Caribbean Beat Magazine

Byron Lee: Soca Dragon

Jamaican bandleader Byron Lee has had an enormous influence on Jamaica's music - not least by becoming a missionary for Trinidad soca and Carnival.

  • Photo courtesy Byron Lee
  • What did Queen Elizabeth think of the Dragon’s beat? Photo courtesy Byron Lee
  • A triumphant Byron Lee poses with The Mighty Sparrow, Dionne Warwick and Solomon Burke. Photo courtesy Byron Lee
  • A youthful Mick Jagger tries to get the beat. Photo courtesy Byron Lee
  • Photo courtesy Byron Lee
  • Photo courtesy Byron Lee
  • Byron Lee

There’s a body on the bare wooden stage. The open-air “dancehall” is by the sea on the north-western peninsula of Trinidad. It is exposed to the full mid-afternoon sun, and empty. Under the stage, the sea strokes the pilings. For a backdrop, tall-masted sailboats ride at anchor.

Tonight, this same space will be a heaving, chanting, waving mass of dancers in the countdown to Trinidad Carnival. But the band that will move them is Jamaican: Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.

“Ah’m just takin’ ah five,” says the body on the stage. The accent is a very broad Jamaican drawl, a voice like the darkest Caribbean rum.

Byron Lee doesn’t sing. But Caribbean parties have been dancing to his music for over 40 years. He claims to have been the “midwife to ska” and has been an integral part of Trinidad Carnival for 21 years. Behind the mixing board on the back of a Carnival big truck, or on electronic guitar, he still looks like some inscrutable oriental shopkeeper. Or maybe an Okinawan fisherman, with that squat square build, that wizened brown skin.

Byron’s father came from Hong Kong. “He came over when all the Chinese went to build the Panama Canal, and a lot of them settled in Jamaica. He knew a little English. My mother’s mother was a black Jamaican, her father was Chinese.

“My mother and father knew nothing about music. They were very wealthy people. When Nationalist China was under Chiang Kai Shek, my father worked for one thing, to take us all back to China. He had bakeries, hardware stores, everything. He sent back all his money to China, to a son he had there, my bigger brother. My father sent all his money to him, to get us to school, buy a house. When we were getting ready to go, the Communist Chinese came in, and the whole thing changed. My father lost all his money. So we came to Kingston. My father wanted to go into a supermarket. I said, no, I didn’t like that. I wanted to start the music. So I went to work for Geddes Grant as a salesman . . . ”

Byron’s music started when he was around 15, at high school. “I used to play football. The Dragonaires were a major soccer side from St George’s. The football jersey we used to wear had a shield with St George slaying the dragon. One year, we won all the cups, in three divisions. And we used to celebrate the victories in the dressing room of our College. So we became the Dragon-aires for music.”

When he first went to Roman Catholic school, Byron says, “I started playing the piano. You can’t carry the piano around with you, so I used to play the guitar. When I started in ’56, we did not have a national sound. We had a folk song called mento, like the calypso. It came out in Linstead Market, or Island In The Sun, which Harry Belafonte took to America, watered it down and called it calypso. It was really mento. We used to call it calypso too.

“But the conventional bands were playing big band music, sheet music: Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady; Glen Miller’s In The Mood. Our musicians used to sit down, with four sax, four trumpets and a standing bass. No microphones, maybe one little mike for the singer. That was the way it used to run in Jamaica when I started. Very formal, dressed in bow-tie.

“The music of the poor people was from record players, mento, and then American beebop music, rock n’ roll. That was the era of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Little Richard, and the explosion of black artists: Sam Cooke, Benny King, the Drifters, Gerry Butler, Platters, Coasters, Paul Anka, on radio and the big screen. I was influenced by the way the men used to stand up, with the guitar around their neck. Up to then, nobody was standing up to play music, it was a sit-down thing.

“We played for three years without any money, for our peers and comrades. Nobody wanted us to play, we used to ask . . . We used to play on the verandah, for free: sweet-sixteen birthdays, weddings. That is why the band is what it is today: those people grew up with the band and told their children, ‘It was Byron Lee who played before you were born.’ We are a Momma and Poppa band. They passed us on to their children, and to grandchildren now.

“And I used to play for all the big Chinese dances, associations, societies, athletic clubs and so on, in Kingston. They owned all the shops too, in Montego Bay, in Ocho Rios. I used to pick up the phone and say, ‘I want to play at your function . . . ’

“While I was still working at Geddes Grant, I had to take my salary and buy equipment, speakers, amplifiers, horns. We were the first band to buy an electric bass in the Caribbean, the first Fender bass. I paid down and paid for it out of my salary, little by little. But all this gave a bad taste to Geddes Grant. The band was taking too much time. So I put in my resignation. I remember Mr Ralph Grant saying, ‘Nobody in the Caribbean has ever left their work to take up music full-time; it’s the biggest risk in the world.’

“But I went to Fr Campbell, the priest. I told him I wanted to do this, it had a risk. He said, ‘If you work as hard on the band as you do at Geddes Grant, you’ll make it.’ We all left jobs with easy money to play music. I never worked for anybody after that.”

Independence. He comes back to the theme later, apropos of younger musicians, and the struggle to be somebody. “An artist has to be a little hungry. You can’t own him.”

The Dragonaires took the step, from which they never looked back, in the early sixties. In 1960, they were featured in the James Bond movie Dr No, playing three numbers: Three Blind Mice; Jump Up Jump Up Jamaica; and Ursula Andress’s Under The Mango Tree.

Jamaica became independent in 1962 and started holding a Jamaica Festival. Street bands went on the road on trucks the first two years, playing everything, mento to mamba. It wasn’t really a Carnival, but a kind of independence parade such as Guyana started with its Independence celebration, Mashramani.

Trinidad has a Carnival tradition embracing calypso, from the mid-19th century, and pan, from this century. But Jamaica, Byron says, until independence, had no national sound. “They playing ska down in the ghetto. But ‘main’ Jamaica is still playing imported music, big band, mamba, Latin music, Tito Puente, and the American Sam Cooke, Gerry Butler. All the Jamaican artists are singing and copying American acts. People loved that, to go to the theatre and hear locals sounding like Sweet Inspirations, Platters, Coasters.” The Twist was the American dancehall rage, but over the next decade or so it would be shadowed by Caribbean dance tracks.

At that time, Edward Seaga (later to be Prime Minister of Jamaica) was not yet committed to politics. He owned a recording company called West Indies Records. He made the very first recording for the Dragonaires. It was a song called Dumplins, with an American rock styling, which went to the top of the charts.

Byron remembers Seaga’s first impression when he heard it. “He said to me, that beat is in the ghetto, in my constituency, in a place called Tivoli Gardens.” Seaga took Byron and his band there. “And we met all the great artists of ska. We took the music, took the artists, and went where we call ‘uptown’. The first ad read, ‘Ska goes uptown: Byron Lee meets King Edward Sounds’ up in a place called Glasgow, and they had five or six thousand people, from all walks of life. There had been no acceptance by ‘main’ Jamaica. Now, all of a sudden, it explodes: because Byron Lee plays it, it must be acceptable. Edward Seaga said he wanted to send me to New York to perform at the Jamaica Trade Fair. ‘There you will play ska with a choreographed dance.’ And so ska was born in 1964, in America and Jamaica.”

As ska became an international success, so did the Dragonaires. “We were playing all over the world. We had come to Trinidad and Tobago in ’63 and ’64. We went back in ’65 on a big Caribbean tour. We played at the theatres, cinemas. We were not then involved in the Carnival fetes, but we toured the Guardian Sports Club, Perseverance, Tavern on the Green. We did the Sunday Serenade at the Deluxe cinema under the guidance of Sam Ghany, the gentleman who really gave us our start in Trinidad.”

In 1963, Byron heard Sparrow’s hit calypso Dan Is The Man and Kitchener’s Road March, The Road: “We took those back to Jamaica with the brake drums playing percussion. We introduced calypso back to Jamaica, the real true calypso. But we got a lot of resistance to it. For many years in Jamaica, they used to call me the jump up band. In Trinidad, I was the Jamaican band, a ska band.”

