I first met Bobby Holcomb in March 1984 on the tropical island of Huahine, 120 miles northwest of Tahiti. Mutual friends in Australia had told me we'd get along. That turned out to be an understatement.
Everyone in Huahine knew Bobby. So when I arrived at the tiny port of Fare in the early hours, I was told, "He'll be here soon. He always comes to Fare in the mornings." Sure enough, he appeared on his bicycle only four hours later.
He was an exotic sight. He wore a woven crown of ferns atop his golden braids. A shopping bag of woven pandanus leaves hung from the bicycle's handlebars. A pair of shorts and a T-shirt completed his attire. His feet were bare, and his body was decorated with Polynesian tattoos. Later I learnt that his golden dreadlocks did not identify him as a Rastaman. They were instead fashioned after the hair of the Chimbu Highlanders of Papua, New Guinea. So what greeted me on our first encounter was a traditional hairstyle forty thousand years old. I wondered why faddy hair salons even bother.
Bobby welcomed me without hesitation, and within the hour I was seated in the sparse kitchen of his modest home. It was a red hut beside a lagoon in the fishing village of Maeva. As he rolled a cigarette of Dutch Bison tobacco, I observed his features. They eluded identification. He was undeniably handsome, but in a gentle way. There was even a classical, timeless beauty about him. Was he an Aztec? A Persian? A Minoan?
Bobby was actually a Hawaiian American cocktail. His father was half black and half North American Indian. His mother was half Portuguese and half Polynesian. He was born on 25 September 1947, in the rubble of post-war Honolulu—Pearl Harbor to be exact.
His mum had been a bargirl. He'd never known his dad.
Hunger was his childhood companion. To console himself, he had devoured Communion wafers at Roman Catholic services and tap-danced in the streets. One day he found an abandoned bicycle without any tyres. He jumped on it and headed out of Honolulu to just anywhere that was different. He knew, in time, he'd travel with a vengeance.
As I wandered around his home in Maeva, I noticed his broad reverence. Beside his personal shrine stood a collection of wooden and stone tiki, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary stood near his bed. [End Page 118] [Begin Page 121]
But the incongruous figure that dominated his home appeared in a colossal colour photograph, magnificently framed, of a fatherly man with a dignified face and silver hair. How come he had pride of place?
This was Duke Kahanamoku, two-time Olympic swimming champion and patron saint of surfers all over the world. This was Bobby's role model: Hawai'i's ambassador of goodwill to all nations. Duke represented the father Bobby perhaps wished he had had. He certainly represented Bobby's idea of "goodwill to all nations."
As painter, composer, singer, teacher, and bon vivant, Bobby was an inspiring example of a free spirit. As the Islands were in the midst of an ugly trend towards French colonial urbanization, his lifestyle was almost countercultural in its simplicity. And through music clips, he tried to encourage environmental awareness in Tahiti's polluted capital of Pape'ete, known locally as "the dustbin."
Bobby Holcomb the musician was particularly admired by the Tahitian youngsters for his warm, rich voice, his simple lyrics, and his cheeky joie de vivre. But his impact was more deeply felt on the cultural level. Bobby had learnt Tahitian, applied it to modern music, and wooed audiences back to their roots. Joining forces with other musicians, such as the Big Boys from Ra'iātea, he ignored the hotel circuit, preferring to travel great distances to perform for the islanders in community centres, youth clubs, hospitals, and sports fields. He revolutionized Tahitian music, becoming known as the father of reggae à la sauce Tahitienne. His music combined a little jazz, a little rhythm-and-blues, a little rock-and-roll. And he campaigned for a...