The Music Diaries | Byron Lee and Jamaica Carnival - death of a dynasty?
While Carnival revellers were jumping and gyrating to the rhythms of street bands at Jamaica Carnival 2018 Road Marches last Sunday, it became obvious that there was one notable absentee among the bands - Jamaica Carnival.
A creation of the late great Jamaican bandleader and music pioneer Byron Lee, the band has, over the years, become an almost permanent fixture of the annual celebrations. Lee was also responsible for bringing carnival celebrations to Jamaica in 1990. His death on November 4, 2008, put the brakes on the proceedings for some eight years, only to see the second advent of Jamaica Carnival being aborted in 2018 due to a lack of sponsorship. Wherever the spirit of Byron is today, it must be very disturbed at this late development.
The idea for the event itself, referred to as Jamaica Carnival Celebrations, was conceptualised by Lee who had a vision of bringing the music, energy and vibe of Trinidad and Tobago's annual carnival to Jamaica. He also had a vision of using the music of carnival to bring Caribbean people together. His daughter Julianne, the current director of Jamaica Carnival, is quoted as saying: "The vision of the late Byron Lee was to use music as the medium to unite people regardless of race, colour or creed."
Byron Lee had previously gained valuable experience and exposure with handling such events, through his participation in a number of carnivals all over the world. His main inspiration, however, came through his many visits to the Twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, where he became closely associated with their calypsos, celebrations and the calypso king - The Mighty Sparrow. In an interview I had with Lee, he paid special tribute to the calypso king for his help: "When Sparrow brought me to Trinidad, he taught me, and I learnt from him the true beat of soca and some of his lyrics."
Soca (soul calypso) has always been an integral part of Carnival in the twin-island republic. In short order, Lee fell in love with the soca rhythms and it soon became one of the main driving forces that inspired him to introduce both the genre and the carnival event to Jamaica. Lee's early experiments with Soca music, saw him working out with his band - Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, alongside eastern Caribbean stars like Gabby, Arrow and The Mighty Sparrow, whose collaborations with Lee produced the immortal album; Sparrow Meets the Dragon in 1969 on a label appropriately titled - SpaLee Records. It featured a mixture of ballads and rudimental soca selections. With Byron Lee and the Dragonaires emitting rich horns and piercing percussion to surround Sparrow's romantic rhyming lyrics, hits flowed from the grooves, with Maria being perhaps the most popular cut:
"Maria darling I must go
but remember I love you so.
Unfortunately we must part.
You don't know how it breaks
I wish I coulda stay with you
and give you what is yours to
but until we meet again I
right now we gotta say I oh".
By the mid-1980s, soca was full-blown with Byron Lee and The Dragonaires' Tiny Winey being perhaps the biggest soca hit of that period. It remains a big draw at carnival celebrations around the Caribbean.
Sometimes referred to as 'the dragon' (the name being derived from his alma mater - St Georges College's insignia), Lee's foundation was deeply rooted in jump-up calypsos like Jamaica Jump Up, Limbo Jamaica, River Bank Jump Up and Sunset Jump Up, all in the early 1960s. In a 2014 interview I did with Neville Hinds, a foundation and long-serving keyboard player of the band, he recounted the band's transition from a jump-up style to the soca brand:
"It was in about 1965-66, we went to Trinidad. The band used to do shows, playing regular music at that time with vocalists, The Blues Busters at cinemas around the Caribbean. Nineteen sixty-seven was the beginning of the soca days with the band. The band was invited to Trinidad for their independence celebrations in 1971, and the following year was the first time we went to Trinidad for carnival. Thereafter, the band became a regular fixture of their carnival, where we played soca and calypso," Hinds said.
Apart from soca, calypso and jump-up music, Lee was also a great exponent of ska music, backing several No. 1 hits by top vocalists of the day. In 1960, when ska was not even yet on the cards, Lee created two different pieces of history at home and abroad with his first recording - Dumplins. At home, it became the first ska-flavoured recording to reach the top 10 of the Jamaican charts - while abroad, it was the second Jamaican recording to be released on the Blue Beat record label, a label specifically authorised to release Jamaican recordings in The United Kingdom.