Tongan-born band leader Bill Sevesi earns a place in New Zealand Music Hall of Fame

In the picture: Bill Sevesi, 92, with his home made steel guitar by his left. Photo/Kalino Lātū/Kaniva Pacific News

Bill Sevesi will become the first Tongan to be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.

Sevesi, one of New Zealand’s most famous musicians, was nominated for the honour to be awarded next month because of the impact of his musical talent on New Zealand life and culture.

Sevesi and his band, The Islanders, were a fixture in Auckland for many years and in later life he became a mentor to many young musicians.

He also played with many mainstream, artists, including Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn.

Speaking to Kaniva News this evening, he said he was “shocked” when he was told that he would be awarded the honour next month at the Vector Arena in Auckland.

“There were better steel guitarists than me like Bill Wolfgram,” he said.

Born Wilfred Jeffs in Nuku’alofa, Sevesi was passionately in love with music as a child.

He grew up in Ma’ufanga in Tonga and even though he could not play or sing, wherever there was music he was attracted to it.

“I did not learn music in Tonga, but whenever or wherever I hear it no one could stop me. I would go there,” he told Kaniva News at his Mt Roskill residence.

“I would just go there and watch and listened to the music and the players.”

At the age of 92, Bill Sevesi has a really good memory. His interview with Kaniva News was mostly conducted in Tongan. Even though he moved to New Zealand when he was 11, his Tongan was still perfect.

He said that when he was growing up in Tonga, string bands visited villages at Christmas time and played their music to entertain locals. He also remembered when men played the music to accompany kava drinking at night while an unmarried woman served their kava.

“I followed them around and in the faikava I just went and sat there and passionately listened to their singing and playing,” Sevesi said.

Move to New Zealand

Sevesi was born in 1923 and in 1934 his family sent him to study in New Zealand.

Although his father was British and his Tongan mother was half English, Sevesi did not speak English in Tonga.

“I could not speak English when I come to New Zealand from Tonga. I just spoke Tongan,” he said.

“When I arrived here I went to school and the teachers talked in English. I did not know what they were talking about.”

He said he was told by the school to stay home and study English before he continued on his study.

Sevesi remembered he and his cousins stayed on a farm at what is now known as Manukau City.

He said after about two to three months he started to understand English language and then he returned to school at Old Papatoetoe.

The owner of the farm at Manukau sold the farm and they moved to Mt Eden Rd where he learnt how to play the ukulele from a Samoan woman who played at the neighbour’s place.

Later on he learned how to play Spanish guitar and steel guitar and met another Tongan steel guitar player, Oscar Witzki.

“He was Polish, but as far as I know he was born and grew up in Tonga. He spoke Tongan really well,” Sevesi said.

“He was outstanding in playing the steel guitar and we played together”

The idea to set up a group that would bring the name of Bill Sevesi to popularity in New Zealand and in the Pacific was born.

Bill Sevesi and the Islanders

Sevesi and Witzki were joined on piano by a woman called Doreen who was staying across the road . They also acquired a drummer.

Doreen had a boyfriend who played basketball. He was fascinated by the band’s music and encouraged them to play at the night clubs.

“We started playing at night clubs and it was not long before we attracted a lot of people to wherever we played,” Sevesi said.

“We were popular at the time because I believed we could sing and Island music was popular with people at the time.”

Sevesi grew up and started playing at a time when Hawai’ian music was a global phenomenon and the sound of lap steel guitar evoked a Pacific of palm trees, warm breezes and the exoticism of the islands.

As a boy in Auckland he tuned his crystal radio set to hear Sol Hoopi and other legendary Hawai’ian guitar masters and learned to play lap steel by listening to 78rpm records on a wind-up gramophone.

In the early 1940s he watched band leader Epi Shalfoon at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden week after week until eventually he was invited up to play.

Bill Sevesi and his Islanders became increasingly popular at dances in the days before television. In 1954, after being invited to play at the Orange Coronation Hall in Auckland’s Khyber Pass (which he renamed, giving it a little more sophistication) Bill Sevesi and His Islanders became an Auckland institution and would remain there until the mid-1970s.

The Royals

Sevesi said he was once invited by the late Queen Salote of Tonga to play at a residence she was staying at in  Parnell.

