Sunday, April 15, 2012

The (R)evolution Of Spin

This Article was featured in Living in Fiji Magazine's March – May 2007 Issue.

 It went on to win Best Feature Article in the Fiji Awards for Media Excellence (FAME), the only time a non-newspaper article has won the award.

(All photos, including cover, by Shiri Ram - Art & Soul, the genius behind Living in Fiji)

James Bhagwan ponders the unlikely roots and strange fruits of the club music scene as he talks with three generations of Fiji DJs:

Before you get to the bar, before you see the crowd, before you even walk in the door to any nightclub or bar in Fiji, chances are you’ll hear the music. Out on the street, it beckons you like a mythical siren, and once you enter, it transports you to another world; a world of beats, rhythms and melodies.

Your foot starts tapping, your head starts nodding and the groove grabs you, and suddenly you find yourself on the dance-floor: bopping, rocking hip-hopping, bump-and-grinding, or just repeating your aerobics  moves, or flailing about as your embarrassment glands shrink from the pounding bass.

Club music doesn’t just set the ambience; it can almost dictate to you what your night’s going to be like. Soulful Blues and Jazz mean chilling out, Vude and Reggae, for locals and tourists alike, symbolize the tropical party and then there’s the Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop, House, Dance, Trance, to make you prance about and ‘bring it on’. In the background, sometimes in a booth at the edge of the dance-floor or behind the bar, stands (they say you don’t really feel the music if you’re sitting) the soul of the party, the DJ.

Dee-jaying, or to use the technical term, Disc Jockeying, is a fickle business: one minute you can pack the dance-floor with writhing sweaty bodies; the next, you can be playing to yourself and that one really drunk guy who dances the same way to every song you play – it just depends on what music your audience likes to dance to.

One man who’s heard and played just about it all is Sevanaia “DJ” Tora, the original Fijian Disc Jockey. DJ Tora, as he is known in the club scene, has been spinning discs since the mid-1970s and has worked as a music director and station manager for a number of local radio stations. His epic story is also the story of club music.  Ironically, it’s around a small (but deep) tanoa of kava, with smooth Jazz playing in the background, that I coax DJ Tora into disclosing how he became the patriarch of Fiji DJs. 

“It was the end of 1974; I was 18 and had just managed to finish Form 4. Knowing that that was the end of my schooling, I was eager to start to earn a living. One day, I saw an ad in the local paper for a Disc-Jockey for the Harbour View (now Ocean View) Hotel on Suva’s Waimanu Road. I sent in my application letter straight away, and a couple of days later the boss called and asked me if I knew anything about disc-jockeying, and I said yes. It wasn’t a complete lie, though the term was new for me as Fiji didn’t have any Disc Jockeys or discotheques yet. But I put two and two together and figured out that discs had something to do with records, and that if a jockey was a horse-rider then it probably had something to do with playing records. So I told the boss that’s what I thought, and I must have impressed him with my ‘knowledge’ because he offered me the job immediately.”

DJ Tora spent the whole of 1975 at the Harbour View, gaining his confidence as a ‘player of funky choons.’

“They used to have a pool in front of the bar, so you could drink, look at the pool and the harbour. We used to get a lot of people coming up because the whole DJ thing was new. Until then, after the band played or if there was no band, they would just play recorded tapes. Everyone who was anyone came up; we had business people, bankers, the works.”

Sevania "DJ" Tora: The Original Fijian Disk Jockey

The ‘whole DJ thing’ must have been overwhelming, because in 1976 he left to work for the Public Works Department, spending a year as a manual labourer in the small town of Navua, 30 minutes west of Suva. However, he must have been bitten by the bug that bites, when you’ve found your calling, because he was back on the turntables at Harbour View by 1977.

And that’s where he was discovered.

