Random Play by Graham Reid

Under a Pacific sky

Christmas presents are for kids really, but I can’t deny that I get as much pleasure out of receiving as I do giving. Even at this time tainted with sadness and awe, much of which we initially missed by being wilfully out of contact with media, I had a good Christmas.

And I can’t feel guilty about my good fortune.

This year, alongside the first season of Taxi on DVD, I got a terrific three CD set by the great Bill Sevesi.

Thank you Megan.

Bill is a local legend whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago at his modest home in Mt Albert. There, in a small room off the garage, Bill has created his distinctive Hawaiian-Pacific music, all coloured by the sound of shimmering steel guitar.

Bill is about 80 now and despite a Queen’s Service Medal in 95 and a few other awards he still hasn’t been given the popular acclaim he surely deserves.

The music he has created warms your heart and these past few days as drizzle and high winds sank most people’s summer holidays Bill’s music speaks of impossibly romantic nights beneath palm trees by a silent, moon-kissed shoreline.

The set I have been playing, Beyond the Reef, has a gorgeously amateur feel to it: Daphne Walker’s vocals wobble through the title track, there are tracks with titles like Blue Moana and The Sea & I, and throughout there is the easy sound of the Pacific Ocean lapping on the sand just beyond earshot.

There are unfortunately no liner notes to the collection but my guess is most of these songs were recorded in that tiny room in Bill’s garage which has dozens of crudely marked cassette tapes stacked around the walls and a vocal booth so small that a person of average height can barely get through the door, let alone stand up inside it.

Yet out of such modest surroundings Bill Sevesi has created an imagined Pacific which sings on every song. Listen to the leisurely Oneroa with its lazy melody and sleepy rhythm and try to not think of a tropical island. You simply cannot help but do so.

Bill was born William Jeffs in Nuku’alofa but long ago adopted the Tongan version of his name Sevesi. As a boy growing up in Auckland he fell in love with the sound of Hawaiian music by the likes of Sol Hoopi which was immensely popular in the 30s.

His first job was in a radio factory where he and his mates built an amplifier and steel guitar for him. He learned music by listening to records and one night, after watching the band for weeks, he was invited up to play with Epi Shalfoon’s outfit at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden.

He played Isa Lei, the only song he really knew, but was an instant success. He went off and learned a swag of similar songs but just as his own band was starting to make headway he went off to Italy in 1944. The war sickened him and on his return home he threw away the ribbon he was given and started his music career again as Bill Sevesi and His Islanders which became an institution at the Orange Ballroom in those pre-Beatle days.

He made his first recording in 1949 with the country singer Tex Morton and his band played on other people’s records under numerous pseudonyms.

But as the decades rolled on Hawaiian music became less fashionable, liquor laws changed and so did the club scene, and in mid 73 Bill gave up on the Orange Ballroom.

In a sense however that was the start of his second career. He has recorded prolifically ever since, encouraged innumerable young musicians, and he has been acknowledged by the steel guitar hall of fame in St Louis.

Bill’s music is timeless and pure magic.

Whenever I mentioned Bill name in print while I was at the Herald he never failed to ring and say thank you. Those messages, usually just left on the answer phone, were genuine and never an unwelcome. He wanted nothing more than that, just to say thanks. That is rare, and Bill is a rare musician and an even more rare individual.

I have no idea whether he has ever made money out of his lifetime of creativity but he has made something better: music.

These past few days when some of us are cursing our misfortune with the weather but are also mindful of the enormity of the tragedy which has devastated so many lives I have been listening to Bill’s beautiful life-affirming music.

What was once a pleasure has become a necessity because while we have been reminded again that even in the midst of life there is death, there is also the opposite.

And Bill Sevesi’s music is about life and love and promise in all its hazy, romantic beauty. It’s been good to hear at the end of an occasionally difficult and sometimes very sad year.

Thanks Bill, and happy new year to you and yours.