Recent Sigidrigi Songs

Yalo e veiciriyaki – Story behind the song

This article by Felix Chaudhary was published by the Fiji Times

MORE than 50 years after it was composed, we have now been told that we have been singing it wrong.

It’s Mateaki and not Matiavi!

The creation of mondegreens are quite common, where misheard lyrics are substituted by words that makes sense to the listener, but in the case of the all-time classic, Yalo E Veiciriyaki, all those who have sung this song wrongly will feel great embarrassment — and deep sorrow — when they hear why and for whom this song was written.

Last Saturday, renowned vocalist and the last surviving member of The Phoenix Choir, Ilisapeci Tamani, set the record straight as she shared the heart-wrenching story of how her two-year-old daughter Mateaki was taken from her almost 60 years ago.

Most of those attending the Nem and Talei Tribute to the Classics show were unaware that Ms Tamani was the composer of this song that has a very haunting melody.

And as she related the events behind the song, there was not a dry eye in the Grand Pacific Hotel Ballroom where the event was held.

Where words failed, the powerful lyrics spoke. Everyone felt the pain, torment and heartache in that song as they never did before.

Ms Tamani composed the song more than half a century ago and the lyrics describe the torment her soul went through during what she described as the most trying moment in her life.

She was about 20 years of age when she met Tevita Fatafehi, a young Tongan nobleman who had come to Fiji for work.

The two began a courtship and it resulted in the birth of their first daughter, Mateaki.

“She was so beautiful, she looked like an angel,” the singer shared.

“We began making plans for marriage and at that stage I was carrying our second child, but his family said they had sent him to Fiji to work and not get married.

“And if he was to get married, it would have to be with someone of equal ranking because he was a member of the royal family.

“So he was summoned back to Tonga and when the time came for him to return, he made a request that tore my heart into little pieces. He asked if he could take Mateaki who was two years old at the time to Tonga.

“At first I refused but I could also see that she was very attached to him, so after he made promises to take her and return to whisk me away, I let Mateaki go.”

Tamani shared the painful events of their parting at the Suva Port.

“Those days, there was no aeroplane going to Tonga. This was around 1956. There were two ships that sailed from here to Tonga — the Tofua and the Matua.

“In the week leading up to Mateaki’s departure, my family rushed around preparing food and all the traditional Fijian mats and dabedabe for her.

“One of my uncles worked for a bus company, he brought the bus and transported my whole family to the wharf.

“When we got there and I saw the ships, my heart sank. I knew the little girl who had been inside me for nine months and who I gave birth to — my first-born — was going to be taken away.

“I refused to even look at her as Tevita and Mateaki bid us farewell.

“I just sat on the ground and cried and cried.

“I felt like my life was not worth living anymore. Mateaki was everything to me and I just could not cope with the thought of losing her.

“She was excited at the prospect of going on a boat and seeing all my family, but little did she know that she was being taken to a land far away from me.

“I used to be the lead singer, but I used to cry so much during our performances I was relegated to second or third voice.”

All the promises that Mr Fatafehi made to Ms Tamani did not materialise.

And it would be seven long years before she would see her daughter again.

The singer worked and saved her passage to Tonga. She lived on bare necessities, determined to see Mateaki again.

“When she left, I refused to eat because every time I saw or smelt food, I just thought of my little daughter and tried to visualise what she was going through.

“It got to a stage that I used to see her in my room and just when I’d reach out to hold her, she’d just vanish into thin air.

“I got so sick I was admitted at the Tamavua Hospital and stayed there for a very long time.

“The doctors were trying to find out what was wrong with me physically but they didn’t know that nothing they could do would cure me of my longing for Mateaki.”

Over time, Ms Tamani recovered, realising she had her second daughter — Mere Salote — to take care of.

With the assistance of The Phoenix Choir director Sir Josua Rabukawaqa, she managed to get her travel documents arranged for her trip to Tonga.