“Ezra Williams, the then Number 1 drag act in the South Pacific, used to frequent Harbour View
and heard me DJ and liked my taste in music, and recommended me to Liam Hindle, who had opened Lucky Eddies. I eventually got a message to see Liam, so the following Monday I went to see him, and he told me to come back that night and have a jam and see where it went. The DJ at that time was ‘Uncle Joe’ (musician Joseph Singh, now living in Germany), who played with the band Ulysses on Wednesday nights and was the DJ on Monday nights. The other DJ was a guy named Manoa who worked Tuesdays to Saturdays. When I arrived at Lucky Eddies that night,
Joe was in the DJ booth and the band boys were also there. I introduced myself, and when Joe asked me if I wanted to spin some discs, I grabbed the chance and jumped into the booth and immediately started playing Earth Wind and Fire, Average White Band, Parliament, and all this other Funk music. I think the band was actually shocked at my ‘heavy’ taste in music, the ‘real funk’, they called it, and from there, it was on.”

Tora started playing Friday and Saturday nights at Lucky Eddies, deejaying before and after Ulysses,
as well as during their breaks. It wasn’t long before this energetic 21-year old started playing with the band. “I would DJ, and when the band started playing, I would jump on the stage and start singing.  I remember Liam (Hindle) and his wife would stand and clap, cheering ‘Star! Star!’ whenever I’d do this.”

This was quite remarkable for a young man who spent his weekdays on a farm with no records or
cassettes (well before the era of CD and MP3), but just an AM transistor radio.

“We used to move around a lot because my father worked in the weather department. At that time we had a farm in Namara, Tailevu, because that is where he was based. So from Monday to Thursday I would work on the farm, and on Friday morning we would load the crops for my
mother to sell. Then I would come to Suva and go to our family house in Raiwaqa, and get dressed and go to DJ at Lucky Eddies, and then go back to the farm on Sunday. Out in the farm I used to listen to the American Top 40, and being close to the ocean, we could catch shortwave broadcasts, and I used to listen to the American Samoan station WVUV. That’s where I could listen to the latest Soul, Funk and R&B music.”

According to Tora, the late-70’s and early eighties saw the inevitable, paradigm shift take place, as Disco gradually usurped the live music scene. “Ulysses and the Dragon Swingers were still very popular, as were other club based bands, as well as hotel bands; but slowly the audience shifted their preference to the DJ, who was still the ‘latest thing’ and able to give something that bands couldn’t, no matter how good or popular they were, and that was the non-stop dance party.

“Bands would stop after each song and even go on break, but the DJ just kept playing. Live
music was special music – people paid to watch and listen and then did just that, listen and watch. With the DJ, we mixed the music up and played and revved up the crowd, and gave them action that they could get into. The club used to be jam-packed, because it was a new thing to have a disco and someone talking live, over or between the music.”

And the developments in pop music were also a big part of it.

“Donna Summer was the queen of disco, although there was some controversy over her song ‘I feel love’.  Then there was Curtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang with their early style of Rap”.

It’s not a long stretch to state that it was the club DJ who introduced new styles such as Rap, Hip Hop, Urban R&B and Ragga to Fiji audiences, due to the conservativeness of local radio.
The DJ-explosion shook the night-scene, and soon most of the clubs boasted DJs, with the live
music relegated to once or twice a week, or removed from the musical bill of fare altogether.

Perhaps it was cheaper; perhaps it was the best way to keep the crowds coming, as more nightspots opened up (and closed as the fickle crowds moved away to their regular dancing spots or to the next hot scene).

DJ Tora remained with Lucky Eddies until 1992, when he went to work full-time (and daytime) in radio; still making the odd appearance in the mid and late 1990’s at Urban Jungle, (the new-look Rockefellers), housed in the same building that contained ‘Eddies’ and O’Reilly’s Bar, and at Lucky Eddies, which finally closed its doors after a final New Year’s Eve in 2001, as well as holding a regular spot at Friends nightclub in the early years of this century. He retains his links with live music, playing as a percussionist for the Freelancers and more recently, Jeriko. He also remained true to his calling as a DJ, and can be found upstairs at Traps Bar in Suva on Friday nights.

