Un Tabu – reggae in the Land Down Under

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This article by Felix Chaudhary appeared in The Fiji Times.

WHEN reggae legend Bob Marley and his band, The Wailers, toured Australia in 1979, his grass-roots melodic poems about the daily grind and struggles of indigenous peoples struck a chord with the Aboriginal community.

Marley’s musical “one love” message also caught the fancy of three Fijian musicians living in the Land Down Under.

Former Lami residents — bass guitarist Rupeni Davui and drummer James Purmodh — and Toorak-raised keyboard player Joel Knight had migrated to Australia in the early 70s in search of greener pastures and new musical adventures.

The trio had played with the best locals in the business in the late ’60s and ’70s and was raring to test their skills against Australian music giants.

Davui, Knight and Purmodh hooked up with Barbados-born vocalist Ras Roni Jemmott and formed Un Tabu in 1981. Jemmott would later team up with Knight and another Fijian, Howard Shultz, to form Mataqali Music.

Pronounced oon tahboo, the band has been recorded in Australian music history as one of the first serious and most influential reggae outfits to emerge out of the Land Down Under.

Un Tabu and another reggae band, No Fixed Address, paved the way for the reggae music scene in Australia.

With Davui on bass guitar, Knight on keyboards and backing vocals and Purmodh behind the drums, Un Tabu hit the live and recording scene from 1981 to 1983 with what they called “conscious music”.

They sang about issues facing the Aboriginal community and for Purmodh, Knight and Davui, Un Tabu’s songs also reflected some of the struggles they had faced as new migrants in Australia.

The obvious influence of Marley’s Australian tour on Un Tabu was evident in their anti-apartheid and pro-equal rights songs.

Marley must have also rubbed off on major Australian acts in some way with straight-ahead rock and pop groups releasing reggae-influenced songs in the early ’80s.

In 1980, popular band Australian Crawl, released their only reggae-ish song titled The Boys Light Up.

This was followed in 1981 by renowned pop-rock outfit Men At Work who released the reggae-infused worldwide hit Down Under which became a mega-hit from one of their best-selling albums, Business As Usual.

While Australian Crawl and Men At Work hit the charts and gained popular success with their songs, it was Un Tabu’s 1981 release, Open Your Eyes, that captured the attention of the underground scene in Australia at that time.

In the wake of Marley’s tour, the Australian audience’s thirst for authentic reggae music was fulfilled by Un Tabu and the group’s lyrics about land rights and Aboriginal issues sung over swinging reggae grooves caught the attention of activists, music lovers and the emerging Rastafarian scene.

Purmodh is one of many Fiji musicians who have made a name for themselves by making it big in Australia, a country renowned as a melting pot for musical talent from around the world.

When he moved to Australia from Fiji in 1974, he quickly established himself and was given the illustrious title of Australia’s first reggae drummer.

During his three year stint with Un Tabu from 1981 to 1983, he performed with the reggae band at the Tanelorn Festival, a musical event that is widely recognised by music pundits as Australia’s version of the cult US festival, Woodstock.

Un Tabu, with Purmodh, Knight and Davui locking down the rhythm section, were billed alongside megastars of the era including Split Enz, Midnight Oil, Billy Thorpe and Men at Work among many others.

Purmodh said performing in front of about 30,000 people at the five-day festival was an experience he would never forget.

Purmodh also said another notable gig with Un Tabu was when he got to perform with the band at Rock Against Racism, a protest event at the Sydney Town Hall -— alongside popular bands like The Magnetics, King Cobra and Black Lace.

“Un Tabu was the headline act and it was an amazing feeling to play songs that really meant something and music that was reaching out to people of all races to come together and unite in brotherhood,” shared Purmodh during an earlier interview.

Un Tabu also enjoyed a popular residency at a venue called Ips Inn. Situated on Oxford St in the heart of Sydney City, Ips Inn became Un Tabu’s unofficial home and a gathering place for the Fijian community in Sydney in the early ’80s.

“Ips Inn was a Chinese restaurant, it was right next door to the Paddington cinema and we played there for more than a year, it was a real happening place,” the bearded drummer recalled.

At the peak of their success, Un Tabu was chosen to be the supporting act for Marcia Hines and Renee Geyer, two of Australia’s biggest ’80s stars, during their 1981 Melbourne tour.

In 2003, Purmodh found his way hack home when he performed at the South Pacific Games with Sydney-based iTaukei pop stars Kabani.

“It was good to be back home and playing at the games was huge because there were people all over the Pacific here.”

Three years later in 2006, he toured Fiji with Sydney-based reggae band Cool Runnings which also featured another Fijian musician who has made a name for himself on the Australian music scene, bass guitarist Kepone Fiu.

During the Cool Runnings tour, Purmodh was given percussion duties. His daughter, Lisa, had taken over the drums.

Lisa joined the Cool Runnings Fiji tour hot on the heels of her return from a stint in Cuba and the Caribbean with Sydney-based reggae artists Errol Rennaud and his group, Caribbean Soul. Errol was a former World Limbo Champion and is married to former Fiji resident and now Australian citizen Jane Heritage.

Lisa is one of the hottest young rising stars of the Sydney music scene and apart from Caribbean Soul, she has also performed with top class acts such as Gervais Koffi and the African Diaspora and a Bob Marley cover band called One Love.

Interestingly, her father hooked up with former Un Tabu front-man Roni Jemmott to perform in the One Love Bob Marley cover band last year.

Despite his success on the very competitive Australian music scene, Purmodh remains as humble as they come.

“Music is not about you or me my brother, it’s always about the music and we must give thanks to God because that’s where it all comes from,” he shared.

Purmodh’s story is an inspiration to Fijian musicians who have dreams of making an impact on the regional and international scene.

However, it is important to note that apart from having exceptional music skills, a lot also depends on the company you keep, commitment, perseverance, and being at the right place at the right time.

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