A matriarch of music, the Queen of Vude, supporter of many charities, and a diva who comes home and cooks for her family every night. Laisa Vulakoro has an in-depth talanoa with Islands Business’ Rowena Singh about her four decades in the industry.
“I’ve been in this industry for over 40 years and I’m still going,” says Vulakoro. “I hope to be bringing out some more hits very soon. I’m working on another album and that’ll be my 17th or 18th album, I can’t even remember that!
“I may be considered a matriarch of music because of these facts and the longevity!”
Vulakoro began her professional music journey in 1981, at the Hyatt Regency hotel (now known as the Warwick) on Fiji’s Coral Coast.
“I was hired by Bill Beddoes for his Nostradamus band to be the backup singer for Melaia Dimuri, who was the lead singer then,” says Vulakoro. “I was very fortunate to start my career in music with a very professional band. And even till today I have not seen a band to compare with Nostradamus. It was a 10-piece band. I’m always proud of my association with them – my first experience in music and the band and the professional music stage.”
“Everything I learnt was through my hard work and with the bands sharing with me,” says Vulakoro. “It was not an easy walk in the park. It was tough for me being a young girl in a male-dominated industry to make a name for myself.”
Becoming the Queen of Vude
Vulakoro left the Warwick when she became pregnant with her first child, Justin.
“That was one of the biggest challenges, being a female artist in the industry, giving birth and raising a child. Another challenge is that it affects your relationships with your partners.
“I suppose being in public is not very easy for a man to accept. Especially when you are a public property, when you are on stage, there for the consumption of everyone. It’s always hard for men to take that and that’s what I’ve gone through in all my relationships. Those are the two biggest challenges – having babies and having relationships.”
Singing for hotel guests required a big range of Vulakoro, jazz and blues, country and a little bit of rock. But she was also looking at what her local heroes—Seru Serevi, Saimone Vuatalevu, Teresa Purcell and Mele Diumuri—were doing.
“I realised that for me to make a name in this country it’s not jazz, I’ve got to go in the Vude trend. That’s what the population likes – Fijian music. That’s the reason why I went into Fijian music, and I started writing my own songs.”
Vude is a genre incorporating chanting and meke beats, mixed with country, rock and disco.
“When I go overseas [and] people ask me what is vude…If I translate to you, literally it is floating on water, and I do the action. And when you hear my music, your body relaxes like floating on water. That’s how you describe vude.”
Vulakoro identifies as an Indigenous artist: “I feel it’s my responsibility as an influencer in music to use my music to try and preserve my culture … that is one of my biggest objectives.
“I write songs about village settings, about culture, about fishing, anything to do with the setting of the Fijian traditional way of life -whatever is left there for us to hang on to and to preserve and maintain. And if I can do this through my music then I’m the happiest person.”
Vulakoro was diagnosed with cancer when her youngest son was three months old.
“When I was first told I had this growth on my head, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought this kind of thing happens to other people – it’s happening to me – no way! That was my first reaction. But reality check – it was happening, and I accepted it.”
Vulakoro was treated in Australia. “I looked at the doctor and said death is not an option.
“God gave me this child at 47-and-a-half, and he has to give me my strength, he can’t take my life now. You do your job; I’m going to get better to look after my son. My heart has so much faith. I know in my heart; this thing is not going to take me.”
She was told that she would lose much of her short-term memories, and her confidence.
“Well, I lost all that. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t remember names. I would be thinking of something and something else would come out of my mouth. I couldn’t even walk. I had to learn to walk again because my balance was off. But I told myself, that’s it. I came back here and started my exercise, my walks, my swimming – we live in an area where we have a river just behind. And I just made sure that I eat right, and I think I’ve become fitter than what I was before.”
Vulakoro says that she jokes to people – “a big part of my brain has been taken off – they put plastic covering and it’s grown back with my tissues, and I’ve become more clever!
“But back then I couldn’t even remember my lyrics.”
She decided to go back to school as part of her recovery.
“I went to ask master Ete and Damiano Logaivau and Calvin Rore from USP. I went and joined the Pasifika voices and I asked them look you don’t mind if I sit in your class. Master Ete was going – wow! Laisa Vulakoro sitting in my class!
“Damiano and Calvin helped me and Allan Alo (famed Samoan dancer), isa Allan Alo RIP as well. Allan did a musical called A Love for Life. It was on the big stage at the Civic Centre for about a week. It was about a person who had contracted AIDS. They asked me to be the bubu in there.
“I was also asked to go and teach at FNU (Fiji National University) with Seru Serevi.
“I started getting myself involved with young people.”
Vulakoro also got involved in sports administration. She was asked to become the Fiji Women’s Volleyball team manager and took the team to the Oceania Games in New Caledonia in 2010 where they won gold.
“All these things really helped me in my recovery, says Vulakoro. “I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that was thrown in my path to make me better. I find that it was all God’s hand at work to make me feel good as I am today. I recognised what I needed to do to get better.”
The new generation
She believes the older musicians she performed with at the start of her career provided her with a great foundation.
“I suppose there was no internet or social media,” says Vulakoro. “Nowadays with the young musicians, there is a lot of copying. In our days we had to find it inside ourselves to bring it out. There was not much out there in our time to learn from.”
She is pleased to see the crop of new artists composing new songs.
Vulakoro tells the young people she mentors ‘you must have a clean heart’.
“You keep your heart happy and clean then there is no room there for anything else. That’s the best way you can deliver your music – it comes from a clean, good place. For it to hit from your heart to another heart it has to come from a good heart. Only then it can make an impact on people’s lives.”
Finally, we asked Vulakoro about whether she will join politics as Fiji goes to the polls this year.
“Who said that?” she retorted!
“To be honest with you, I’m not really prepared for that (joining politics) at the moment.
“I’m raising a young son and I’m a solo parent and that is my priority right now. I will support them (political parties), I was a member of SODELPA, and I have been over the years from SVT to SDL, Qarase wholeheartedly and of course SODELPA. I will support in any way I can but right now my priority is my family and my son who I’m raising. So, politics is second to that and I’m not really prepared for anything right now. I will not be standing.”
This article first appeared in the May issue of Islands Business magazine.