Melvin Newton, aka Toko Irie and his music family
In the Spring of 1970 Melvin Newton was born on a small island near Grenada named Carriacou in the beautiful Eastern Caribbean. Life could be difficult in this beautiful paradise and you were often forced to improvise. They would sometimes make their own musical instruments. Most of his family, two sisters and a brother, still live there.
At age 9, he started playing island music on handmade steel drums. Newton quickly discovered when you rub one of the sticks around the drum, there is an audible ringing sound from the different notes that seems to amazingly connect one to the instrument.
A neighbor and friend, Archie Codjoe, encouraged him to enter a musical competition performing Soca music on steel drums. They both wrote songs to perform and joined the competition for two years which provided opportunities to perform in clubs around the island and in Grenada, and would become the beginnings of a very long musical career for him.
Back then Newton was a mason by trade but also worked on boats. He wanted to move up the islands and try different locations so he left Carriacou in late 1991 and became a crewmember on a boat to St. Martin, and later another boat took him to St. Thomas. He loved it so much that he decided to stay in St. Thomas where he met a wonderful lady, Diana Dahl, at a beach party, who would become his wife for over 20 years.
Newton began using his stage name, Toko Irie. While in St. Thomas he played music with Johnny Dread. They worked between St. Thomas and St. John. The threat of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 led them to consider moving again to a safer environment.
In 1994, they moved to Key West. The cool island vibe fit their music. Somewhat oddly Newton was offered a tour and play percussion with Dick Solberg, and the Sun Mountain Fiddlers, bluegrass band for about a year. In 1995, he returned to Key West for good when his first child, Nina, was born. They lived on “the hook” on a 42-foot boat off Christmas Tree Island. Melvin continued to perform locally at Conch Republic Seafood and other venues. After six years on the boat, they moved to dry land, living on Stock Island.
Over the past 29 years, he has performed with many others in Key West including Din Allen, Jeff Clark, Marty Stonely, the Lopez family, and good friend from Trinidad, the late George Victory. He also performed with Bryan Roberts, Rob DiStasi, and the Prime Movers for mostly private parties. For the past five years, Toko Irie has performed in the backyard at Bourbon Street Pub for the annual Goombay Festival. He was honored as the Best Reggae Artist at the 2022 Key West Music Awards.
Newton had four more children (Naomi, Aaron, Ian, and Ariel). He has another son through a second marriage, Moses, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. His children have grown up learning and performing music. Nina, the oldest, performs often with several groups in Key West, playing keyboard with her wonderful vocals. She first teamed up with another musical family, The Doerfels (now called Fuel On Fire). They performed at the Keystock Music Festival in 2015.
Nina has made Melvin a Grandfather of two year old Rose. Naomi also plays keyboard and is a very good vocalist. Aaron plays drums and has toured Florida with his father. Ariel recently began playing bass and performed with Nina at Virgilio’s. Nina has also invited her younger brother Ian (drums) to perform with her, friend Belle Jampol and Channing Lynn at the Sunset Pier.
Toko Irie has played with several groups over the years. He and son Aaron also toured St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Ft. Lauderdale, playing at several clubs. They have been performing with Reggae Lou & The Kind Budz, recently at Durty Harry’s, filling the place with island music and a very happy audience.
He has two children still in high school, Ian (drums) and Ariel (bass). One day, while at home with several of his children, he asked himself, “Why am I playing music with others when I have my own band right here?”
Music brings his family closer together and can be a warm magical experience. He is enjoying making music with his children and is encouraging them to rehearse together and to start performing as a group.
Newton is writing some new and interesting music. He will soon begin recording his work, with his famous island vibe. Melvin currently has four songs available online under his stage name, Toko Irie. While working on the additional music he would like to incorporate his family into his recordings. Speaking of his young family members, Melvin feels when you play with that depth of feeling, an energy is generated that is transmitted to the audience. He refers to this as “playing with soul”.