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Warning sounds of a future at risk

Felix Chaudhary
Thursday, September 04, 2014

THE sound of guitars strumming in harmony greeted me as I walked up the gentle slope beside the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Suva's Pratt St.

I was heading to the Bilolevu Club, home of weekly jam sessions held by musicians who had played a huge part in Fiji's colourful music past.

Having been an infrequent visitor to the club since the '90s, I was looking forward to finally watching one of the country's living guitar legends, Rupeni Serevi, in an up close and personal setting.

As luck would have it, I also managed to catch his older brother - Meli - one of Fiji's underrated vocal talents.

The biggest Catholic Church in the land was not only home to masses of the faithful, it was also the musical birthplace of local legends such as jazz great Tom Mawi, drummer extraordinaire Ben Rabaka and accomplished guitarists like the late Nicholas Banyon and George Williams.

Likewise, the Serevi brothers - guitarist Rupeni and his older brother Meli - used to perform in the crypt in the '50s and '60s before taking their music to the dance and club scene.

Strains of Anita Bryant's 1960 chartbuster Paper Roses greeted me as I entered the club doorway.

Joe Chang, guitarist and vocalist with '60s band, The Young Ones and later Fiji Five, was leading proceedings backed by Geoff Narruhn, Willie Wye and Meli 'Sixteen Candles' Serevi. Also on rhythm guitar was Tito Rabaka and former Deja  Vu member Richard Fiu.

The last time I had heard Meli sing was in 2012 at the Kill Piracy concert held at the Holiday Inn where he performed two songs he is renowned for, The Crests' 1958 hit Sixteen Candles and Don Gibson's 1957 blockbuster I Can't Stop Loving You.

He literally brought the house down with his powerful renditions of both tunes. And here he was in a more intimate setting, elbow-to-elbow with his peers.

Despite his vast experience on stage and his eagerness to sing at the drop of a hat, Meli's modesty made it difficult to squeeze any personal details about his early life and first forays into the entertainment business.

"Both the Serevi brothers are like that," shared long-time compatriot and fellow musician Wye.

"They don't like talking about themselves but I can tell you that they have been on the scene since the '50s.

"Meli used to hold impromptu performances in the Sacred Heart Cathedral crypt with people like the late Nicholas Banyon.

"In fact, all the guys that went on to make a name for themselves started out there. I'm talking about people like Tom Mawi and Ben Rabaka and many others.

"We were all members of the Loyola Club. This was a Catholic youth group formed by the late Father Peter Ryan.

"As the club grew, some of us decided to branch off and we formed the Bilolevu Club on February 22, 1966.

"We were a bunch of guys and we decided to keep things that way - no disrespect to the fairer sex - and our focus was on doing activities to raise money for charity.

"And it just so happened that quite a few members like the late George Williams, Lawrence Smith, Joe Chang, Gary A'Costa, Meli, Rupeni and myself were into music.

"So, we used this union to form a band called the Fiji Five and we performed at hundreds of events over the years to raise money for various charitable causes."

A few taki later, Joe managed to coax Meli to sing his signature tune. In the dimly lit club, the Moturiki man closed his eyes, sat back in his seat and sang the song effortlessly.

It was a truly magical experience and one that I will never forget because of the passion he oozed out in every word.

Meli's singing prowess was equaled by his brother - Rupeni's - dexterity on the guitar.

I had caught a glimpse of his authority on the six-stringed instrument when he performed at the inaugural Fiji Musicians Reconnect Tour last year at the Royal Suva Yacht Club.

While waiting for the bilo to go around, Rupeni ran through a number of jazz standards. He picked out the melody notes seamlessly from a dazzling array of chords.

During a casual chat I had with Mawi last year, the renowned jazz guitarist had mentioned Rupeni as someone of note in his eyes. A big statement coming from a man revered as a musical god in the country.

That night at the Bilolevu Club, Rupeni showed his musical depth and knowledge as he wove through tunes like Carol Channing's hit Hello Dolly which was made famous in 1964 by Louis Armstrong and pianist Errol Garner's 1954 jazz standard titled Misty. Rupeni began his career in the '50s in Suva playing in a number of musical acts before scoring a gig with Larry Mason, Kisa Petueli and Willie Wye in 1969 in Canada.

The group, previously known as the Fiji Five, was christened 'The Fijians' and they performed at various venues in Vancouver as part of an effort by the then Fiji Visitors Bureau to entice more tourists to the country.

"Rupeni was at the top of his form and after the rest of the band returned to Fiji, we decided to stay back for about six months and check the music scene out," shared Wye.

Rupeni was stunned by the diversity of music and level of musicianship in North America. "It was an amazing place for a young musician like myself, so I travelled to the United States after we returned from Canada and played the East Coast scene for a few years," he said.

The Lomaiviti man's expertise spoke volumes of his commitment to music and also exposed the lack of definitive guitarists and musicians being groomed in the country.

The lure of the nightclub scene, pop culture and computer-generated music has created a generation of musicians who are happy with the status quo. Apart from the adventurous spirit of artists like Knox, Sam Waqa, Ioane Burese and Samisoni Mawi, those keen to explore music and think outside the box are few.

With the possible move to Australia for our jazz icon, Mawi, on the horizon and artists like Rupeni being isolated to around-the-tanoa audiences, the future of good quality music does not look as bright as it should.

Fiji has a wealth of talent but the platform to take this talent, nurture and groom it to its fullest potential is simply not there. And something needs to be done about it.

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