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'Nothing was going to stop me'

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, May 08, 2014

THE old Chinese man shuffled towards me. It had been about 24 years since we had last met and I nervously wondered if he would recognise me.

"Who is it?" he asked

I smiled and said nothing.

The last time we met, Henry Fong was a member of renowned singer Jimmy Subhaydas' band that had camped and rehearsed at my Rewa St home in 1980 as they prepared for a tour of the Solomon Islands.

And here we were in 2014 at an old shop on the edge of Beach St in Levuka.

"My brother," he smiled as we embraced.

"It's been a long time."

As we chatted, my mind drifted back to 1980.

Subhaydas was at the peak of his popularity and the band had found its way to my home courtesy of backing vocalist and rhythm guitarist Jale 'Foxy' Bale.

Foxy was married to my mother's younger sister, Tarusila.

My mother's decision to open the doors of our home to the group was one she would soon regret.

On the evening of the band's first rehearsal inside our garage that faced Rewa St, hundreds of people trampled on her prized flower gardens as they pushed and shoved to get a glimpse of the slender dark-complexioned singer from Levuka.

"I remember your mother wasn't very happy about that," 69-year-old Fong chuckled. We got a shock too because there was a traffic jam every night we practised.

"People couldn't believe that Jimmy was singing right there in the middle of Suva."

Fong's dexterity on the drums and the way he wove his slick groove with the bass and guitars mesmerised me.

As we chatted later that evening, the former guitarist relayed his story.

A freak accident in his teens, forced him to give up one instrument for another but Fong did not let a joinery accident where he lost two fingers get in the way of his love of music.

He simply switched from playing guitar and trombone to the drums.

"Nothing was going to stop me.

"Music was the one thing that interested me from when I was a little boy growing up in Levuka and when I went to school at St John's College in Cawaci, the priests there — Father Waqa and Fr Rafter — really encouraged me."

Although he took up music seriously while attending St John's College, Fong's musical journey was also affected by the places his family moved to after a tragedy marred his early childhood.

Born in Vatukoula in 1945, Fong's family relocated to Wailoku after the death of his father when he was a mere six-year-old.

"There were a lot of string bands around in those days and a lot of that music influenced me early on in life."

In 1954, his mother decided to move the family to Levuka to be closer to a sister who lived there.

"Levuka was an exciting place because I found a lot of musicians here.

"I went to St James Anglican Primary School and it was very different because in the early '50s only children from Solomon families attended that school."

In 1962, Fong became a member of the St John's College string band as a guitarist and he also played trombone in the brass band.

"At that time, live music and bands were everywhere in Levuka.

"Every home had musical instruments, some even had mini-grand pianos that were brought over by European settlers.

"It was not unusual to see people gathered together under a tree or inside homes having a jam session with guitars, ukuleles, mandolins and even banjos."

After losing his fingers, Fong began practising on the drums.

"It didn't really affect me when I lost my fingers because the love I had for music was so great.

"The drums were a bit of a challenge in the beginning but over time I began to develop my skills and eventually ended up playing in a real dance band."

Fong was recruited by Keresoni Gu into a band from Baba called Thunder.

"Gu played lead guitar and there was also a guy called Niko on rhythm guitar and Sadro on bass.

"The name really suited the band because we played all the rock songs from the '60s from artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

"And boy we played those songs like thunder."

In 1968, Fong got together with his brother Joe on lead guitar, bass guitarist Arthur Bucknell, Bobby Williams on tambourine and Niko on rhythm and formed a band called Old Capital.

"We performed all over Levuka, from the Ovalau Club to the Levuka Club and even at the Levuka Market.

"At the market, the place we played was enclosed with wire mesh.

"This was done so that when fights broke out, the bouncers just shut the door and we were safe from flying bottles and chairs.

"Things were a bit rough in those days but they have really quietened down over the years."

The group's reputation as a dance and party band spread through Ovalau and they performed regularly until a fateful meeting with renowned composer, Iliesa Baravilala in 1980.

"Master Baravilala was famous for taking Jimmy Subhaydas from nothing to becoming a big star in the late '70s.

"So when he asked us to back Jimmy for a tour of the Solomon Islands, we were over the moon.

"We practised for a month in Levuka before we travelled to Suva and practised for another week there."

At this stage, a ukulele player and vocalist called Apete and guitarist and vocalist Jale 'Foxy' Bale had joined the group.

Subhaydas and Old Capital arrived in the Solomons just after music freak Sakiusa Bulicokocoko and the Ganuavou Group had performed and left.

"Our tour was arranged by a guy called Billy Singh and the reason we went there was to raise funds for the Solomon group that was going to the South Pacific Festival of Arts.

"We were supposed to perform a few gigs and stay there for two weeks but we ended up staying there for a month."

The band's first performance at a theatre in the capital, Honiara, drew a small crowd.

"It was half full and very disappointing, especially after the crowds we experienced in Levuka and Suva.

On the second night, it was standing room only.

"The place was jam-packed."

Midway through the performance, Subhaydas noticed that the audience had fallen silent and Jimmy asked the people if they were happy with the band's music and his songs.

"One guy, acting as an interpreter, said that the people were so touched by Jimmy's voice that they didn't want to applaud or make any noise to spoil the moment," he said.

Subhaydas and Old Capital toured the Solomons, Bougainville and Vanuatu as news of Subhaydas unique voice spread through the Pacific.

"In Bougainville we played to an all-male audience at a mine and it was really hard at first.

"But after a few songs they began dancing among themselves and everything went well."

The Old Capital band performed to rave reviews in the Pacific. But when the group returned to Levuka, Fong decided to hang up his drum sticks.

"I was tired and burnt out because we never had a break moving from country to country.

"And when we came back it was getting harder and harder to keep the boys together so I sold all my instruments to Mahesh Vithal and took a break from music."

After 25 years away from the scene, Fong re-established the band christened the new group Echoes of the Old Capital.

"My son Duri is a singer in the new line-up, Pita Bale plays rhythm guitar and sings, Niko is our bassist, Asaeli Vananalagi plays lead guitar and I'm back behind the drums," the drummer said.

Music runs deep within the Fong family, Henry's grandson Richard is a hip hop artist of note.

And although, the old man does not understand the lyrical twist and rhyme, he speaks of his with obvious pride.

"He's bloody good, sometimes when we play we let Richard do some rapping here and there and the young ones love it."

For Richard, the biggest hurdle is breaking his music out of Levuka and getting a voice on the national, regional and international platform.

"I am a member of Black Market with Michael Chinappa and Tyrone Nand," he shared.

"Got interested in hip hop after listening to Tupac as I was growing up and just started writing.

"I want to go global but its so hard because being in Levuka makes it difficult.

"My aim is the overseas market and that's why I don't use local slang and references in my music."

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