Josua starts singing. His voice, like a sturdy old tree, rustles the island air. Coupes of sour, sunset-coloured margarita are poured and drained on repeat. Bure-style villas with thatched roof and Masi art are visible from the beachfront patio I’m slothing in—it’s just another night in Tokoriki.
Josua represents one-fourth of The Band Boys, the resort band that serenades guests at Tokoriki Island Resort, sprawled along Fiji’s Tokoriki Island. As the moon melts into the Pacific, an elderly couple from Tasmania dances up a storm to his edition of “La Bamba”… later, an approving murmur breaks out when band-fellow Vili strums the chords to “No Woman No Cry”.
I put in a request for Denver’s “Country Roads”. Funny, seeing I am eleven thousand-plus kilometres away from home, and in this moment, in all sobriety, cannot fathom leaving Fiji behind. One of the reasons is music.
To a passer-by, the Fijian archipelago, a smattering of 300 odd islands on the map-end of the Pacific, may appear to be a pocket of near-magical good cheer. Between big, bright “bulas!” and “vinakas” (‘hello’ and ‘thank you’), the general mood is that of an island scrubbed clean of its troubles. While this cannot be a rational estimate, statistics suggest that Fiji—frequently surveyed as one of the world’s ‘happiest countries’—is closer to the utopia than most others. The palpable island verve, that everything’s-gonna-be-all right cadence of being, is also reflected in its music, which seems to me to be as diverse as its populace. Side note: I’ve been here only a week.
Yet, a week’s proven to be time enough to have been greeted at the Nadi airport with the booming chorus of traditional Fijian welcome song of “Bula Maleya”, an XL hibiscus tucked behind my ear without warning. That was the start. Starting then, every place I’ve been—beer-and-burger joints packed with Americans by the touristy Port Denarau, intimate cultural programmes deep in Sigatoka, even two-villa boutique resorts in the remote, rainforested Taveuni—has sent my way this energetic number, refreshed each time with a variation of its guitar-mandolin-uke ensemble. What remained unaffected was the jounce, partly derived from the clapping of hands that keeps rhythm for the song said to have originated during olden war times. The string instruments, I have been told, were added to the indigenous mix on the arrival of Europeans, before which there were slit gongs and bamboo nose flutes to hold melodies together.
Hanging back after meals at local pubs and diners in Denarau, I quickly realised that the traditional ‘resort music’ only scratched the surface of Fiji’s playlist. If you so much as drive around the city centre, making stops at shops and cafes run by a vibrant community of Indo-Fijians, you are sure to put yourself in the way of some jiggy Bollywood hits. Snag an invite to one of the homes where ancestors came from India (many from the south of India), and a brush with Carnatic classical wouldn’t be out of question. Then there’s vude, a genre that melds Fijian folk songs with modern jazz and R&B. On a windy evening at the outdoor section of Denarau’s Hard Rock Café, I discovered that local vocalists do not shy away from throwing in a reggae twist to native numbers. And that even this island nation, a speck on the Pacific’s glassy blues, hasn’t escaped the talons of Western pop.
But ask for my gentlest musical memory on the island, and I’ll go back to the wee village of Duivosavosa in the island of Taveuni, where I was greeted by village patriarch Bill Seru with the disclaimer, “I have a lot of kids, my friend. But this one’s a musician, eh?” Bill was talking about one of his nine children, a girl my age (I suspected), who stood back from his big brood, guitar in hand. Only after I’d whiled away a few sunny hours among Bill’s grandkids, all about the height of my knees, and some with Moana-eyes (thinking of you, Una), only after I’d marched with an army of bustling village aunts who have coconut-leaf baskets parked on their hips at all times, did Duivosavosa sing to me. “Isa Lei”, Fiji’s song for all curtain calls, turned out to be the one exception to the island’s affinity for weightless tunes. Bill’s daughter—I could never catch her name—put a lump in my throat as she sang:
Isa, Isa, my heart was filled with pleasure,
From the moment I heard your tender greeting;
’mid the sunshine, we spent the hours together,
Now so swiftly those happy hours are fleeting.
The haunting farewell melody was beautiful in a way only some sad things can be, but true to Fiji’s heart, we rode out the blues by breaking out into a rowdy chorus of “Jamaican Farewell”.
That was four days ago. Today, on my last night in the island nation, the wistfulness is harder to shake off. Fiji is a long way from home. But suddenly, like an old, familiar tune risen out of memory, it is also—home. So I do what any good Fijian would. Join the boys for one last song (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Later, I walk up to the hotel souvenir shop.
On the cover of the CD I buy, Josua and Vili are flanked by bandmates Paulo and Mosese, four Fijian grins in a row. I grab three extra copies, and search my pockets for a pen.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.