2 May 2016

Pacific music master Bill Sevesi farewelled

7:56 pm on 2 May 2016

More than 200 people have gathered to pay their respects to the musician Bill Sevesi, at his funeral in Auckland.

The acclaimed ukulele and steel guitar player died late last month at the age of 92.

Children from Mt Roskill Primary School played ukulele as friends and family of the musician arrived at the service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell.

Considered by many to be the godfather of the ukulele, Wilfred Jeffs, QSM, was known by his stage name Bill Sevesi.

Children playing ukelele at Bill Sevesi's funeral in Auckland.

Children playing ukuleles greeted friends and family. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Born in Tonga, Sevesi helped popularise Hawaiian-style music in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

Speaking on behalf of the Tongan Community, Sefita Hao'uli said Sevesi was a Tongan legend.

"Bill has developed chords and a sound out of that instrument that has become iconic, in fact to be part of our region and for that Tonga, and the rest of the Pacific community, will always be grateful."

Sevesi became a stalwart of Auckland's music scene, leading his band, The Islanders, in packed dance halls in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Many Aucklanders will remember Bill Sevesi's 16-year residency at the city's Orange Ballroom.

"He actually brought most of the Pacific people together into one forum and so he did bring a lot of Pakeha and Maori in as well. So you'll find that the exotic mixtures of part-Samoan, part-Tongan, part-Nuiean, it would have been Bill's Orange Ballroom that helped to make it all possible."

Bill Sevesi's daughter Tania Jeffs speaks at his funeral in Auckland.

Bill Sevesi's daughter Tania Jeffs also spoke at today's service. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Broadcaster and journalist Phil Gifford said Sevesi's music had a big impact in his childhood as he watched his band play at the Waihi Beach's RSA during the summer holidays.

"This man and his music were a huge part of my childhood. Everything about him, from the band, his style, from the music and the summer nights at Waihi Beach it all just fits together.

"He actually brought a Pasifika influence to New Zealand music before that word was even being used. And he would often when he played dance.

"His band, The Islanders, would play the pop hits of the day but they had an absolutely unique twist to them because he would lead with Hawaiian steel guitar, which is a very unusual instrument which he obviously played beautifully.

"So with hindsight he was an absolute pioneer of Pasifika music in this country."

After winning a Queen's Service Medal in 1995, Bill Sevesi was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame last year.

In his speech Sevesi highlighted the importance of music, and the happiness it can bring.

"Remember always the flowers will grow from the seeds that you sow. Music can give you happiness, anything you want all over the world."

Sevesi dedicated much of his later life to education, including working with the Play it Strange program, teaching school children his signature instrument.

Split Enz member Mike Chunn remembers his friend and fellow musician Bill Sevesi at this funeral in Auckland on 2 May 2016.

Split Enz member Mike Chunn remembered his friend and fellow musician as a beautiful person. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Speaking at today's service, Play it Strange chief executive and founding Split Enz member Mike Chunn spoke about Sevesi's role in getting ukuleles to children, of which about 3500 have been distributed through the program.

"For you, it was about people. We can talk about instruments, we can talk about recordings, we can talk about songwriting - songwriting's the foundation - but it's the love of your fellow man that drives his vision on.

"People are united and you are the man behind [it]. Bill, you are and will always be a beautiful person, and I salute you."

Listen to an interview Trevor Reekie did with Sevesi at his home in Mt Roskill last year after he was inducted into the hall of fame.

Bill Sevesi's family carries his coffin at his funeral in Auckland.

Bill Sevesi's family carries his coffin at his funeral in Auckland, which was attended by more than 200 people. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Bill Sevesi

Bill Sevesi - pictured here during a recent visit to RNZ's studio in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Dru Faulkner

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs