Remembering a Fijian Performer

Journalist Felix Chaudhary of the Fiji Times wrote an article about how Fiji had lost one of her greatest singers and entertainers of all time with the passing of legendary vocalist Jese Mucunabitu a couple of weeks ago. 

He was 70 and would have celebrated his 71st birthday next month. In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Mucunabitu’s unique golden voice brought to life classic iTaukei songs and compositions penned by Ted Beddoes — like Whispering Palms, Fascinating Fiji, Stars Over Fiji and Tropical Dawn.

His songs, recorded in the ’80s, continue to be played today and will no doubt transport Fijians living all around the world back home for many more years to come.

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Mucunabitu lived life like he sang his songs. He loved Fiji and everything about her. His love for this country was clearly articulated in the songs he sang and the way he sang them. His wife of more than 20 years, Siteri, said Mucunabitu emerged on to the music scene in the early ’80s after winning a Jaycees talent quest. “He sang a Tom Jones number called Without Love and just brought the house down because it was quite a difficult song to sing but Jese did it with ease,” she shared.

Ms Mucunabitu said everyone knew when he was home because he would have his favourite songs being played at top volume. “Jese loved Tom Jones but his other favourite artist was Englebert Humperdinck. But perhaps his all-time favourite was Tina Turner, every time he played her songs he would turn to me and sing ‘That’s my girl’. “He just loved her songs and her voice.”

Many would be aware of Mucunabitu as the resident artist at Tiko’s Floating Restaurant on the Suva foreshore, but not many would know he had gone through three passports and was onto his fourth due to the extensive travelling he did because of his music. “Jese has performed in so many countries to so many people and every time he was asked to go, he would not hesitate because he felt that by doing so, he was being an ambassador for Fiji through his songs. He loved making people happy and was such a people’s person in that sense. But he also loved his family and was a very private person too. Whenever he knocked off from his gig at Tiko’s, Jese would find his way to Tailevu and come home to his family. “He had travelled all over the world and performed in front of thousands of people but he loved being at home and surrounded by his family – they meant everything to him.”

Ms Mucunabitu said Jese hailed from the yavusa Ratu clan of Bau and always kept in touch with his extended family.

The legendary artist’s last performance was at a barrel night held at the Fiji Sports Council bure after the Sukuna Bowl last year. “It was a fundraiser held for him and he sang his heart out that night even though he was battling some health issues. And that was just like Jese – he never did anything half-heartedly, he always gave every performance his all. Jese also liked to encourage younger musicians and he did this by taking different instrumentalists with him to his gigs. They were in awe of him and many loved to share the stage with him, so when he took them along, it was his way of encouraging them.”

This writer met and also had the opportunity to share the stage with Mucunabitu on a few occasions. One particular gig came to mind. After a performance where the music was focused on a different genre, he leaned over and said, “Don’t forget to play island music, son. Anyone can play the overseas music but they can’t play our music like we can.”

Words of wisdom indeed from someone who had taken island music to the world and touched the lives of Fijians and visitors to our shores in immeasurable ways.

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