He said Queen Salote was a great composer of Tongan songs and when he went to her he was well aware of the protocol and how he must address the Queen with the proper Tongan formal language.

Because he had stayed in New Zealand for a long time and there were not  too many Tongans in Auckland in the 1960s and 1970s he had begun to forget how to speak Tongan.

“I just told the queen I found it difficult to communicate with her and Queen Salote just told me: ‘Bill, my name is Salote and you just call me Salote,’ ” Sevesi said.

He played some music for the Queen before he was given food and returned home.

He said he was regularly invited to Tonga by Queen Salote’s son, the Late Prince Fatafehi Tu’ipelehake, for dinner.

“I and my friend Michael attended the dinner and the prince brought musicians to play to us while we dined,” he said.

Tongan players

Apart from Oscar Witzki, Bill Sevesi assisted Lisiate Sanitosi, Mele Nau Lino and Sione ‘Aleki, a well-known ukulele player in Tonga and the Pacific.

After 34 years in New Zealand he returned to Tonga and it was a visit he never forget.

“When I stepped down and walked on the land of Tonga I felt something very special in me,” he said. “This is the land I was born in and I can tell you I felt I was reincarnated. I would not forget Tonga.”

While in Tonga he was introduced by a cousin to Sione ‘Aleki. Bill said when he listened to ‘Aleki playing the ukulele he thought he had never heard such a brilliant performance before.

He invited Aleki to New Zealand and not long after Sevesi returned to New Zealand, ‘Aleki arrived from Tonga and joined his band.

He said there was a problem with ‘Aleki’s playing because he could not keep to the timing of the music and he helped him with that.

“I just told him that whenever he played he has to count 1, 2, 3, 4 or whatever time the music was assigned with and he did it,” Sevesi said.

His music

Bill said his band could play any style of music and that was why he thought it made his band really popular at the time.

“I am a firm believer in doing what our followers were asking for,” he said.

“When they requested songs we had to play it and if we did not know it we had to study it for the next time we performed.”

Sevesi and His Islanders made a number of records, sometimes under pseudonyms. His first recording was with country singer Tex Morton in 1949 with the band credited as The Rough Riders.

When they played with Canadian-born hillbilly singer Luke Simmons they were the Bluemountain Boys.

He recalled that when they recorded with jazz singer Mavis Rivers they were credited as “the Astro Trio or some damn thing.”

In 1959, when they recorded the song Bye Bye Baby Goodbye, he was Will Jess. The song – recorded in half an hour of studio downtime – was the country’s best-seller for four weeks.

In the early 1970s he left the Orange Ballroom and increasingly turned his attention to the modest home studio he built and to nurturing and encouraging the talent of others.

He recorded and encouraged numerous singers (among them the Yandall Sisters and Annie Crummer), played with fellow steel guitarists Trevor Edmondson and Bill Wolfgramm, and has appeared with Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn.

His health

While Bill was being interviewed by Kaniva News his wife Vika Siola’a fetched him a cup of coffee and joined in. She said she was grateful that Bill was going to receive the great honour of being inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame in Music.

She said Bill had been to the hospital regularly and at some stages they did not believe he would make it back home.

Bill abruptly revealed that he once felt sick and was rushed to hospital.

“I felt I was dying, but a Japanese doctor was there with me and he was just playing around with things and he suddenly revived me,” Sevesi said.

“I had several strokes and heart attacks and a tumour in my head and I do not know why I was still alive.

“Maybe I still have great things to give to the community as I did with my music talent.”

Sevesi congratulated his wife Vika for looking after him, saying she was doing a really good job.

“She was much younger than me when we were married,” Bill said.

They have two daughters, Lauren and Tania and a son.

The main points

  • Bill Sevesi will become the first Tongan to be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.
  • Sevesi, one of New Zealand’s most famous musicians, was nominated for the honour because of the impact of his musical talent on New Zealand life and culture.
  • Sevesi and his band, The Islanders, were a fixture in Auckland for many years and in later life he became a mentor to many young musicians.
  • He also played with many mainstream, artists, including Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn.

For more information

You can see a full length documentary about Bill Sevesi, Bill Sevesi’s Dream, here:

You can see another documentary about him, Song of the South Seas – the life and music of Bill Sevesi, here:

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