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Maestro of the Pacific island sound

Tuesday 26 April 2016 | Published in Regional

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NEW ZEALAND – One of the Pacific’s greatest musicians, Bill Sevesi, passed away on April 23. He was aged 92.

Bill Sevesi – born Wilfred Jeffs – was an early aficionado of modern Pacific island music and is credited with popularising the sound of the Hawaiian guitar in New Zealand.

Born and raised in Tonga, Bill Sevesi was the son of Josephine Cook and New Zealander Wilfred Jeffs Snr.

At the age of nine, he emigrated with his family to New Zealand, where as a teenager learned to play the guitar.

“I started out on the ukulele, in a house on Symonds Street. I learned the ukulele there and then the steel guitar. There was a Samoan lady in the flat where I was staying and she played the ukulele. I learnt from her,” Sevesi told the New Zealand Herald in an interview last year.

He later formed the iconic band Bill Sevesi and the Islanders and began recording music in 1949. Bill served for the New Zealand Army during World War II in Italy.

Bill talked extensively about his musical career in the 1992 documentary Song of the South Seas – the life and music of Bill Sevesi.

In the memoir he described his passion for Pacific island music when he was growing up in Tonga.

He said: “As a child I would follow musicians all over the island, especially at Christmas time. They moved on the back of a truck and they would drive from village to village, house to house, entertaining the people. And like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to these people. I couldn’t keep away from them.”

During his career, Sevesi recorded and worked with a multitude of artists of a bygone era. They included Sione Aleki, The Samoan Surfriders, George Tumahai and Daphne Walker.

He had a makeshift recording studio in the garage of his home in Mt Roskill, Auckland.

Sevesi’s favourite was a song called Sea Breeze which the Islanders released in 1961.

“It was originally recorded by a great Hawaiian band and I said to the guys, ‘we have to do it better, we have to beat them!’ So we practised it night and day, and we turned round and recorded it, and then it pushed the Hawaiian version off the air, and they replaced it with ours. It was great!”

Through his many recordings he brought new talent to light in New Zealand, including Annie Crummer, and the Yandall Sisters.

Sevesi won numerous awards and honours, including the Queens Service Medal for public services in the 1995 Queen’s Birthday Honours, the Jerry Byrd Lifetime Achievement Award (1998) from the Steel Guitar Players Hall of Fame in Missouri, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Zealand Pacific Music Awards in 2006.

In 2009 he was presented with the Nostalgia Award from the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand.

Sevesi was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame as APRA’s 2015 inductee at the 2015 APRA Silver Scroll Awards in September 2015.

Head of the Pacific Music Awards, Petrina Togi-Sa’ena, said Sevesi was the “most amazing person and I was so very lucky to have known him.

“A true legend amongst us and one of the kindest, most positive, special people of the world.”

In his New Zealand Herald interview last year, Sevesi has one parting piece of advice for budding young musicians who are keen on the kind of success that he has had.

“You have to practise and practise and practise to get to the top. If you don’t practise, you’re never going to get there. You have to be a professional.”

- PNC sources