It was about the time that DJ Tora was in transition from club to broadcast radio, that another
chapter was beginning in club music.

In an “invites only,” underground sanctuary to House music, known only as “The Chapel,” in central Suva, Josh Booth recalls his introduction to the new direction of club music:

“In the early 1990’s, Steve Winters arrived in Fiji from the UK, to work at the University of the South Pacific. I was working behind the bar at Traps, and he came and deejayed one night, and that was my
introduction to a DJ mixing with turntables.”

It is Winters that Booth credits with introducing House Music into Fiji, through his theme nights at Traps and then at Urban Jungle, as well as his weekly half-hour radio show, Club Mix, which was broadcast on Friday nights on popular, youth station, FM104.

“The appeal of House is that it fuses all genres of music – Funk, Soul, Techno; it can’t be pigeonholed. You can loop the beats and the music, and mix in vocals and other sounds; you can rap over it, you can even mix in live musicians with it. When House came in, it was a new sound that you couldn’t hear anywhere else… except for Steve Winters’ radio show, but that was only 30 minutes a week, and it stopped when he returned to New Zealand. It was popular with those who lived  overseas, or Fiji Islanders who had travelled overseas.”

Soon, a fledgling collective of House enthusiasts emerged in the capital city. Also part of this ‘groove
collective’ was Sachin Solanki, who turned his basement into “The Chapel.” Solanki, who has always
been into Dance music since dance music groups like Ace of Base became commercial successes,
became a House convert during his university days in Melbourne in the mid 1990’s.

“One of my friends gave me a mix tape and said ‘Try this out’. It was Paul Van Dyk and it blew my mind.”

He explored the genre, listening to whatever CDs and tapes he could get his hands on, checking out clubs where House or Trance music was being played. As his conversion became complete, he found himself wanting more.

“I wasn’t content to merely listen, I wanted to play it, to control it.”

By 1999, Solanki had bought his first set of DJ gear, a pair of CD turntables and brought them back
to Suva when he graduated. “I had no idea how to use them at the time, but I knew I couldn’t learn
if I didn’t have my own gear.” DJ Krypt agreed to train Solanki, and before long, they began using the
Chapel for underground House parties (not to be confused with the Fiji house-party: the place everyone congregates after the clubs and bars close).

Solanki and DJ Krypt were soon joined by Booth, and Navik Ambaram, owner of the Boombox. During one of their sessions they decided to take it to the next level. All they needed was somewhere to congregate, and with Booth as a keen acolyte of House, Traps seemed the logical choice, and so Kryptonite was born.

Using Solanki’s equipment and CDs, the newly opened ‘Back Bar’ of Traps, became a House
party for all to enjoy. Ambaram promoted the event from the Boombox. Booth organized the venue, and worked on publicity with flyers and promoting the event to those he served at the bar, and Krypt spun the discs.

“We want to acknowledge the generosity of Mr. Gary Apted and Traps Bar, for their nonstop
support of Sidestep and the DJ / turntable-ist culture as a whole. Without him, we wouldn’t have an
outlet or venue.”

Booth muses about the first phase of their mission to make House popular locally, “About 1998, 1999, George Tavola returned to Fiji from Belgium, and under the stage name DJ Kerisa, he and DJ Krypt hooked up with some of us to host regular House dance parties in Traps. I took a back seat, promoting the event but not deejaying  yet, because while I was into the music, I wasn’t confident behind the turntables. George Tavola, on the other hand, was the person who made me want to DJ.

He always referred to himself as a ‘‘Turntable-ist’, and he had the skills to back it up. With his background in Hip Hop, he could cut it up, scratch, rap; the works. In fact last year, when Ed Coogan, a DJ from Melbourne, did a few gigs at Traps, he went ‘2 on 2’ with George – each playing two tracks, and then handing over to the other to play his two – he concluded at the end of the set that George should go to Melbourne because he could ‘kick anybody’s arse’.”

