A music legend is coming to Kauai. If you listen to Cocoa Tea, you already know. If you don’t, then you don’t know Reggae. But it’s not too late to learn.
Cocoa Tea will be on the island Saturday night at 8 at Rob’s Good Times Grill. Tickets are $35 at the door or get them online at bluesbearhawaii.com.
Cocoa Tea was born a singer in 1959. His name was Calvin Scott, and at first he lived in Rocky Point, a small town on Jamaica’s southern coast about 65 kilometers from Kingston.
Calvin sang in church — the ladies said, “Put that boy up front!” He sang to his friends while they fished in the sea — the other boys told him, “Go do something with that music!”
“I think I was born to do this,” grown-up Calvin said in an interview over the phone with The Garden Island. But the path to a career in music was a long and oddly circuitous one for Cocoa Tea.
His dad took off for America when he was real young and didn’t send anything back like he was supposed to. Calvin drifted away from school — “I was more focused on earning my bread.”
So he fished and sang and sold the fish — “the money was good” — and recorded one album at age 14. It didn’t sell as good as the fish. “The main problem was, I didn’t know how to write a song.”
One day, a man he knew from the fish market asked Calvin if he wanted to try being a jockey. The man ran race horses at the local track, and he said Calvin had the build. “Even to this day I am five-foot-five, a hundred and twenty five pounds,” he said on the phone, bragging that he still runs 10 miles some days. He doesn’t lie. He’s 59 years old.
The first time he got on a horse, it took off and pitched him into a barbed-wire fence. His face was bloody. The trainer told him to get up and get back on and he did, “because that’s what you have to do if you want to be a jockey.”
So young Calvin walked the horse and sang, trotted the horse and made music in his head. Finally he learned to gallop, and somewhere along the line — up on the back of that horse — he started to write songs.
To this day, Cocoa Tea only writes in his head — “Never with a pen and a pad,” he said. “I have what some people call a photographic memory.” Years later, when music producers in Kingston would hand him pages of lyrics to take into the studio, he would glance at them once, and walk up to the mic empty-handed. “I couldn’t sing off reading a paper.”
Around the time the 70s were turning into the 80s, Cocoa Tea was still riding horses and writing songs. His audiences were stable hands and grooms, trainers and jockeys, anyone hanging around the stables.
“You’re making your gift go to waste,” they yelled at him. They told him he had to get out of horse racing and go to Kingston. “This is not your calling,” they said. “You need to respond to the voice that’s telling you to make music.”
Sometime in late 1983, someone who worked with a reggae production company in Kingston heard him perform at a local dance hall. They invited him to audition for Henry Junjo Lawes, a big-name record producer in Kingston.
A few months later Cocoa Tea walked into Lawes’ studio and found it packed with his musical heroes, reggae deejays and emcees he had grown up listening to — “When I went there, there was all these big stars.”
When asked if he was nervous to perform in front of a crowd like that, he said, “I’ve never felt nervous in my life. Because I love to sing!” Like a jockey that has to ride, facing the possibility of getting bucked into barbed-wire, a singer, when called upon to perform, must sing. “When you get that one shot, you have to take it,” he said.
He sang an original song a cappella and was stopped after one verse by Josie Wales, one of the deejays in Jamaica in the 1980s. Wales told him, “If you can make me dance without a rhythm, you must be a star.”
“When he told me that, everything went through the roof in my head!” Cocoa Tea said. “I was sure I was gonna make it.”
After that, success came fast. That year he recorded “Weh Dem A Go Do … Can’t Stop Cocoa Tea,” an album featuring several songs that would become hits in Jamaica. He followed it up with “I Lost My Sonia,” in 1985.
The title track became Cocoa Tea’s first real hit and to this day it his favorite song. He wrote it during his days as a jockey, inspired by a friend whose girlfriend had run off after a fight. “His name is Ronald Deer. He still lives in Rocky Point, and he’s still my friend.”
He moved to New York City after the success of “I Lost My Sonia,” and spent the next three decades recording with some of the biggest names in reggae and hip hop and performing the his music for people all over the world.
This will be his first time in Hawaii, and he promises a good show. “No music in the world can out do reggae music,” he said. “Come and see. After Saturday, you will be a Cocoa Tea fan. Guaranteed.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.