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Fearless Uncle Joe

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, August 07, 2014

TO everybody in the music fraternity, he was known as Uncle Joe.

A fearless leader and a man who had the answer to everything.

And among his six siblings, he was simply Joseph Singh — a caring and attentive brother who always had a sympathetic ear and a gentle soul. A friend who would give the shirt off his back to anyone in need.

Joe lived life pretty much as he played his music — colourful and free.

He grew from an adventurous and free-spirited youth in Toorak in the '50s and worked his way to the top of the local music scene in Fiji as a member of the Hadds and Ulysses in the '70s and '80s.

The 60-year-old bass player was looking forward to returning to Fiji as he had made plans with his brother Robert, owner of the Bounty Restaurant and Bar in Martintar, Nadi, to take over entertainment at the popular nightspot.

Unfortunately, he unexpectedly passed away last week in Stuttgart, Germany, where he had moved over a decade and a half ago.

"He was such a great listener," said eldest sister Theresa Vakaravia.

"And that's what I'll miss the most about him. No problem was too big that it couldn't be sorted. He was the ultimate optimist in that way."

The 68-year-old said she recalled her brother being given an ultimatum as a teenager to choose either education or music.

"When he was about 14, he was asked whether he wanted to complete school or if he wanted us to buy him a guitar.

"The answer was obvious. He had no interest in schoolwork whatsoever and this frustrated Brother Placid from Marist Brothers High School because Joe was a very bright kid and Brother knew that he had so much potential."

The bass player's brother-in-law and fellow musician, Johnny Vinod Shankaran, said many of the musicians who emerged out of Toorak in the '60s and '70s owed their entry into the music world to Joe.

"He was one of the main instigators of the hippy scene and flower-power trend in Suva," Shankaran shared.

"At the bottom of the block of flats where Joe lived was a little room that stored all the switchboards.

"Realistically, the room could only accommodate five people at the most but Joe managed to coax about nine or 10 and it was here among the strumming guitars and Wilson Pickett songs that were sung that Joe's interest in music began."

The little room was named Hippies Mansion by Joe and musicians from the Matanisiga Hall would traipse in at odd hours to share their music knowledge and drink grog until the wee hours of the morning.

Shankaran said Joe also christened their neighbourhood 'Soul City' and began wearing his hair long and walked around in tie-dyed shirts, bell bottomed jeans and roman sandals.

"We were the first unofficial city within a city. A few years later, Bagasau became known as the City of Tranquility. But it was Joe who started this whole movement.

"At that time, Wilson Pickett's song 'Don't Fight It' was a big hit and if you knew how to play that song, you were somebody in the hood.

"And Joe knew that song inside out, so he was something of a folk hero in Toorak."

As his interest in music developed, much to the disappointment of his family members, Joe began looking for a place to express himself.

His first public performance with a proper band was at the La Tropicale in Nina St, Suva.

Here, he was among family.

His brothers-in-law Johnny, Bobby Shankaran and Anil Shankaran were the resident band there.

However, circumstances forced Joe to switch instruments.

"Because we already had a really good guitar player in my brother, Bobby, Joe joined us as the bass guitarist.

"And even though it wasn't his strength at the time, he was so determined that he learnt the techniques and styles and became very fluent on the instrument.

"That's just the kind of guy he was. He was a very confident musician and fearless.

"He would dive into any tune, even if he didn't know it well, and always managed to pull it off because he had a very good ear."

After spending some time at La Tropicale, Joe grew frustrated because the music did not challenge him. His adventurous spirit sent him on a quest that took the bassist to fellow MBHS schoolmate, Henry Foon, at Lucky Eddies in 1975.

He replaced Chanel Columbus on the bass guitar with emerging band Ulysses.

"As soon as he joined us, it was apparent that Joe took a lot of pride in his playing," said Foon.

"He always displayed a very high standard of professionalism in rehearsals and at gigs. He never had a bad night and always gave one hundred per cent week in, week out."

Foon said he also admired Joe's commitment to the band and to fostering a new standard of musicianship in the country.

"Whilst musos drifted in and out of Ulysses, Joe was always there. He stood by me and supported me and I am proud to say that the success of Ulysses has to be credited to Joe because I could not have done it without him."

Joe stayed with Ulysses when the band was at its heyday and moved with the group to The Mocambo Hotel in Nadi and Hunters Inn in Lautoka.

However, in 1976 he got together with bassist Jeff Taylor, Johnny on drums, Max Baran on keyboards and Clement Joseph as the lead vocalist and formed a group known as The Hadds.

According to Taylor, the band was specifically performed to compete in the Battle of Bands.

"We managed to pull it off and won the competition against more renowned groups around at the time," he said.

"For those of you who were avid music followers during that era, you will recall that we used to play at the Bula Talei Lounge above the Club Hotel, this later became the National Bank of Fiji and now is host to a Tattslotto outlet and convenience stores."

Joseph Singh's influence on the local music scene is the legacy he leaves behind.

His musical prowess and encouragement to emerging youngsters spawned new generations of talent.

He played an integral part on the local music scene as a member of Ulysses, a band that many grew up to and emulated.

On a more personal note, I remember coaxing my mother to drive out and park across from Lucky Eddies in the mid-80s.

With ice-cream cones in hand, we'd wind the windows down and soak in the vibrant sounds of Ulysses as they recreated hits from Sade, Earth, Wind and Fire, Billy Ocean and Third World.

When he departed our shores for Germany, Joe obtained a teaching certificate and taught English as a second language and music in Stuttgart.

He also performed regularly with a band called Abracadabra, a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sounds.

He is survived by his wife Sussane Hassall, daughter Jozy Yune and former partner Jacqueline Boulton and children Rupert, Lewis, Francesca and Graham and grandchildren Heather, Larissa and Henrietta.

His body will be brought to the Bounty to allow fellow musicians in the Western Division to pay their last respects at 9am tomorrow before being taken to Suva for a resurrection mass at the Laucala Bay Parish on Grantham Rd, prior to being laid to rest on Saturday.

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