Josh Booth (front) and Sachin Solanki (back): The next generation of Fijian DJs.
Krypt’s eventual migration meant that, not only did the main DJ leave, but that he also took the name Kryptonite with him. So the event morphed into Deliverance, with DJ’s Artish and Ivan (from Nadi), along with Solanki, who was growing in confidence, and the odd mix from Booth and guest turntable-ist Tavola. But it wasn’t enough for them. They wanted to do more; make it bigger. Booth explains:

“I go to Australia and see the clubs there and the music is happening; it’s inspiring and I think… I can do this back home…”

The result was Sidestep. Booth describes its genesis:

 “Sidestep was something new and not in the typical Fiji understanding of the term, which is ‘to run away’. Sidestep was an attempt to side-step the usual music played in clubs. So we brought in DJs from overseas – our friends in Sydney made the introductions and the connections were made.”

The guest DJ list is impressive: DJ Felix, Tim Boffa and Marko from Sydney, Dindi Gill, who DJs in Melbourne and the UK, Ed Coogan of Melbourne, Ben Wijay, also of the UK via Melbourne, and Morgan Martin-Skerm, an Australian volunteer from Adelaide.

The Sidestep menu included Eclectic Electronica & Dance (a stew of House, Techno, Drum & Bass, Breaks, Electro, Soul, Funk and Hip Hop, taken with a side order of Latin and Afro rhythms).

The international versions of Sidestep proved to be a success, but when Booth and company tried to
emulate the event with local DJs, the results were mixed.

“It was kind of hit and miss,” says Booth. “Maybe the crowd was trying to tell us about our
deejaying,” he laughs. Solanki joins in, “Sometimes Josh would check on the crowd downstairs (Sidestep usually took place upstairs in the Traps Lounge) and it would be packed and happening and we’d be playing to our selves. Just the two of us!”

As a result, they tried to give out promotional CDs, in an attempt to build a pop culture for House music. “Everybody likes free stuff, but we don’t really know if they listen to it, or just collect it because it’s free,” reflects Booth. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

The last few Sidestep events have worked. Lately, the collective has become creative by introducing
live music as part of the set, in the form of DJ Tora on percussion, with guest musicians such as Fabian on didgeridoo, Mike Mazier on saxophone and David Stevens on timbales, adding their flavour to whatever the DJ is sending out. The consequence: more feet on the floor, more hands in the air, and smiles on the faces of these hardworking ambassadors of House. It also acts as a vision of where live and recorded music could meet in the future.

The conversation “sidesteps” to the compatibility of Vude and other Fijian music with House music.
Booth believes it’s not as strange as it sounds.

 “You’ve got the 4/4 beat, so its just a matter of accentuation of the beats, bringing up the bass
and looping, filling in other sounds like ambience or chants.”

 Solanki is right into this concept, having produced a couple of remixes of Black Rose songs, including Raude. “Navik, with his connection through the Boombox, sent the remixes to the producer of the
Black Rose albums, Alain from Mangrove Studios. He was impressed and I’ve been told that they include a couple of the remixes in the next album. I’m not in it for the money, but it would be nice to get a credit on the album – that would be enough.”

While Sidestep continues as an ad-hoc event dependent on visiting DJs, Solanki and Ambaram,
frustrated with what they saw as a lack of support from the mainstream media, decided to try
something new.

“In 2005, Navik and I created something called Secret Location, featuring Josh, DJs Ivor, Fonky, George Tavola and my brother KRS. Secret Location had no media support so we tried to do it underground. We gave out flyers, sent SMS messages, emails, and set up a website. We didn’t
give out the location until a week before, and then we let people know, by SMS, the location, the time and who was deejaying.”

