Sebastian James with his most valuable possession, the Best New Artist award at his Kashmir, Lautoka, home. Picture: FELIX CHAUDHARY
SEBASTIAN James still vividly remembers the day he received a telephone call from vude king Seru Serevi.
The year was 1997 and he was a maths teacher at St Thomas High School in Lautoka.
That year James had released an iTaukei album titled Isa Na Luvequ.
Serevi had called to inform the then 38-year-old that he should make his way to Suva and attend the 1997 Vakalutuivoce Music Awards (now FPRA Music Awards) and perform two songs.
At first, James baulked at the request. But he was persuaded when Serevi informed him that he had to travel because he had won the Best New Artist award."He also said I had to prepare two songs to sing at the awards," the now 57-year-old shared.
"So I decided to do two songs from my album that were really popular at the time — Isa Na Luvequ and Raviravi Mai Ba."
James was nervous when he stepped out on the stage.
Here he was, a novice performer who had a very limited command of the iTaukei language, about to sing in front of the country's top composers and artistes.
"On the way to Suva, I was so excited but when I got to the Raffles Tradewinds Hotel in Lami, where the awards were being held, I was really nervous.
"When it came to go and perform, I told Seru, I was too nervous and I couldn't do it.
"He just hugged me and reassured me that I would do OK.
"And I really owe it to Seru for encouraging me because once I started singing, everything was OK.
"The reception I got from the composers, artistes and crowd was so amazing."
Isa Na Luvequ was recorded at South Pacific Recordings with the help of engineer Maleli Tora and producer George Low.
It featured eight songs composed by legendary iTaukei songwriter Iliesa Baravilala, the title track by James and Nai Loloma Senirosi, a song made famous by a sigidrigi group from Vanua Levu.
It struck a chord with iTaukei music appreciators in the late 1990s and into the new millennium and was very popular on radio.
When this newspaper caught up with James, he was relaxing at his Kashmir home in Lautoka.
It was hard to imagine the soft-spoken bespectacled man sitting across the room had once graced the music stage to swooning fans.
After about to two decades away from the music scene, James said he was ready for a comeback.
But this time, the schoolteacher who is a staunch Catholic, has expanded his musical palette, so to speak.
"I've composed quite a few Hindi Catholic hymns," he said.
"And this is something new for Fiji because all the Hindi hymns we sing in the Catholic church are imported from India.
"So this is the first-time that Fijians of Indian descent will be able to sing Hindi hymns composed by a local."
The hymns have been theologically cleared by the church and given the green light by Archbishop Peter Loy Chong.
An interesting fact is that James' interest in learning, singing and composing iTaukei songs began while he was a student teacher at Corpus Christi College in Nasese, Suva, in the late 1970s.
"There were only a handful of Indian students at the time. Most of the students were iTaukei and when they used to gather for social events around the tanoa, the old iTaukei songs really touched me even though I did not understand or speak Fijian that well."
Under the tutelage of close friend and ally, Paulo Nawalu (former Flying Fijian), James began to learn to sing a few iTaukei songs.
"My favourite was a song composed and originally performed by a group from Vanua Levu called Nai Loloma Senirosi."
The popular sigidrigi tune would later prove to play a pivotal part in James quest to be an iTaukei recording artiste and performer.
This was the song that convinced renowned local composer, Iliesa Baravilala, that the teacher from Raviravi, Ba, could sing even though he could not hold a conversation in the iTaukei language.
During social gatherings at Corpus Christi, many of the more popular songs that were harmonised into the wee hours of the morning, were Baravilala's compositions for then local music superstar, Jimmy Subhaydas.
"Everybody singing around the grog bowl would try to imitate Jimmy's singing style, but what really struck me were the lyrics.
"I can vividly recall the day I went to Master Iliesa — who was a teacher at Lautoka Teachers College (now Fiji National University Natabua Campus) — and asked him if he could write a few songs for me because I wanted to record an iTaukei album."
It was 1992, James had graduated from Corpus Christi and had scored a teaching role at St Thomas High School in Natabua.
It was there that he met Paulo Nawalu's younger brother, Leone.
Leone informed James that Baravilala was teaching at LTC, a stone's throw away from STHS.
The duo bought some kava and proceeded to search for the renowned composer.
When they found him in the music room at LTC, Baravilala was with Master Epeli Lagiloa (famous rugby coach). The duo presented a sevusevu and Leone made a formal request on James' behalf.
"Master Baravilala asked me to sing a song and the only song I could think of was Nai Loloma Senirosi. I started a bit nervously, but as I gained confidence, Master Epeli began to cheer me on and that's when I knew I was on the right track."
Baravilala took James under his wing and taught him the basic nuances of the iTaukei language.
When asked about the experience, the 70-year-old said James had a passion and a voice that could not be denied.
"When he came to me and asked me to compose songs for him, I thought to myself 'who is this fellow?' But when I asked him to sing, there was something in the way he performed that really touched my heart," Baravilala shared.
"I composed eight songs and recorded it on a cassette and gave it to him and he really studied those songs night and day.
"Whenever we met, I could hear the confidence in the way he sang and was familiar with my compositions.
"Even until today I am so humbled that he approached me and so proud of his amazing achievement.
"The only thing that saddens me is that, apart from Sebastian James and Jimmy Subhaydas, I have not seen or heard other local Indian singers put out iTaukei songs or albums.
"And I hope that there is a young Indian boy or man out there who has the passion to do as Sebastian and Jimmy have done."
The album was scheduled to be recorded in 1992 or 1993 but tragedy struck.
James was on his way to a live performance at the MM Cinema (opposite Ba Motorparts) in Lautoka when the vehicle he was travelling in was involved in a horrific accident with another car at Karavi on the outskirts of Ba.
James, along with five other passengers and the female driver of the other vehicle were rushed to the Lautoka Hospital.
He spent about two weeks recovering from a broken nose, head trauma and broken bones throughout his body.
"People who saw the vehicle thought that everyone had died because it was a head-on collision and there was blood everywhere," the schoolteacher reflected.
"But God had plans for me and after a long rehabilitation process, I finally recorded in 1996 and released in 1997."
James was recently called out of retirement by the International School Nadi. You can find him there on the weekdays, teaching mathematics. But in the afternoons and on weekends, he spends his time composing songs on a harmonium that was given to him by Catholic priest Father Iosefo Rokomatu.
Babasiga (pronounced bambasinga) is the dry land of Macuata in northern Fiji - our place in the sun in Fiji. Peceli is from Fiji from the village is Vatuadova and the beach is Nukutatava. Peceli Ratawa passed away on 27th December 2015 so this is Wendy's blog now. Wendy is an Australian and today live in Geelong, Australia.