Michelle’s passion, love for music

The Freelancers, (back L-R) Paul Steven, Marika Rabaka and Tui Ravai. (Front L-R) Vili Tuilaucala, Michelle Rounds and William Hatch. Picture: MICHELLE ROUNDS/SUPPLIED

SHE’S been compared with Sade, and some have even likened her voice to that of Whitney Houston.

“I was like, ‘oh please’,” she said in dubiety.

Her name is Michelle Rounds and anyone who followed the Suva music scene during the 1980s and 1990s will recall her jazzy and scatty style.

At a time when many local artists were clawing their way out of the funk-rock-reggae scene of the ’70s and ’80s, Michelle was dabbling in smooth jazz, bebop and the blues.

She wasn’t afraid of being different.

Her free spirit may have had a bit to do with the fact that while she was Fijian, she wasn’t born here.

Michelle was born in Sydney, Australia, to parents John and Barbara Rounds.

Down Under was home until the family relocated to Suva in 1973, when she was 11 years old.

“My father is my connection to Fiji, our village is Nasigasiganilaca, just before Galoa in Serua.”

The eldest of five siblings, she grew up in a family of musicians and thought having a musical family was “normal”.

Her father’s daytime gig was designing buildings but always had a musical streak that he got from his mother, Bonita Rounds, the leader of the first all-female band in Fiji in the ’40s.

“My father was an architect, and that’s how he supported us but he was a professional musician, singer, songwriter and recording artist as well.

“I thought everybody’s father sang and played guitar to their mothers. He would always play for us, but he would direct all his attention to my mother as if he were only playing to her.”

Michelle said the music her father listened to and performed made a lasting impression on her.

Their home would always be filled with the sounds of Julie London, Nat King Cole and Gordon Lightfoot. Timeless songs and melodies that became interwoven into the fabric of her then-budding musical journey.

“I can’t think of one person who influenced my passion for music, but from an early age, I can say it was my father. He was the person I saw playing music and singing, and he did it beautifully.”

Although she has made a career as a jazz singer, like most Fijians, her teenage years were filled with the sweet “one drop” sounds of old school reggae.

“I loved listening to Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, real reggae – the good stuff.”

Her singing style is reminiscent of this. Watch any of her music videos on YouTube and you will notice how she has the ability to scat to swing rhythms and then switch to roots rock reggae at whim.

Michelle’s first live performance was “not very memorable” but it sowed a seed that sprouted and grew into a lifelong love affair for the stage.

“To my memory, it wasn’t a proper gig, but I sang, The Girl from Ipanema – a very popular Latin jazz song by Antonio Carlos Jobim – with a pianist called Raymond Singh, and that was at Biddy’s Steakhouse which later became Traps.”

Growing up in a musical family, one would expect that her loved ones would have encouraged her to get into music and forge a career, but her family just let nature take its course.

“We were never encouraged to do it, they did what they did, and we watched. We were never guided or taught, we were simply supported.

“It was always just an open door. Anyone could walk through that door and when you did walk through it, that’s when the family support would kick in.

“When I walked through it, my uncle Victor Rounds, who is a renowned bass player in Sydney, said to me, ‘so you’re going to sing – OK’. “You want a band – OK. “So he put together my first band.”

Without asking for any input, Victor roped in a couple of musicians and placed Michelle centre stage.

“It was very professional, there was no messing around like ‘oh well you can practise’ – none of that. It was straight to business, ‘get in there and do it’.

“There was no point afterthat where I was thinking, ‘should I or shouldn’t I’. It was just do it and that was it, I did it.”

Victor rubs shoulders with the big guns in the Australian music industry.

He has shared the stage with the likes of Prince, Jenny Morris and Elton John.

Michelle had no need to argue with a musical giant of his stature.

Later on, she found herself singing with Fiji’s godfather of jazz, Tom Mawi, and the kings of Fijian music cool – Tui Ravai and The Freelancers.

With Mawi she began playing regular gigs at the Suva Travelodge (now the Holiday Inn) and with The Freelancers, Traps Bar was a residency.

The live music scene in Suva was different then, a far cry from what it is today.

“It was fantastic, end of story. It was full of live musicians ready to get up on stage and do their thing.

“I always appreciated that. “And they could do it confidently because they were world class.”

Michelle said she was “spoilt” because she was always surrounded by local musicians of very high calibre.

And out of respect to them, she always took her A-game to every gig.

“Something I think I can honestly say is that I didn’t just take it as a given, I always appreciated that I had the best musicians in Fiji at that time and I remain very humbled at being blessed like that.”

Michelle now lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she teaches voice and is still “gigging” strong at 58 years old.

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