Byron Lee (left) in discussion with Mighty Sparrow before the two performed together on the final night of Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival at Cinnamon Hill, Montego Bay, last year. - Claudine Housen/Staff Photographer
Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor
The legendary Byron Lee, OD, of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, came face to face with cancer in late 2006. After radical surgery and a gruelling series of chemotherapy treatments he came home last week to speak with media and participate in plans for a massive concert in his honour, come June 30.
Many non-practising Christians sometimes find themselves on their own 'Damascus Road'.
In Lee's words, "I was brought up Roman Catholic but I took God for granted and now He has said to me 'you come back, Byron'."
The popular band leader, affectionately known as 'The Dragon', said he will no longer take God for granted.
He said he asked God for five more years just before going under the knife in a Florida hospital, and he thinks his prayers were answered. As he starts the road to recovery he plans to use the opportunity to give God thanks, and encourage others to do the same.
Five years is the average length of remission after major cancer surgery.
Admitting that the cancer was a big "shake up", Lee said just before the surgery he asked the doctor what it would take to guarantee success. The doctor pointed upwards and told Lee to also ask God to guide his hands.
"That was a sober moment for me. No chequebook or family could save me. It was a beautiful feeling when I came out, but going in was scary. Now I will spread the word to people and take the message of doing health checks regularly," he told The Sunday Gleaner. And so he did. Just over two months after surgery he attended a Montego Bay event and sang "It is no secret, what God can do". Everyone sang along and, based on the response, the song will be a part of the band's repertoire as often as possible.
Lee's family encircled him in love through the ordeal, including his siblings, wife and six children, but his wife took it hardest.
So, will there be a new song from the experience? Lee said no, because such a song cannot come from pain (too much from the chemo); it has to come out of happiness or sadness.
But Lee also said his illness opened the door for the band to protect its image worldwide, and he is confident that when he's gone they get the name Byron Lee's Dragonaires. His surgery and hospitalisation coincided with their tour of China, and it hurt deeply that he was unable to go because that is where his father and grandfather came from. But from all reports, everything went smoothly and Lee spoke proudly of the succession plan already in train - especially the discipline.
"I am proud of them; they, too, have become closer since the cancer. It's the miracle I hoped for, for them to play and deliver without me," Lee said. There are 12 members in the band comprising a good blend of seven foundation members and five from the younger generation.
But, in spite of that, Lee has the music in his blood and loves to be with the band. So much so that his doctor noted an improvement in Lee's health following a visit to Jamaica two months ago when he played for three minutes with assistance. He felt better. "It's the magic in the medicine of Tiny Winy," Lee said in reference to the world-famous soca tune.
Therefore, ill or hearty, there is no retirement for the maestro. "I cannot imagine my life without music and entertainment," he said.
Of the present direction of the music in Jamaica, in encyclopaedic fashion Lee said he is fortunate to have lived through the five evolutions of Jamaican music in the last 50 years: mento, blue beat/ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall.
"It is interesting to see the cross-fertilisation of dancehall with rap and hip hop, but reggae is still a dominant force," he said.
Lee admits that to date his greatest pleasure came in 1990 when he saw the crowd of over 200,000 persons from all social classes in Half-Way Tree for Carnival Road March. "It meant one day without prejudice. I had seen it in Trinidad and when I put the idea forward here they thought I was crazy. It was the happiest moment in my life," Lee said.
It was a joy for him to see the reggae and dancehall crowds from downtown with the uptown soca set, pretty much the reverse of the norm when it comes to social events in Jamaica. The same event also provided The Dragon's biggest surprise, because he saw people feeling so comfortable thatthey had finally got an equalising force never seen here before.
With all that, does Lee think music is taken seriously enough, especially from an economic perspective? He said the only person who has held a position to make a difference and took it seriously was former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. He went back to the days pre-ska when, on the verge of Jamaica attaining independence Seaga, having heard his music, called him in 1962 and asked him to compose Jamaica's own music, songs and dance for the historic event. Seaga said "I want the world to know that there is a Jamaican music, so write a song that must have 'Jamaica Ska' as part of its title, and create a dance to go with it."
No permanent organisation
Lee said further that over the years different organisations have tried, but there is no permanent organisation through which Jamaican artistes are educated to manage this valuable asset. And no one at the government level seems to realise the enormous returns to be gained from music. "For example, I have been to carnivals all over the world and Jamaica is the only country where private sponsorship runs it. In the other places governments use it to attract tourists. We just don't get it," Lee said.
When the history book is written, just how would Lee like to be remembered?
"In the same way that fine wines, luxury cars, premium whiskey, the world's top cricket ground or the leading telecoms provider are remembered. Top of the line. People should say I gave quality and value for money," Byron Lee said.
Come June 30, a concert will be held in tribute to his birthday, and Lee has asked that proceeds be donated to the Jamaica Cancer Society. So far, all the artistes are giving their time free of cost, and the interest is astounding. Feeling very upbeat, Lee told The Sunday Gleaner it was always great to receive honour in your own country. "I have received a lot, but I am still surprised, deeply honoured and pleased at the response to this one," he said.
Performers for the concert includ Ellis, Barry Biggs, Dean Fraser, Derrick Harriott, Heather Cummings, John Holt, Tony Rebel. Morvin Brooks, Marcia Griffiths, Eric Monty Morris, Prince Buster, and a host of Jamaican music foundation singers and composers.