Pita Kotobalavu can sum up his life philosophy, musical ambition and aspirations for the world in one word.
“Love,” he said.
Reggae ambassador, lead singer and founder of Unity the Band, Pita has been working hard for 23 years to bring the rhythm and irie of the islands to Wisconsin.
“Our message has always been about love,” he said. “That is very simple and right to the point. It’s about communities and about the human race itself. We hear about war every day and people fighting. If one person could hear just a little bit about love, it could change the world. It’s like a seed and it starts to grow. That’s what the music is about. It’s love. Everybody knows it. Everybody wants it. You just have to show them and tell them it’s okay to love.”
Unity the Band’s concerts showcase that love as much as they do the band’s musical ability. The band has won several WAMI awards, including the 2021 WAMI for Artist of the Year, and has amassed an impressive catalogue of original music. You can follow them on Spotify and see their videos on YouTube. But, the best way to enjoy Unity the Band is at a live performance. A reciprocal feeling of joy bounces back and forth between the stage and the audience and everyone dances a little lighter on their feet as the set rolls on.
“Let me be your love,” Pita and the band sing in Say What You Want. “Come a little closer and take your time. Tell me, love, the troubles on your mind. I’ll always be right here next to you. So forget your problems and follow me to a party rendezvous. And I need you to love. Let me be your love.”
The band extends that love to fellow musicians. They admire established acts, while they mentor and cheerlead for some of the younger performers they see.
“I would tell any aspiring musician to get to know other musicians because they’re the ones who will help you on your journey,” Pita said. “We help a lot of young bands. We are behind the scenes booking young bands. People think there is competition among musicians. There is no competition. I tell them to find their niche and keep on striving for a better future.”
Acording to Unity’s original bassist Jason Brown, who now lives and works in LA, that is exactly the attitude Pita took when he first began building the band.
“It wasn’t easy. He definitely earned his place in the music scene by working his way into it,” Brown said. “He blazed his own path.”
It’s hard for any musician to develop a sound, financially support a band, book venues and find a following. Pita struggled too, some days more than most.
“Anybody that’s smart has come around to support him and recognize what he’s doing,” Brown said. “He’s a good draw, a great front man. I just thought it was a slow grind for him to get embraced the way he should.”
J-Council founder and lead singer Jon Wheelock first saw Unity the Band perform 15 years ago. He has played with Pita several times over the years.
“I love him,” Jon said. “He showed me by example how to front and connect with an audience during a performance.”
Both Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation, and Kotobalavu, a Fijian, offer an homage to their heritage through their unique voices and musical styles. Kotobalavu first listened to and then played with his uncles’ band while growing up in Suva, Fiji’s capital.
“We have our own musical style in the Fiji Islands,” he said. “There’s a more reggae grove to it. Then, when Bob (Marley) came in with a modern sound, that’s where I gravitated to. I got involved in music in church. Then watching my uncles play. I just picked it up from there. We watch and learn.”
Pita often says that love brought him to Wisconsin and, it seems, love has kept him here too. He talks about his gratitude for the opportunity to live and support himself and his family here in Wisconsin. He said he likes the four seasons, especially fall.
I asked him if he had a favorite venue and he said, “They’re all my favorite. Every city. From Appleton to downtown Wausau, Manitowish waters all the way up to Michigan. Navy pier. My favorite place is anywhere we can perform and people can hear us. Every place is very important to me, from the small shows to the bigger ones. They’re all important to me.”
According to Brown, who toured with him many times throughout the years and spent countless hours sitting next to him in the front seat enroute to and from the shows, Pita is an excellent driver and a fascinating storyteller.
“He’s from Fiji so I don’t know how he learned how to drive in the ice and snow, but he’s the best driver I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “He never wanted to stay in a hotel after a gig, so we’d get in the car and he doesn’t drink so he always drove, and he’d tell these amazing stories. Sometimes, we’d get home just as the sun was coming up and he would be telling these stories the whole way home. Some of my favorite memories are him telling these incredible stories.”
While the band continues to maintain an aggressive year-round performance schedule, Pita has had to slow down somewhat. He is battling an aggressive cancer and the treatments have taken their toll.
“It’s a day-to-day battle,” he said. “It’s a fight to be able to tolerate the poison. But, I’m doing alright. I get very weak sometimes, but I’m ok. Sometimes I have had to cancel a show. I have a friend sitting in to help me to make sure Unity can keep playing. I have a whole group of people helping. I’m hoping to survive this and have a full life.”
In the midst of the battle, he has a message for his fellow musicians.
“The world is crazy right now and we need every musician out there with a platform to use it to spread a message of love. We need to do it because we need to change the planet, the way the planet thinks,” he said. “They did it back in the 70s. They changed the world with love. That generation is still alive today. Can you imagine if we could do that right now? How the world would look in 10 years? It would be beautiful.”
NOTE: Pita and Unity the Band will be performing at the Midwest Sunsplash Music Festival on Saturday July 23. The festival benefits YouthGo and brings a wide variety of music to Main Street in Menasha. “If anyone wants to see an explosion of reggae music, they should come to the festival,” Pita said. “We’re going to have bands from Jamaica and all around the country.”