The first Secret Location event, held in the Voodoo Lounge in Suva’s Cumming Street, was a success, with 120 people showing up, out of 150 contacted. The second event was held at the Lighthouse, now reincarnated as the Point After.

“It was a sunset party, and we had about 80 people there, which was great for the size of the location.”
Following another successful outing at the Voodoo Lounge, the next Secret Location turned out to be the nightclub on board the Floating Restaurant on Suva’s waterfront. “We packed 120 people into there and it was the first time proper laser lights had been used, which I’d brought in from Australia. We used the smoke machine and the lasers and gave the crowd a real rave experience.” The ‘crowd’, aged between 20 to 40 years, a combination of expatriates, overseas volunteers and locals into the music.

Booth and Solanki both agree that the scene has become smaller, because House is not played on the commercial radio or television stations, and as a result, no-one gets to hear the music. Apart from the Winters’ Club Mix and the Tora/Bhagwan produced, 104-Minute Music Marathon, (using a lot of music given by Winters) from the mid-90’s, House music has really only received airplay when it has been a commercial success overseas.

“At the moment  you’ve got Bob Sinclair on the radio and so people like it. I find that people only like to dance to music that they’ve heard before,” says Booth. “We try our best not to play the mainstream stuff, but we still find ourselves having to throw in a couple of mainstream songs to satisfy everybody. So we play them and get the crowd going, and then slip our music back in, and before they realize it, they’re dancing to the music and they end up liking it.”

There’s a general feeling that the scene is stagnant, that people are just not adventurous for new music or theme nights. Booth recalls one such theme night that was a non-event:

 “It was a 70’s night and the staff and everyone was dressed in their best Disco outfits looking like John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. Our patrons however, never went for it, so we all looked silly.”

Tora whose “Retrospect” is a night of Soul, Funk and R&B hits, sees the work of the DJ the hardest
job in the club.

“We’ve got so many clubs and DJs have to keep the crowd in their club. So they have to just work with what the crowd is familiar with and not take too many risks by introducing new songs. The
worst thing for a DJ is an empty dance floor.”

Getting the music has also been difficult, although with the Internet now DJs are able to download music, which is good for access. But in terms of playing, nothing beats vinyl. Booth agrees, “I’m still an amateur DJ with much to learn, but the feeling of getting a mix in on vinyl and making the music flow… it’s too good.”

Along the way, there have also been some missed opportunities. One such non-event was in 1999, when The Ministry of Sound, the UK’s biggest House acts, contacted clubs and radio stations in Fiji to ascertain the viability of bringing The Ministry to celebrate the new millennium with the first rave of 2000. Booth was disappointed with the lack of musical vision by the ‘powers that be’.

“Unfortunately, there wasn’t any positive response from Fiji so they didn’t come. They were told that this type of music wasn’t popular with locals, when in fact, House music was all over the Top 40 internationally and locally, with a remix of Bob Marley’s Sun is Shining, Mucho Mambo Sway, and the dance version of ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ from the movie ‘Studio 54’. Nobody was looking at the big picture in terms of tourism, and how it would attract people from around our region, the US, and even Europe. We really missed the boat on that one.”

There are hopes for the future, according to Booth, “Ivan and Alex, two Italian DJ’s from the west, are organizing House parties and there was a successful New Year’s House party at Mango Bay Resort (near Namatakula), so we may yet see Fiji having the same appeal as Ibiza, Phuket and Goa, which is a tourist market that still hasn’t been tapped yet.”

And slowly but surely, tastes in music are changing, and while songs still aren’t popular until  they hit the chart, eclectic and world music has a growing audience in Fiji.

At the end of the night, the man who started it all believes that no matter where the club music
scene is headed, the golden rule for DJs will remain the same.

“Liam Hindle told me something 30 years ago that still holds true for today, no matter what
club you’re in or what genre you’re spinning. He said ‘Tora, deejaying is like fishing. Watch what bait you’re using, get them hooked and stay with it. You can make your favourites, their favourites.’”

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