Backtracks | ‘The man who writes the hits’ … Maestro behind the rise of Lagani

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Legendary composer and artist Iliesa Baravilala at his home in Natabua, Lautoka. Picture: REINAL CHAND

In the annals of iTaukei music history, there is only one composer who is referred to as “the man who writes the hits”.

In today’s digital world and with the recent success of groups such as VT1S, the songs penned by legendary composer Iliesa Baravilala have all but faded into the background.

Youngsters prefer the slick production of today’s music, but those who truly appreciate deep and meaningful lyrics set to melodies that are catchy and memorable, will never let the music of old simply disappear into the oblivion.

Master, as Baravilala is fondly referred to in the music biz, is regarded with much respect for not only composing more than 300 hit songs – he also identified talented individuals and took them from relative obscurity to stardom.

And one of his biggest stars was a youngster called Lagani Rabukawaqa.

Baravilala’s song Isa Bau Laga Mai catapulted Lagani to overnight fame and fortune.

Master is not as spry as he once was, poor health has rendered him bedridden to some extent but his eyes lit up as he recalled the events that led to him meeting Lagani.

Baravilala was the founder of a very popular ’70s iTaukei group called Kalokalo Cavu kei Koromakawa, and it was during one of their tours to Nadi in the late ’70s that he met the young lad.

He said the group was billeted at the home of Lagani’s parents in the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji quarters near Nadi International Airport.

Lagani, who was 13 at the time, was fascinated by the songs the group performed and sang along to a few of their songs.

The group eventually recorded with the then-Fiji Broadcasting Commission.

A year later, Master Baravilala heard that Lagani was enrolled at Queen Victoria School and wrote to him, asking if he was interested in singing a number he had composed back home in Levuka.

Lagani sent the letter to his father in Nadi and the OK was given.

So began their long-standing relationship in the field of music.

Early one Saturday morning in 1980, Baravilala left the Old Capital for QVS in search of the young schoolboy.

He walked for about two hours to QVS only to find Lagani, then a 14-year-old student, and again asked if he was interested in singing his songs.

As Master shared this, he pulled out of his pocket a photo of Lagani that he had taken off his first cassette recording.

“We watched a few rugby games together at the school ground and in the evening, he tried out the Isa Bau Laga Mai song.

“He hit the right notes and we were all just watching and blown away – because he sang the song so perfectly.

“That was it, the beginning of our journey together, the beginning of Lagani’s rise to stardom, his first single and his rise in the local music scene.”

Baravilala and Lagani worked well together for a number of years and made a few international tours when the song became a hit for Fijians locally and also for those living abroad.

They, however, went their separate ways when Lagani migrated abroad and Master Baravilala was posted to other schools.

“One thing about Lagani is that he listened, he is a quiet person and followed every instruction I gave him.

“His voice alone is a unique gift.

“He was also able to do well because he was a person who respected the people he worked with.”

Before crossover was a thing, Baravilala proved that race and ethnic background were only skin deep when he composed songs for Indo-Fijian schoolteacher Sebastian James which won him awards at the then Vakalutuivoce Music Awards.

And when The Fiji Times visited him, he managed a smile and proudly waved the award from his bed.

Baravilala said it was humbling that composing songs, something that began as a passion ignited by interesting folk tales and stories of heartache shared with him, slowly but surely took over his life.

He said his teaching career took him to communities in maritime and rural areas of Fiji and provided him so many opportunities to meet Fijians who had a story to tell.

The retired teacher said many had heaped praise and lauded him for his musical works, but he always reminded them that the one to be
acknowledged was the creator of all things because he was the source of everything, even gifting him with the unique talent to compose and tell stories through songs.

With age and sickness catching up, Master Baravilala hopes to meet Lagani again one more time and reminisce about the good old days.