By that time, Jamaican rock steady was already replacing ska. Byron calls it Jamaica’s second evolution. Each era, he says, brought forth an international artist who produced a hit record. Ska was Millie Small, followed by Chuck Berry. Rock steady’s big American star was Johnny Nash, then Paul Simon who later became part of Simon & Garfunkel.

After Seaga released Dumplins, he produced Fireflies for the Dragonaires. Then he went into politics. He campaigned in the same low-income Tivoli area in western Kingston, and became the first white man to win in a black territory — 28 years later, he is still their Member of Parliament. So Seaga left the recording business as Byron entered it. In 1968, Byron Lee established Dynamic Sounds Ltd. on the site of Seaga’s company. The music was changing again, from rock steady to reggae. Bob Marley was emerging as the star of the reggae era, which, according to Byron, was “the third evolution” in Jamaican music, during the seventies.

All that time Byron Lee and the Dragonaires were playing a little of everything, including calypso. In 1974, when the band came to Trinidad Carnival for the first time, Byron Lee began a love affair with the music of this south Caribbean sister that has never ended. That year, Bassman, sung by calypsonian Shadow, was the Road March. Byron remembers playing in the Normandie Hotel car park, with Ray Sylvester, Gemini Brass, Carib Tokyo. Three dollars was the entrance fee.

“In 1974, I was a youngster creeping into Trinidad music. They loved us. But hey, this was Trinidad’s big yard, we had to come good. It took a while for us to get adjusted to the speed and the rhythm of Trinidad music. Being a Jamaican band, we were laid back. Reggae tempo, the beats to a minute are like 90 to 100. In Trinidad, upspeed tempo is like 120 beats. Trinidad calypso is over 120. We used to play for the fetes fast-fast.”
Why did he go to Trinidad Carnival every year?

“Why have the people let me come? If they didn’t want me, the promoters wouldn’t let me come. I must be the only band that for 20 years is accepted as part and parcel of the brass band scene. We have entrenched ourselves in the heart of the people: the quality of our music, and the fact that we take soca music to every part of the world. People in every part of the universe who are from Trinidad and have families always know when Byron Lee comes to town, and brings soca music, the latest beat out of Trinidad. So people who have no money to come back to Trinidad for Carnival look for us when we come to town.”

To take Trinidad music to the world, Byron Lee says it is necessary to be in Trinidad at Carnival, to live the music. “You can’t just listen to a record. You have to come and see what the bands are doing. We feed off them and they feed off us. Because they are feeling the people, while they are getting the people to jump up, they coming up with phrases that we don’t hear on the record. Coming to Trinidad is like the University of Soca, the Wimbledon of tennis, the Lords of test cricket.

“And Trinidad is where the money is the least in the world. I come here for pocket money, but until you come you have not really arrived. Sometimes I lose (money). But if you haven’t come to Trinidad, it’s like you have not gotten your stamp of approval. You haven’t got your visa to travel soca. You got to get your visa renewed here to travel the world from the mecca of Carnival.”

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires base themselves in Trinidad for six weeks during the Carnival season. The first three weeks, they play three nights a week. And in the last three weeks, they play 16 nights non-stop, ending with the two days on the road, right down to Las’ Lap.

Byron played at Carnival fetes for over a decade before he first played for a mas band on the road. He made his debut in the street parade in 1986 with Baila Baila. “The reason I never played before is that I didn’t want to displace a Trinidad band. For me to play in a fete with four bands is acceptable. For me to take away the job of a band, on the road, is trouble.

“The next year I went to Stephen Lee Heung who had Gemini Brass and wanted another band. I played with Stephen for five, six years.”

“Then I played two years for Stephen Derek, who came to Jamaica to help me start the Carnival there. If it wasn’t for Stephen Derek, Jamaica wouldn’t have a Carnival. And in 1997, I played for a big band for the first time, Poison. I always wanted to play for a big band like that.” (Dragonaires played alongside Machel Montano and Xtatik, Second Imij and five disco trucks.)

