Thank You, Byron Lee

I grew up listening to Byron Lee. There was Byron Lee...and there was Bob Marley. Definitely a big deal. And then of course there was Ashford & Simpson, Whitney Houston, and countless other disco, pop, and soul artists that were playing in my household in the early 80s. Blondie. Music was music, and good music was good music. But of the most memorable artists, one of them was definitely Byron Lee.

He was raised in Manchester parish, as were my parents. Born in my dad's hometown of Christiana in 1935, and he trained in music in my mother's hometown of Mandeville. The son of an Afro-Jamaican mother, and a Chinese father, Byron Lee was a young athlete and member of the Jamaican national soccer team before his deep journey into music began. It was while playing for his college soccer team "The Dragonaires" that Byron and his teammate Carl Brady claimed the name for their new band.

They began playing ska and mento, but it was in calypso music that they found their strengths, and passion. I didn't really know the difference between Jamaican ska and Trinidadian calypso music...back in those days, under the age of ten, I just knew it was island music. Caribbean music. There were no lines. I loved the sound, and there was no question about it. I didn't think much about what particular island the sounds originated from. It didn't matter.

Now, I can successfully identify roots reggae, from dancehall reggae, from lover's rock-style reggae, and everything in between. I know the difference between calypso, and soca, and chutney, etc. etc. I can distinguish a Jamaican soca singer, and a Trinidadian reggae artist. There are so many sub-categories, and stereotypes and expectations associated with each version of the island genres, that only a real music lover could appreciate...or care about. And that's without even introducing the other "island" sounds like reggaeton and merengue, or bachata.

What brings them all together is the sound of the drums. The riddims. The unique combination of instruments. The way you instinctively feel when you hear the beats and the feel the energy behind the songs. When you know the circumstances in which they were created, and inspired, and performed. The ways in which you observe people moving to these sounds. It is the movement and performance of island music (in particular) that has me still listening to musicians like Byron Lee, decades, and decades after their careers first began.

He is, without a doubt, one of the most legendary calypso artists, who was embraced internationally, and able to transcend the genre lines and play soul and funk music as well, along with The Dragonaires. The officially band formed in 1950, originally with Byron and Carl, and by 1956 they were on a serious professional rotation in the Jamaican and Caribbean hotel circuit. They played their own music, and often backed up visiting artists like Harry Belafonte, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino.

Fun fact: they were even cast as the hotel band in the James Bond movie, Dr. No.

Recording many of their albums at the Dynamic Sounds Recording Company, previously owned by then Prime Minister Edward Seaga, they eventually bought the studio and recorded the likes of international acts like Paul Simon, and the Rolling Stones...amongst their own work. Byron Lee went on to become the head of distribution at Atlantic Records, Jamaica, due to his passion for the performing and recording arts.

In 1974, the band released the popular album "Carnival in Trinidad" and the island became a regular touring location for Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. They were embraced as a calypso band, and continued to tour the islands, including performances at major Jamaican festivals like Sunsplash, as well as touring North America.

By 1990, Byron Lee founded the Jamaica Carnival, and put his stamp on the island by uniting the sounds of reggae and those who loved it...with the sounds and performance of calypso music through Carnival and masquerade.

"The biggest problem was that most Jamaicans said it wouldn't work, that it isn't a carnival country, but I persisted 'cause I believed in it," said Byron. "I wanted carnival to go to the public. You always had other carnivals that were held mostly indoor, where persons had to pay to get in. I went to the people and choose Half-Way Tree where uptown and downtown meet. That is where the route will remain."

For the past 25+ years, this is what has been taking place on the neighbouring streets of Kingston, Jamaica around Easter time. The carnival continues, though comparably small, compared to the giant festival of Trinidad & Tobago, that Byron Lee frequented during the 60s and 70s to gain inspiration from.

It continues to this day, under different monikers and iterations, however Byron Lee's "Jamaica Carnival" took a temporary hiatus in 2008 after his passing from bladder cancer. It has only now just resurrected for the 2017 carnival, in which Wray & Nephew have sponsored Jamaica Carnival's return to the road.

The songs of Byron Lee, however, continue strong throughout the Caribbean culture. They are those classic "soca" oldies that can play in any dance, any wedding reception, or BBQ, and still bring a great vibe. Songs like "Tiney Winey," and "Ragga Ragga." Or how about the interactive "Walk and Wine (Conga Line)" or "Doh Rock it So." Byron Lee and the Dragonaires are responsible for so many calypso gems, that it's hard for anyone growing up under Caribbean influence in the  70s and 80s to not be moved by their work.

Byron Lee had so much influence, that after he was hospitalized for treatment in Florida, upon his return to Jamaica he was awarded the distinctive honour of the Order of Jamaica. Prior to this award, he had received an Order of Distinction (1982) for his contributions to music and entertainment, both locally and internationally.

When he succumbed to his illness in 2008, then Prime Minister of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, said: "Jamaica, and indeed the world, has lost another great music pioneers with the passing of Byron Lee, one of the greatest band leaders to ever grace the entertainment stages of the world."

As I prepare for yet another Toronto Carnival season, and continue to slowly explore the other Caribbean Carnivals of the world, I wanted to briefly reflect on the life and legacy of Mr. Byron Aloysius St. Elmo Lee, and the beautiful music he created that will continually be a part of my internal composition.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.


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