She flew to Nuku’alofa in 1963, a journey she described as “uneventful”.

“I can’t even remember anything about that flight. The only thing that kept going through my head was what I would say to Mateaki, what would she say to me, and I tried to visualise what she looked like.

“When she left me, she was two and now she was nine. I wondered if she would recognise me and come to me. And I wondered if she would recognise me or even want to know me.

“There were so many uncertainties going round and round in my head.”

Mateaki was at school when she arrived at the Fatafehi residence.

Relatives were dispatched to bring her home and Ms Tamani recalled the moment she laid eyes on her very vividly.

“She was everything I had imagined her to be and more,” the singer recalled.

“She came and stood at the entrance to the home and just stared at me and then came towards me and we hugged and cried and I just couldn’t let go of her.

“Seven years of wondering, praying, wishing, and hoping just to be with her at that moment, it was too much.

“I kept kissing her and hugging her and prayed that we would never be apart again.”

Ms Tamani returned to Fiji after two months in Tonga and decided that Mateaki should remain with her father, but that they should retain close contact with each other.

Mateaki travelled frequently to visit her mother and eventually settled in Australia.

In September this year, she came to Fiji to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday.

“She’s a grandmother now. She came with her daughter Katrina and grandchildren Georgia and Ashton. We had such a wonderful time together,” Ms Tamani shared.

“And I just thank God that He has continued to bless me with the ability to still be around and to watch my children and grandchildren grow up , it is such a huge blessing.

“I also thank God for Nemani and Talei for paying tribute to my work and music in such a wonderful way last Saturday.

“I never expected to meet old friends like Radike Qereqeretabua, Ratu Manu Korovulavula, Ratu Osea Gavidi, Seru Serevi, Laisa Vulakoro and the so many other people who came up and greeted me.

“It was so much more than I ever expected and I am truly thankful.”

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3 comments to Yalo e veiciriyaki – Story behind the song

  • viliame finau

    Happy memories came back to me of my late beloved parents Sefanaia & Paulini Finau who attended Nasinu Teachers College way back in those days and loved the Phoenix Choir. My mums special connection to Adi Mei Rabukawaqa made it even more special. With no TV in those days we were forced to listen to these songs growing up as kids and were drawn to love listening to their melodius voices. Thank you Ms Tamani for your beatiful composition that will now bring your Phoenix Choir album back to popularity to be appreciated with a renewed understanding of their background. Thanks also to the Tamanisau family for your contribution for the beautiful song of my island home “liwavi au na tokalau” and the Mara Family’s story on”Ciri koto”. Please make all these available because they will make awesome Christmas presents. GOD BLESS FIJI.

  • savenaca vuetanavanua

    I think more musical programmes of this nature should be organized. Yes, songs have stories and narratives behind them. They are not just empty sounds – no! As such, songs are ‘texts’ in themselves. They can be studied,researched, analyzed and articulated. They can even be used as references in writing thesis or seminar papers. For example, ‘Yalo e Veiciriyaki’ is highly clinical in ts impact upon wounded listeners. No doubt, music has clinical touch to it. Such songs shows the mood of time then. They are a piece of historical-contemporary relevance. I love to use this statement ‘Theology and Fijian Music’.
    Keep it up!

  • Timoci Havili

    Yalo e veiciriyaki
    (Ilisapeci Tamani)

    Yalo e veiciriyaki
    Soko e loma ni takali
    Cabe ki yanuyanu tani
    E vukumu, na luvequ, daulomani

    Ke a soli vei au na lewa
    Me daru na tiko vata ga
    Au na sega sara ni laiva
    Mo la’ki tu yawa mai keya

    Isa Mateyaki
    Noqu i yau na tagi
    E na nomu tu tani
    Au sa guilecavi

    Sega ni’u kila ni ko na yali
    Ka ni ko a mai kaliraki
    Noqu dau nanumi iko yani
    Vu ni noqu mai tauvimate

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