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The swinger who could have been a doctor

AMELIA VUNILEBA
Sunday, April 15, 2007

KEN Janson Ho is a name that needs no introduction to the Fiji music scene. Anyone who has been a musician in the past four decades will know him, seen him or heard of him.

He hit the stage in an era when Fiji had some of the best musicians and singers in the South Pacific.

Ken has been involved in the local music arena since the late 1960s when he started jamming with his group, the Dragon Swingers.

That time, the Golden Dragon nightclub at the end of Victoria Arcade in Suva where Ken and his band were the house band, was the place to go and dance or listen to rock, soul, pop, R&B, reggae and any kind of music, really.

Ken's family used to own a caf where the Tappoos building now stands in the capital.

The second eldest in a family of six brothers and sisters, Mr Janson didn't start his musical career until he was at university in Sydney, Australia.

He had gone to study to be a doctor but by that time he had participated in some talent quests and his love for music pushed aside his study books.

Coming from a Chinese background, it was expected that like his other siblings, he would study hard and get a good job because his parents didn't want them to live a life of struggle.

Music was considered a big no-no to his parents and he felt suppressed that he could not nurture the talent and love that he had for it.

But he wasn't deterred and while at university, he grabbed the bull by the horn and decided to drop medical studies and take up music.

His father, Harry Janson Ho, didn't agree, of course, so after a year in Hong Kong, he returned to Fiji and helped out once again in the family caf.

He knew there was no going back now, so he joined a band and has not stopped jamming since.

Mr Janson Senior finally gave in to his son's growing interest. He had to accept his son's success in the music scene and the money started to roll in.

The Ho family

Janson Senior came to Fiji when he was small and was one of the early Chinese who lived in Kadavu along with Sir James Ah Koy's father.

Both came from a poor part of China.

Mr Janson's father's name was Jansung but because many people didn't speak English in those days, it was changed to Janson and has remained so.

"My parents came before the vegetable farmers and my father worked as a dish washer at the Grand Pacific Hotel. That was his first job when he came from Kadavu.

"My father came to Suva and started a caf and although he never went beyond Class Three he ended up running a little caf and I used to help him.

"It used to be where Tappoos is now but it was a wooden building then and we used to open very late, until 2am."

Ken said he used to be involved in the nightlife because there were many bands then and he used to enjoy watching them.

But watching was all he could do because music was something which was not encouraged in an Asian family.

He understood why his parents wanted all of them to study hard because they were not well educated themselves.

It meant the sons and daughters had to aim for a good job such as a doctor or lawyer.

"Anyway, I loved music but I was very suppressed," he said.

"My music career didn't start here, rather it started when I was away studying because I was suppressed.

"All my energy was spent working for my father and I had to do well in my studies because the important thing with a lot of Asian families is that parents used to say we work hard so we want you to work hard as well'.

"My parents didn't have any musical inclination so I'm still trying to find out where my love for music came from."

Of the six siblings, only he and his older sister were musically inclined but the others were very conventional.

The remaining siblings carried on with their studies but he says his sister was a good dancer and could do the tamure like a Polynesian.

Ken attended St Columbus Primary School which is now Marist Brothers Primary School at Suva Street and went to Marist Brothers High School in Flagstaff before going overseas to be a doctor.

"I used to get up in the morning, do my chores in the caf, cut the bread and prepare things for my parents. When they get up I would go to school and return at 3.30pm to 4pm and work while they rest.

"By 7pm to 8pm, I would go back to my studies and my parents would work till 1am to 2am.

"It was hard and at weekends I would study for two to three hours before working because we opened until 3am.

"In those days, I'd have a break in the afternoon and work through to the morning."

There were no nightclubs those days, just dance halls.

The caf was called Chung King Caf and sold Chinese dishes, steak and egg, fried rice and others.

"I did all the cleaning-up, served customers and sold at the counter."

The cooks were locals and one didn't have to be Chinese to cook a Chinese dish.

Music career takes off

Ken was a bright student but never really put his head into studying. However, he managed to pass and went to study medicine.

At that time, he said six foreign students were allowed to study at the university as first choice was given to the local students in Australia.

"I got into a famous college in Sydney, the cradle where big rugby players were coming from. The school was for Catholics called St Joseph's College.

"I was lucky that I managed to get a seat and get into medicine but that's when I got into music," he said.

"I loved music so much, I jumped into a few talent quests and joined a band and was moonlighting between studies until I made up my mind to be a musician.

