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Reggae Music Down Under

FIJIANS have played a significant role in spreading the reggae gospel in the land Down Under.

One of the pioneers of the "one love" scene in the early '80s was Un Tabu — a band that featured the musical talents of Lami-born drummer James Purmodh and bassist Rupeni Davui and keyboard player Joel Knight, who spent his formative years in Toorak, Suva.

In the wake of Un Tabu, Knight got together with Howard Shulz, an Australian-born guitarist, who had spent his childhood in Suva, and formed a reggae band called Mataqali Music.

While Un Tabu ignited the reggae flame, it was Mataqali Music that won the hearts of the Australian populace with a reggae sound that incorporated elements of calypso, jazz and funk.

The band created a stir in the Australian music scene in the mid '80s and went on to win the coveted Star Search talent competition in 1985.

They appeared on numerous television shows, performed on the same stage as Peter Tosh, opened for UB40 and gave Fijians prestige on the Australian music and entertainment scene.

For Howard, being a member of Mataqali Music gave him the opportunity to explore his creative side in a genre far-removed from his first love, jazz.

Howard had cut his teeth at the Golden Dragon in the early '70s when he got to jam as a 16-year-old with the best in Fiji's music business — guitarists Tom Mawi and Waisea Vatuwaqa, bassist Marika Gata and drummer Paul Steven.

And it was with this fervor that he entered the music business in Australia when his family returned home in 1975.

Howard continued to feature Fijian musicians in bands he formed in Australia and it was while he was playing with Equinox in 1975 with bassist Billy Knight that he first met the Lauan native's younger brother, Joel.

Howard was an extended member of the Knight family having studied under the grandest of all the Knights, guitarist and vocalist, George.

"In 1981, Joel approached me with his concept of Mataqali Music," Howard recalled.

"At that time he and I were serious Herbie Hancock devotees, and we had been studying music theory.

"So everything fell into place for us to start rehearsing."

Joel was performing in a show band at the time with Maori drummer Cappy Cowan and bassist Norman Jacobs.

"I sat in, with the trio a couple of times, and realised, there was something very special going on," Howard mused.

What set Mataqali Music apart from other bands at the time was the fact that all four members of the band were songwriters.

"So we started off rehearsing and while Joel was the most prolific songwriter, Cappy, Norm and I were writing as well so we had a suitcase full of material to work with."

The quartet rehearses by day, forging a new and vibrant reggae sound and gigged at night.

"With Mataqali Music, rehearsals were always a lot of fun.

"One of the rehearsal places was at Joel's flat, overlooking the beach in Maroubra and when we had a lunch break surfing was the main course."

Mataqali Music's original line-up was Cappy Cowan — drums, Norman Jacobs — bass, Joel Knight — keyboards, Howard Schulz — guitar and Parea Cowan (Cappy's sister) ­— lead vocals.

However, prior to their first engagement in late 1981, the group had a temporary personnel change as Norman was forced to return to New Zealand urgently and was replaced by Rupeni Davui on bass guitar. Trinidadian calypso legend Mike Green also joined the group on steel drums.

When Norman returned to Australia, Parea Cowan gave up the lead singer role to Cappy.

Mataqali Music's manager was none other than Suva boy, Kenny Williams.

The guitarist, engineer and producer is also renowned for the work he did on the epic Rootstrata album, The Message Is In The Music.

"Kenny managed the band in the early years and we recorded our first album at EMI studio 501 in about 1981 but it was never released," Shulz said.

In 1982, the band decided to take production matters in their own hands and together with Kenny built their own studio in an old warehouse at Bondi Junction, Sydney and set about producing their second album which was also never released.

Mataqali Music spanned a career of about 10 years and played to huge audiences with bands like No Fixed Address, Midnight Oil and even scored a gig with the legendary Peter Tosh.

Howard said even though Mataqali Music was predominantly a reggae outfit, the musicianship of the band members was unparalleled.

"For my reflections on the musicianship of the individual players — Cappy had a voice like Dennis Brown and was a prodigy on drums, Norm was one of the finest bassists and a vocal harmony master and Joel's keyboard style fitted my guitar like a glove.

"But the main input from Joel was his writing skills. This is what set us apart from other bands."

Mataqali Music played to packed out venues such as Maroubra Bay Hotel, Paradise Room(Kings Cross), Untaboo Night Club and Maroubra Junction Hotel through the early eighties before the band split up in 1991.

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