Kanakas reconnect after 45 years

Imagine playing inside an iron cage for a horde of frenzied onlookers who are more than willing to pelt you with rotten tomatoes and more solid objects lying around if the music stopped abruptly.

Forty-five years ago, this was a scenario experienced by a dynamic young band from Veisari, outside of Lami who called themselves Kanakas.

“That was one hell of a time to be playing in,” reminisced James Dass with a laugh as he unwound with former band members who have reconnected recently, over four decades after parting ways.

Their enthusiasm for music could not be denied, despite the missing years as five old band mates and friends reunited after the Kanakas split in 1969.

James Dass, 69, his brother Robert, 68, Semi O’Brian, 67, Are Toaisi, 66, and Joji Vatubuli, 65, were the Kanakas which was established at a time when live music was all the rave in most parts of the country.

Three of the men have one thing in common — they lost their life partners in recent times and this was one of the major reasons why they have increasingly spent more time reconnecting and seeking consolation in friendship and music.

The band was formed in 1965 at Veisari, where the Dass brothers, O’Brian (bass), Toaisi (rhythm/vocals) and Vatubuli (vocals) resided and were well acquainted as young friends.

“We were all still in our early teens and school leavers but we just wanted to start a band,” recalls James Dass, who played lead guitar for the band.

They were initially motivated to start something after watching a Tuvaluan man by the name of Kilifi Tekavei, who was a session guitarist at Golden Dragon Nightclub in Suva, a breeding ground for the cream of Fiji’s music scene between the 1960s and ’80s.

“We used to visit his home and watch him play which got us interested. It was something new for us as youngsters and we just got bowled over by this guy,” said Dass.

The youngest of four brothers, James Dass had also received tutoring from his father, Cecil Dass Sr, an accomplished musician in Suva during the 1940s and ’50s with the Suva Swingers.

Eventually the five boys managed to get a few instruments together and used a truck battery to power their lone amplifier.

“It was a real struggle to get instruments in those days, you know the usual struggles youths go through in order to start a band from scratch,” recalls Dass.

Desmond Dass, a younger sibling plays at the Holiday Inn every Thursday with his band Blue Monk.

The youngsters played their first gig at a birthday party at Uduya Point in Lami which was basically sau kana or paid for with food.

James Dass remembers going to James’ Radio to bring back a large truck radio they eventually used, using a transformer to power all their instruments, including lead and rhythm guitars, bass and vocals.

“I remember loading the whole lot into an old Holden and we all got into the Holden too, all five of us, to go and play our first gig.”

The five would go on to score other jobs around the Lami and Suva area, mostly small gatherings like birthdays and fundraisers in diverse locations like St John Ambulance in Toorak, Old Suva Town Hall, Nasinu Nursing College and even the Nausori market.

“Eventually we gained enough experience and confidence to face the public because we were sort of from the outback and not exposed,” recalled Dass.

At the time, they were playing music from The Shadows, Peter Poser along with country and western and rock and roll classics.

This was an era where live bands playing, mostly rock and roll, were practically coming out of the woodwork around Fiji with ensembles like Havana Boys making an impression in the Capital.

The Kanakas would play in a wide range of venues and many rambunctious parties with a pervading element of danger.

O’Brian remembers playing for a function inside the Nausori Municipal Market where they had to be caged in for their own security.

In a town where three provinces converged a young mixed race band playing rock and roll was a novelty, only up until the music stopped then all hell would break loose.

“Boy, that time was something else. They locked us in a cage because the audience was just too rowdy,” remembers O’Brian. “Most of the time we would be hoping our truck battery wouldn’t die out because we would then have some serious explaining to do to the angry crowd.

“I remember the crowd just coming in aggressively and a number of time we almost got punched but it never disheartened us.”

The band would go on to play at venues as far as Vatukoula, keeping alive the dream of playing together enjoying the thrills and spills of the experience.

But all good things must come to an end and sadly the Kanakas went their separate ways after only a few years playing together.

The band members had reached the crossroads of their lives with some going onto to pursue more lucrative paying work, others joining other bands and getting married.

Semi O’Brian joined Suva outfit Maroc 5 which was then led by Manoa Rasigatale, jamming regularly in the Suva area.

In 1969 James Dass joined Quin Tiki’s, with his brother Cecil, Bryan Hazelman, Edward Krishna, and Saimoni Vuatalevu who doesn’t need much introduction in local music circles.

James’ younger brother Robert would go and settle at Korolevu, along the beautiful Coral Coast where he formed Paradise Point Brothers with Josevata Qava, Mosese Toa and Apakuki Tasere, playing old years at Paradise Point Resort next to where the old Korolevu Beach Hotel was situated.

Robert Dass, who played drums for Kanakas, lost his wife Asela, of Namosi, 18 months ago while his brother James has his beloved Manolma taken away from him just five weeks back, both, tragically to illnesses.

Joji Vatubuli is also grieving, parting painfully with his wife Merewai, back in 2001.

Their collective personal losses, has brought them even closer together.

“Our bond is still the same, even though we went our separate ways and went with different groups because essentially we are all very good friends,” said James Dass.

“We came out of a community youth group in Veisari and our home was the base.”

After heading in different directions fate had it that their paths would cross again, this time, of course, it was the tragic loss of their loved ones that would be the uniting factor.

Apart from finding solace in each other’s company through their individual losses, it would also, and importantly mean, another chance to reignite their grooves.

They have been coming together for impromptu jam session at the Dass family residence at Veisari, which is ironically the same pl;ace where they used to hone their skills as a budding young band in the mid ’60s.

“Because we are all from here and still have family here (Veisari) it has made coming together like this a lot easier,” shared Robert Dass.

“We have been getting together for some jam sessions and were trying to keep our music alive.”

The revived Kanakas do not have any plans to play as yet although the very fact that they meet regularly is a sure sign that something is brewing.

For now, James Dass, offers, any concrete plans to play formerly as the original unit is still under wraps.

“We don’t have anything confirmed yet but we are all just happy to be meeting up again and sharing experiences we went through in the years we’ve been apart. We’re just getting back to our roots and keeping things alive,” he said.

For now, just the opportunity to play and reignite old grooves after a lapse of over four decades is fulfilling enough for five old former band mates.

At this stage, anything more than this will certainly be a bonus.