also very nervous.

"I cycled over the next day at 5pm.

"There was a big crowd outside the store and as soon as the band started playing, I got so frightened because of the loud sound that I took off home in a hurry."

Romanu caught up with the then 20-year-old Subhaydas the next day and scolded him.

"I did my best to avoid Pita that afternoon but he caught me while I was picking up some stuff for my father and took me to VM Narseys shop."

Old man Narsey was puzzled when Romanu walked in with Subhaydas but after being reassured by the seasoned guitarist, he let the youngster sing.

"I still remember that day.

"There's a post inside the shop that I used to shield myself from the crowd that had gathered outside.

"In between songs, I could hear people asking 'who's singing' and I was so madua, I didn't want them to know it was me."

But word of Subhaydas' vocal ability spread like wildfire through Ovalau.

And as he gained confidence with every public performance with the band, he began to develop a singing style and sound that would later take him to superstar status.

In the mid-70s, the Lions Club held talent quests around the country. When the competition came to Levuka, Subhaydas' closest friend, Mahesh Vithal, put his name down for it.

"It was held at the only cinema in Levuka, the Liberty Theatre (now a Courts Fiji outlet) and the place was jam-packed.

"I was nervous because a Japanese guy that worked at PAFCO used to win this competition every year.

"He was a great singer but I knew that if I sang with all my heart, I could do it."

Subhaydas' prize for winning the talent show was a pivotal moment in his career.

It took him to the mainland and put him in touch with music greats.

"I got to go and perform with the live band at the Flagship Hotel in Pacific Harbour, which was big deal in those days.

"There I met Erone Paspatu, Robert Verma and Ben Rabaka, some of the greatest musicians I have had the honour of performing with."

When he returned to Levuka, schoolteacher and music composer Iliesa Baravilala approached Subhaydas to record an iTaukei album.

"I was a bit hesitant and shy around him because he was part of a very well-known band in Levuka known as Seniviaviakula."

Baravilala sought the expertise of Romanu, a one-legged harmony singer called Apete after consulting with Subhaydas and formed the group Kalokalo Cavu Mai Koromakawa.

"We used to practise at the Evergreen Grog Shop and what made it easy for me was the fact that Master (Baravilala) took all the English songs that I knew well and transformed them into beautiful Fijian songs.

"Songs like John Rowles hit Tanya also became a big hit for me through Master's brilliant Fijian lyrics."

Deciding to take advantage of his popularity, Subhaydas toured Viti Levu.

The reception he received on the mainland blew his mind.

"We began performing from the moment we got off the ferry and the crowds kept coming in hundreds and thousands.

"By the time we reached Ba, I had lost my voice but my band managed to keep things going.

"Nowadays, I don't see that reaction from people anymore.

"It seems like live music has gone out of fashion.

"Those days, we were very popular because there were not many bands around but it was also because we gave one hundred per cent at every show and we had a unique sound.

"I think there are a lot of great singers on the scene now but they need to develop their own sound and the magic of a good song is the melody.

"If you have a good melody and a nice beat, then there's nothing to stop your music from becoming popular."

Next week: Subhaydas shares how he met with music greats Tui Ravai, Paul Steven, Vili Tuilaucala and Saimone Waqa and recorded Hindi songs that are some of the most sought after local

productions that continue to be popular today.


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