"Of course, I told my father I wanted to take break because I was with a band and was travelling to different places but my father said no and I took off to Hong Kong."

He came back and helped his father and it was then he met Tomasi Mawi and others.

They formed the Dragon Swingers and did what they loved play guitar and sing.

"Those were the heydays in the Dragon and it was like every night was New Year's Day.

"It was another era of band playing and a lot of people remember the Dragon Swingers."

The female member of the band was Melaia Dimuri who was a fantastic singer.

"That was another era and I played with many well-known people. Those were the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Ken said in the 1970s and 1980s, there a lot of bands which had people such as Manoa Rasigatale.

"When I was a small boy, I used to admire Manu Korovulavula (now the interim Transport Minister) and I remember standing outside and listening to him singing Island in the Sun with his band The Southern Brothers.

He had the opportunity to play with some American musicians who were guests at the American Embassy at that time and they were people he felt were not really acknowledged as great musicians but great nonetheless.

Ken had completely forgotten about medicine by this time but remembers funny incidents when former mates from medical school in Sydney came over for the holidays and asked about him.

"The funny thing is that a lot of my class mates from university thought I had passed and while coming to Fiji for the holidays, one of them stayed at the GPH and asked the workers if they knew one Doctor Ken Janson but the guys at the hotel said they didn't know any Dr Janson but they knew Ken Janson the musician!

"I think I would have made a good doctor but it wasn't in me because traditionally, Asian parents, having come from a poor background, want their kids to be educated and have a better chance in life.

"But I don't think I want that for my kids, I'll just let them be what they want to be," he said.

Ken considers himself very fortunate to have played with legends such as guitarists Tom Mawi and Wise (Waisea) Vatuwaqa, the late drummer Paul Stevens and the late pianist extraordinaire, Tui Ravai, to name a few.

"That was one time. Now, all those local guys I played with, it would be very hard to fill their shoes.

"The other thing was that I was able to rub shoulders with some of music greats who passed through the club such as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Renee Geyer, an Australian lady."

That, he said was quite an experience.

Cruise liners called in abundance at Suva wharf those days with well known entertainers onboard who would go and watch their Ken and his band at the Golden Dragon.

"They used to stand in awe," he laughed.

Ken Janson and the hearts

Ken said the dragon was a good Chinese symbol and it was a name his father was also known by.

"One night we were jamming when three or four soldiers came in and then the Governor came in.

"He said he was at the GPH and heard the music and wanted to come and listen!"

After some members of the Dragon Swingers went their own way, Ken formed another band and called it The Hearts because they first played on Valentine's Day.

"When the coup happened in 1987, I was stationed in the West mostly because the Sheraton had opened and that's where the money was.

"I ended up playing with Sandhya Nand when she joined the band and she was an amazing singer.

"We went and represented Fiji at Darling Harbour in Australia for a tourism exhibition and played in fundraising gigs as well.

Ken likes to keep his age a secret but says he's been playing since the 1960s.

Music has taken him to Tahiti, Vanuatu, Australia and Hong Kong.

Not one to fuss over his choice of music, Mr Janson says he appreciates all kinds of music and has never changed through the years.

The Golden Dragon nightclub has been open since the 1960s but the Dragon Music Shop opened in the 1970s.

There are two things he loves about music and that's playing in a band and the technology that comes with it.

"The bottom line is that it's nice to see people with their instruments playing. It makes people happy and excited.

"I sing and play a bit of everything but am a master of none," he laughed.

He feels that the disco era has dampened the music scene in Fiji but it would be nice to see more bands playing live music.

He has no other hobby except music and says he loves music in the morning and evening because he gets a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from it.

Though age is catching up, he says he will play music as long as possible because it makes him happy.

"Now and then at a few corporate dos and functions, I sing and play.

"I don't do gigs because I have to but choose good gigs only."

He now operates his music shop on a full-time basis but works at his own pace.

Apart from all that, he enjoys hanging out with his family and kicking back together.

He does some physical exercise to keep fit.

Ken says there is a lot of local talent but the musicians don't have the commitment to follow through with it.

"If you have enough drive, you will stay on, given that is your calling.

"I think there is not too many jobs (for musicians) unlike overseas where the market is bigger but you have to be committed.

"The main thing is you have to get that drive to keep you on that steady path and if you persist, doors will open."

He said the coups affected the music industry but there was a way to overcome what happened and make it good.

"I don't want to be a philosopher but there's always a way to ride that wave and not be frustrated.

"Just look for the positives," said Ken.


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