Byron has always recognised that “Jamaica had no Carnival to say.” It is reggae country. It is not part of the eastern Caribbean. When he went on the road for Stephen Lee Heung in 1987, he says, “I saw people enjoying themselves in the Savannah, on the road, in costumes, or just looking on. I thought, why we can’t do it in Jamaica? I also saw Jamaicans coming here to dance. Fifty, sixty Jamaicans would come for Carnival to play mas in the band.”

So he decided to bring a Trini-style Carnival to Jamaica. The first was in 1990. “What I did, like ska, was be the midwife. I delivered the music to Jamaica, and the Carnival and the spectacle. And I encouraged Jamaicans to come to Trinidad.

“What really got to me was that everybody, even the poor people, could come out in thousands to be part of Trinidad Carnival. So I went back to Jamaica and started talking. I got a lot of flak: flak from the reggae fraternity; flak from the church; flak from the uptown people who say, ‘We not goin’ put on our clothes to come and mix with the people.’ Because Jamaicans are very class prejudiced — not racial, class! A black man can be respected as a bank manager, whereas a white man would not be respected if him don’t drive a car.

“That, and people saying, ‘I am not leaving the security of my house to go into Halfway Tree, the place you want me to go is right bordering where the bad guys are, you are so crazy.’ And I begged them. I said, let’s try it. I say you come to Trinidad, I see you on Frederick Street, down Charlotte Street, they say no, no, that’s different. I said, would you give it a try?”

Byron’s satisfaction in his eighth year is obvious. “We’ve had Jamaica Carnival now seven years in a row, we have not had one incident. 300,000 locks people, reggae guys, bad guys, gunman, everything you could imagine, not a single incident of violence, which shows you the respect for what I am doing, and the power of soca music.”

The power of soca music? Byron admits it’s something which “our own reggae people can’t understand; they had seminars on it you know, they say how is it that soca and Byron Lee could go down Halfway Tree for seven years, without pow pow, gunshot and police?”

This is how Byron tries to explain it. “Reggae is an implosion, soca is explosion. The commands coming from reggae could be violent and hard, a macho thing. Music is a very powerful force, and you could use it that way. Soca music takes all your pains out of you.”

Like a soca evangelist, he submits anecdotal evidence. “I know this lady who has a big position in Jamaica, the first woman with that power. Because of Jamaica’s class prejudice, if you have a position they will say, ‘What you doing on the road for Carnival?’ She didn’t come to Carnival for two years because of her position. And I saw her this year. And she said to me, ‘Byron, if I lose my job tomorrow, I don’t care. I am the most unhappy person if I don’t come to Carnival. I might as well give up the job.’ And she’s been to Carnival ever since.

“The US ambassador looked at the Carnival last year, and he said that Monday morning (the day after the Carnival) he would have to fax Washington and tell them that what you hear about Jamaicans is not what you should know. You have to see for yourself. And that is the power of the music of Trinidad and Tobago.

“When you bring Carnival, you have to hear soca, it’s the music of the event. When I bring the soca music to Jamaica, they say, ‘Why can’t we use our local calypsos?’ I say to them, ‘Trinidad releases for Carnival over 100 records, and we have the pick of the best’.”

Which reminds Byron of an aside to the Trini music industry. “You know that is your strong point and your downfall: everybody want to win Road March, to be king, to go with it and earn the money, you release 100 records of which you must get 15 or 20 solid shots.”

So the Jamaica Carnival is fuelled by the music of the Trinidad Carnival, which precedes it by six weeks. Byron Lee and the Dragonaires perform the midwife’s duty: they deliver the hits of the season. “We arrive at the 20 best tunes — what has been proven and tested to run the Carnival — to play in Jamaica.”

In 1991, the Byron Lee Jamaica Carnival faced one of its biggest challenges: from the churches, mainly Anglican, whose objection was that Carnival is devil worship, a pagan thing, body worship. What troubled them the most, he soon found out, was that Jamaica Carnival starts on the Easter weekend, the high point of the church calendar. The solution was not too difficult: no Carnival fetes in Holy Week, no calypso on the radio until after midday on Easter Sunday.

