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Sounds of music loses its spice

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, August 14, 2014

GOOGLE the name Brian Culbertson and you will find some of the world's grooviest contemporary jazz music fresh out of Illinois in the US. Culbertson's slinky piano backed by the hard hitting drum and bass of some of America's finest was what greeted me when I encountered retired music producer and recording engineer Ramesh Hargovind at his home in Toorak recently.

The bespectacled man is not someone you would associate with the sophistication of the niceties of jazz or the music world.

But after a listen to the music he helped coax out of hundreds of local artists in a career that spanned more than three decades, his fascination with the musical finesse of jazz becomes more apparent.

Hargovind recalls that when his love affair with the music of guitarist George Benson and piano legend Dave Gruzin began many moons ago, his wife would often ask him "when will the singing start?" as he sat through listening to albums of the jazz greats.

I found him in this position at his Toorak home when we met.

The last time I saw Hargovind was in 1992, he was perched in the musical director's seat at Procera Studios in Moti St in Suva.

He had talked the band that I was a member of to put down some music on tape. When the songs were done, Hargovind even gave us our name, Traffic Jam. And just as he had done with countless other musicians and musical groups, Hargovind developed our sound.

"Every artist has that special something," he shared.

"Some call it the x-factor but I believe that the individual musical gifts that people have are what makes each artist different and special.

"The trick, for any producer, is to get all these different gifts and work them into a unique sound.

"Once you get the ingredients right, the mix will blow your mind."

These days Hargovind has moved away from the music scene and is involved in producing a different kind of mix. He grinds up different herbs and spices and creates some of the most exotic curry powders and masala this side of Mumbai.

"I just got disillusioned with piracy and the invasion of computer music, so my love for cooking and the ingredients that went into food became my new baby and I have turned my fascination with spices into a business.

"Music today is just not the same anymore and that's the reason I just walked away from it all.

"Instead of having a group of musicians in a room together creating music, now we have one person hunched over a keyboard and mouse and people call that music.

"Music has lost its interaction amongst creative minds and different personalities and with it the magic that produced some of Fiji's greatest songs have also gone.

"In fact, after the death of people like Tui Ravai, Paul, Steven, Sakiusa Bulicokocoko and Waisea Vatuwaqa, we don't have people to step into their shoes because of the computer and keyboard-based music that has taken over our industry.

"It's a sad situation that we do not have the calibre of musicians like those great artists of yesteryear and I count myself privileged to have worked with the best in the business."

Hargovind has worked with all the greats. From the moment he first stepped into the local recording scene as a novice with Procera Music in 1981, he rubbed shoulders with musical giants who created a sound that was uniquely Fijian in texture and international in flavour.

"When I first started at Procera, the company used to distribute cassettes for a label called Bula which were recordings of local artists done by a guy called Trevor Yager.

"When he began demanding more money for music distribution, Procera owner Ashok Narsey decided to set up a studio himself."

Fiji Broadcasting Commission technicians Max Baran and Dev Singh were brought in as the first engineers to record at Procera.

"The first groups that came in were mostly Indian and Fijian artists.

"And I can still remember when we recorded a lady called Phool Kumari Singh. She was a housewife from Nasinu with an amazing voice and her earnings from the first quarter of her album release was $4000. Her music is still popular today even though she passed on a few years back.

"I think this was one of the attractions of recording for me. Capturing the essence of a person's talent and being able to provide an avenue for that music to be enjoyed for decades, even after the artist has gone.

"I was fascinated with the whole recording process and Max saw my interest and he began teaching me. When he was busy mixing projects, he let me record artists and this was how I learnt the art of recording in some of the most difficult of situations."

In 1988, Procera sent Hargovind for an eight-week stint in Australia which was financed by the then South Pacific Commission. He was swept through numerous recording studios and recording scenarios and soaked in as much as he could during the whirlwind educational tour.

From the recording of raucous hard rock bands to the smooth sounds of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Hargovind was given a the whole shebang.

"They took me through all types of situations and I was exposed to a lot of music that I had never heard before.

"What really freaked me out was the fact that they were basically using the same gear that we had in Fiji but they managed to obtain better sound because they had producers that helped get the best out of the artist and they had a totally separate person who did the mastering process.

"This was where we lacked knowledge and I tried to learn as much as I could in this area."

On his return home, Hargovind realised the local music industry had been short-changed for a long time.

The wealth of talent was not being captured on tape and this was an area that the Toorak native tried to change.

"Just before I went to Australia, I recorded a reggae band called Exodus. They were well-known in Suva but I thought they had a lot of potential because they sang a lot of original songs.

"I took a sample of their recording with me and played it to some of the engineers in Australia and they were very impressed with the songs and the sound of the band."

Exodus went viral across the Pacific with their debut album and Hargovind said while Procera managed to sell a substantial amount of cassettes, music pirates made the bulk of the profits.

"We would have sold a couple of thousand legitimate tapes but our partners across the Pacific put sales estimates upwards of 500,000 units.

"Exodus would have been millionaires if it wasn't for the pirates.

"That's the sad story of local music. Creative minds work hard to come up with amazing songs, producers work hard to get a great sound, record labels invest in these groups or artists only to be ripped off by pirates."

Hargovind said he had many fond memories during his tenure at Procera. Some of the biggest highlights include the time he coaxed jazz musicians Tui Ravai, Paul Steven, Vili Tuilaucala and Saimone Waqa to provide the music bed for Levuka-born vocal legend, Jimmy Subhaydas.

* NEXT WEEK: read about how The Freelancers added another feather to their illustrious musical caps by recording their versions of Hindi film classics. Hargovind also shares what it was like to record George Fiji Veikoso in a studio he worked at with jazz singer, composer and artist Margot Jenkins.

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