Sofaia … so good!
by Greg Phillips
Ever experienced an artist for the first time and been so blown away by them that you couldn’t wait to tell your friends? It happened to me this year while on holiday in Fiji, when I witnessed the amazingly talented SOFAIA L. I wasn’t the only one. Her voice affected another guy in a major way too, an American who by chance happens to know some very influential music industry people back home in the States. It’s a developing story, one that involves a Justin Bieber connection, a house used by Tom Hanks during the production of the movie Castaway and a producer/songwriter who works with Grammy Award winning artists. Here’s the story … so far.
In April this year I had the pleasure of staying for a week at the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa In Fiji. If you’re looking for an ideal tropical location to laze your days away, look no further. I was sitting at one of the resort’s al fresco bars one night, drinking a cocktail from a coconut, as you do. The sun was setting, the weather was around 25 degrees celsius with just a slight hint of a breeze. Nearby in a rotunda, a duo was setting up to perform. The resort provides free entertainment nightly, a nice touch to offer a little background music to help wash down your Pina Colada and add a soundtrack to your conversation. Sooner or later (more likely later as while you’re in this country everything runs to ‘Fiji time’), I expected that the piped music would cease and the live duo would begin. I recall being caught in the moment of a soulful tune emanating from the PA. The voice was really powerful yet soulful, reminiscent of Aretha Franklin but it wasn’t her. It wasn’t Amy either, not quite punk enough but still possessing an edge. I’ve been in the music industry for decades and have heard all of the recorded greats, I should know this voice. Perhaps it’s an Adele song, the singer seemed to possess similar control and ease. In fact it was an Adele song … but it wasn’t Adele singing it. The piped music had actually stopped and what I was hearing was coming from the rotunda. The voice I was hearing was local Fijian singer Sofaia Vukiseru Lagilagi Lalabalavu, to be known from here on as Sofaia L (pronounced Sofaya). For the rest of the evening, Sofaia continued to blow me away with amazingly heartfelt and powerful versions of classic vocal tunes. The lady is amazing.
Sofaia’s accompanist was intriguing too. His name is Miles Manulevu and he played some really interesting and tasteful chord progressions, while perfectly complementing Sofaia’s voice. I had to speak to them. I had know their story. Once they left the stage I ventured up to congratulate them on their wonderful performance. They told me they are one of the resident acts, hired by the Westin group to play this and their sister venue the Sheraton, which just is a short walk up the beach. I was so impressed that I asked if they’d like to catch up for an interview via Skype once I got home. Which we did.
For Sofaia and pretty much all Fijians, their introduction to singing begins early at school and through the church. (If you’re lucky enough to visit Fiji, you’ll discover that they all sing.) Sofaia also loved to listen to the radio and would tape songs on cassette, so that she could mimic the artists she enjoyed. At the age of just four, she heard Michael Jackson for the first time performing the song ‘Will You Be There’ from the movie Free Willy and from that moment on, she was hooked.
“For me, I studied in church. I joined the choir,” she explains. “I’ve loved music and singing all my life. But one memory really stands out for me. I was 4 years old when “Will You Be There” by Michael Jackson was all over the radio in Fiji. For the first time that I can remember, I felt all those emotions that make you connect with a music artist. Michael Jackson is still my favourite musician. Then later on, there was a talent show in Fiji called The Mic Show. I auditioned and managed to be first runner up and it landed me my first job at Mana island resort, which led to performing with Miles at the Westin Denarau.”
Miles began playing guitar while in high school. He was working at the time too and after seeing his employer perform on guitar, he knew he wanted to play as well. “They played resorts like we do now,” he says of his former boss. “They were very good, called themselves Jericho. As soon as I heard them, I just said I want to do that. It made sense to me. Growing up I always had music in my mind but nobody in my family does music. So I learned a few chords and then my boss taught me everything from there.”
Unfortunately, Miles suffered an injury to his left index finger while young, which made playing guitar difficult and some chords, such as a simple C, were impossible to play in their technical form. However, he persevered and with the use of a capo and a large dose of determination, he was able to find those notes elsewhere on the fretboard and in doing so, has developed a style of his own.
Not surprisingly, I was not the only one captivated by Sofaia. Through further discussion with her, I discovered that several months earlier, an American guy named Ziggy Kormandel had experienced a similar level of excitement over her voice, while he too was holidaying in Fiji. While sitting at beach party on Tokoriki island, Ziggy also initially thought he was hearing a recording and was surprised to discover it was the live voice of local angel Sofaia L.
“I just went up to her and told her how amazing she was and asked if she was going to be there again,” recalls Ziggy. “She said yes … every night. We came back the next night and she had the audience mesmerised. She had us in tears.”
As it turns out, Ziggy is a tech entrepreneur with some influential connections in the music business back home in the states and was keen to tell them about Sofaia at first opportunity. “I’ve done campaigns with the music industry for years, people like Justin Bieber and I showed Sofaia photos in case she thought I was bullshitting,” he laughs. “I said, I can’t promise anything but I said you could win The Voice. She got blushy. She’s the kind of talent who could come 4th and still have a career. So I signed her to a 3 year contract and I said let’s see what we can do.”
Also fortuitous at the time was a friendship Ziggy had developed in Fiji with Heath Mitchell, an Australian musician who lives on one of the Fijian islands. Mitchell’s house was the one which Tom Hanks stayed in while filming the movie Castaway. Heath had a home studio set up and Ziggy asked if he could record Sofaia and Miles, so that he could shop around some demos to his music industry connections.
Ziggy returned home, had spoken further to Heath and a recording session seemed imminent. Tragically in March however, Cyclone Winston struck causing major damage to many Fijian islands, including the island housing Heath’s recording studio. However, Ziggy was determined for the world to hear Sofaia and rented a hotel room on another island so that Heath could record Sofaia’s voice. With demos finally in hand, Ziggy played the tapes to a few of his friends including one Tony Haynes, a songwriter, producer who has worked with Earth Wind and Fire, Bobby Brown, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and now works closely with five time Grammy winner, Kuk Harrell. Much like myself and Ziggy, Tony Haynes also fell in love with Sofaia’s voice and immediately wanted to help. Haynes had written some songs with another artist in mind and asked if Heath could record Sofaia singing these originals, which he did. The recordings are stunning and you can judge for yourselves. The unmastered results can be heard on Sofaia’s new website which Ziggy has financed and created for her.
Meanwhile back in Fiji, in their own Fijian time, Sofaia and her cousin Miles continue to perform at the resorts, sometimes travelling up to 8 hours by boat to islands to perform at weddings and other functions. Sofaia is vaguely aware that a bunch of people with music industry connections are out of their minds with excitement trying to concoct a plan to take her music to the world. “I would love to do an album,” she says of her dreams. “I would love to study music and the arts … a little bit of poetry… and oh, I’d love to meet Lionel Ritchie!”
Sofaia L and Miles perform regularly at the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, Nadi, Fiji. Here’s a short clip of them performing at the Westin.