At the start of Lent, however, on his return from Trinidad where Carnival ends at Ash Wednesday, there is a season of blowouts where the new tunes, the new dances and the new sounds are revealed. “All the way, we play soca music. I’ve got to heat up Jamaica. I have to spend four weekends to promote 12 tunes, so when Carnival come, they singing, they dancing, they know them. But from Palm Sunday to Easter, we slow it down.”

On the north coast, in Ocho Rios, on Easter Sunday afternoon, the week-long Jamaica Carnival celebration starts as a big countdown fete: it’s beamed to tourists and Jamaicans in the north, which is more affluent and very tourist-oriented. It results in a party of some 12,000 to 15,000 people. On Monday, this party is repeated in Kingston to a smaller audience. On Tuesday, there’s a Queen show; Wednesday, ol’ mas; Thursday, calypso tent night, with Sparrow, Crazy, Sprangalang, all Trinidadians. Friday, people start to slow down a little; the main feature is King of Sounds, with local DJs who play reggae and dancehall and every kind of Caribbean music. On Saturday morning, there’s a Junior Carnival parade. Saturday night sees the Clash of the Giants, with feature bands like Atlantik, Xtatik, Mingles, Blue Ventures, Byron Lee. The big day is Sunday, which now starts with an early morning J’Ouvert parade, continues with a mas band parade, and ends with the Last Hurrah, the massive party after all the bands go across the stage.

Though it may be attracting more interest from year to year, the Byron Lee Jamaica Carnival has not really grown as a road parade. People come one year, and not the next. No government puts a penny, although the promotion comes from the Jamaica Tourist Board. But while Jamaica may not have the cultural tradition of an annual street Carnival, the event has proven to be a commercial success. Funding for the road parade comes from big advertisers like Pepsico, KFC, Appleton Rums, Air Jamaica and Red Stripe Beer. Their financing supports the mas camps and subsidises costumes which will only be sold if they are within the price reach of the average Jamaican.

In the past, Trinidad-based band-leaders such as Lee Heung, Derek, Garib, Minshall, Hart and Berkeley have produced costumes or presented bands in Jamaica. But more Jamaican bands are being formed: among them are Revellers, D Masqueraders (Byron’s daughter Danielle in collaboration with Stephen Derek), Oak Ridge and Maestro.

In insisting that the Carnival carries his name, Byron Lee is not simply claiming the soca bridge between Jamaica and Trinidad, but hoping to continue to shape the festival which is still in an embryonic stage. “We don’t have the (Carnival) culture in Jamaica, so we have to take the commercial end, impose it on the people. It’s an imposition. It’s not like they want it and we supplying it. We have to cajole them, nurse them and give them all kinds of incentives to go and play mas on the road. The women in Jamaica don’t know to play mas. They don’t know ’bout Ash Wednesday when everything finish, you start thinking about the next year. The men don’t even want to play mas, they think it is too sissy.”

Byron Lee is in his 62nd year. According to Chinese astrology, he is in the autumn of his life, a golden harvest time. He says it is time to “pull back, to recharge batteries.” The band has been on the road for the past five years, nine months of the year. In the last eight months of 1997, he was scheduled to give 47 performances in 21 cities.

He employs 14 people in the Dragonaires now, and 127 persons in Dynamic Sounds, the recording company of which Byron Jr. is the financial controller. Another son, Edward, is the GM, Marketing.

His daughter Julianne runs two big CD/record outlets in Jamaica called Digital Audio. Danielle makes and plays mas: she has her own mas band in Jamaica, and she flies all over the world to take part in contests. Yet another daughter recently graduated as a barrister in England and is back in Jamaica.

It is a dragon’s dynasty. Of the original Dragonaires, there remain Byron, and Carl Brady who no longer travels, staying with the recording company. For the moment, after 40 years, Byron may be a little tired. “We need a museum of music,” he says. “It’s not an easy mantle for me to continue to carry . . . everywhere.”