Chune Een | Sound systems paved the way
Advancement in technology at the turn of the new millennium has offered more ways in which artistes can expose their talent. Entertainers can even act as their own distributors thanks to social media and digital platforms like Itunes andSpotify. But according to veteran singer Cocoa Tea, there was only one way a talented artiste could ‘buss’ three decades ago, and that was through the sound system.
“If you weren’t affiliated with a sound then, your chances of being a big artiste would be very slim. As long as you share the ability to really perform with a sound, then the star was the limit dem time deh,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
The Rocky Point, Clarendon, native first tried his hand at music at 14 years old with the release of Searching in the Hills. When the song failed to receive any sort of acclaim, a then discouraged Cocoa Tea started training horses and spent five years as a racehorse jockey and fisherman.
“I remember while I was there attending to the horses, I’d still be singing, and people would always say ‘singing a your ting, gwaan guh sing tune’. One day me just lef and come do the thing.”
He formed ties with community sound systems Prince Unitone, Turbo Panic, and Volcano, studying performing techniques while getting comfortable performing before crowds. He has also played on other sounds like Jah Love, Black Harmony, and Stone Love.
Come 1983, he received the opportunity to put all he had learnt on show. “Volcano was playing, and the people seh, ‘Give Cocoa Tea the mic cause him can sing’,” he stated. “Reluctantly, they gave me the mic and I started singing. There were people like King Yellowman and they all told me to go to producer Henry ‘Jungo’ Lawes in town. I went and started recording and I’ve been in the business ever since.”
With classic songs like Good Life,Settle Down and She Loves Me Now, Cocoa Tea has secured a spot in the history books of reggae. He said that this could not be possible without being a good performer, which he learnt from his days on the sound system.
“That’s how you see me have so much style pon stage because me learn everything from sound systems,” he said. “When it comes to sound systems, you have to be able to sing on every riddim inna those days. That’s how I learned my trade so I can be like this.”
His contemporary, Mikey General, also honed his skills through sound systems. Before migrating to the United Kingdom (UK) in 1982 at 19 years old, the singer performed on sounds like Killamanjaro and Virgo. He would get his major break while working at a wine factory in South Wimbledon.
“When I went to England, I hooked up with these breddins, and I was singing on a sound called BMW when a selector called Blacker Dread from Coxsone sound heard me and asked me to come by where they played at a nightclub in Paddington,” he recalled.
His performance caught the attention of Saxon Sound Intentional owners Musclehead and Dennis Rowe, who invited him to join the team. Mikey General took the gig and soon found himself touring across the UK.
“They made me want to take music serious because the pay I got in one week was more than the pay I got in one month while working at the factory,” he said. “I toured Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham mostly, cause Saxon was a very popular sound. They had artistes like Papa Levi, Maxi Priest, and Smiley Culture.”
The Deh Pon Dem singer has also worked with sound systems like Sugar Minott’s Youthman Promotions and says that the culture has contributed to his longevity. “In those days when you go to a sound system, you couldn’t just go and get the mic like that. You’d have to lift the boxes or do some contribution before you get the mic,” he said. “When you get the mic, you’d have to prove yourself, which was intense but you find that most yutes who came up this way last longer in the business because they know the rudiments of sound-system culture.”
Several entertainers also rose to the fore through talent search competitions hosted by sound systems. Merritone sound system principal Monte Blake recalled the Merritone VIP series held in the 1980s.
“It really was to try to get artistes at that time to sing Jamaican music, and that took place at what is now the CIBC bank. Then it used to be the VIP club,” said Blake. “Out of that talent search came artistes like Beres Hammond, Cynthia Schloss, The Mighty Diamonds, and Ruddy Thomas, to name a few.”