Sandalwood Rhythm

Litia Daveta, later known as Esther King, was a regular at the Sunday Showcase. Picture: RAMON WILLIAMS

IN the 1970s, the country’s best musicians would take leave from their respective gigs every Sunday and gather at the Suva Civic Centre.

The impromptu jam session was the brainchild of Suva businessman and entrepreneur, Tony Philp.

The informal musical gathering was known as Sunday Showcase and the band that backed the star-studded singers who turned up to entertain the masses was known as Sandalwood Rhythm.

The backing band included the cream of Fiji’s music scene at the time — Tom Mawi on guitar, Joe Heritage on bass guitar, Ben Rabaka on drums, Tony Kapio on keyboard and Rupeni Davui.

World-rated guitarist Tom Mawi said it was a wonderful time for the Fijian music industry.

“I used to play at the Tradewinds Hotel (now Notovel Suva Lami Bay), Joe Heritage was playing at the Golden Dragon and Ben used to play with a few bands at that time,” the respected 75-year-old maestro shared.

“But when we all came together, we were known as Sandalwood Rhythm and we had an amazing time backing up singers like Litia Daveta and her sisters, and even George Knight.

“These were the days when groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes were on the charts and we played all their hits from back then.”

Daveta took on the stage name Esther King and had a sterling career with legendary US vocal group The Platters in the early to mid 1970s.

Even though Mawi had begun his journey into exploring the intricacies of jazz music, he showed his ability to play different styles by venturing into soul music and rhythm and blues. “In the early days of Sunday Showcase I also used to sing,” the veteran musician chuckled.

“I did a number of songs but one that I do remember was a song called Hard to Handle (released by US soul singer Otis Redding in 1964).

“I also sang a few other songs but I decided to leave singing and focused on the guitar after Litia and the other singers began coming on the scene.”

Mawi said there were a few artists who had managed to juggle playing an instrument and singing at the same time, but he knew it was not for him.

“I realised very early on in my career that if I focused on singing then I would lose my touch on the guitar and I loved the guitar too much to do that.

“And that’s one thing I have seen happen to a lot of musicians over the years. Because they wanted to do both, one talent had to give way to the other.

“When you look at an artist like George Benson (renowned US singer and guitarist), he is one in a million. He managed to make both talents work for him.”

When quizzed about the depth of local musicians on the scene today, Mawi said there were a number of youngsters who were displaying amazing skills.

“We really should have a lot more guitarists, bassists, pianists and drummers playing music at a very high level and the only reason I can find is that there are a lot of distractions.

“The ones who are playing well are doing so because they have put time into learning their instrument and developing their skills.

“And that is one thing that I want to share with all the young musicians out there — you have to spend time with your instrument and get to know it well.

“If you want to be good at something, go and speak to people who are playing good music and jam with them.

“You will only get better if you play with the best.”

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