Riddem & Rhyme: Byron Lee

Byron Lee’s been a major player in the Caribbean music business for nearly 50 years. Garry Steckles says it’s time to give him his due

Byron Lee at the mixing board. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Publishing Company Ltd.

It was a bitterly cold, blustery night in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which happens
to be my home town, and also happens to be one of the coldest places in the
world. I’ve lived and worked in some of North America’s most notoriously
frigid cities, and none can match the bone-numbing cold of my beloved Newcastle,
in the remote north east of England, on a bleak February evening.

My wife and I were waiting in the basement of an ancient pub called the Bridge
for the arrival of one of the Caribbean’s  music legends. We hung around
for half an hour in the chilly, damp room — a local music venue of some repute,
specialising in African, Caribbean, and non-mainstream jazz — when suddenly
the doors burst open, and in walked the most bedraggled, miserable, cold,
and wet bunch of Jamaican musicians I’ve ever set eyes on.

One of the sad-looking group spotted us, and walked over, smiling wryly.

“Garry, Wendy, I’ve never played in anywhere so small for 40 years, and I’ve
NEVER played anywhere so cold,” exclaimed Byron Lee. “This place can only
hold a couple hundred. How can they do this to us?”

It looked as though things couldn’t get much worse. Then the show started,
and the audience, such as it was, showed scant interest in the music staple
of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires: rip-roaring soca.

Lee, occupying his usual position at the sound-board, wasn’t having one of the better days or nights of his musical life.

But about half an hour into the show, the band cut into a ska number — and,
in an instant, the small dance-floor was jam-packed with local “skinheads’’
— young white males prone to shaving their heads, hanging out in large groups,
and frequently causing mayhem.

They’re also known for their love of ska, and with the dance floor suddenly
heaving, Lee was having a good time at last. A couple of quick signals to
the band, and, instead of an evening of soca, we found ourselves in the middle
of a ska revival. And Lee, bandleader and musical opportunist extraordinary,
had chalked up another in a long line of successes at doing what he does
best — getting a crowd, any crowd, anywhere, any time, on its collective
feet and dancing.

I tell this story because I’m a fan and admirer of Lee, a not always fashionable
stance among devotees of serious roots reggae. Lee has not often been taken
seriously as a musician, despite the fact that few have done more to make
Caribbean rhythms — ska, rocksteady, reggae, or high-energy soca — popular
around the world. Along the way,

Byron Lee has become a Caribbean institution.

I’ve known Lee for more than two decades, and I’ve seen him perform dozens
of times, in venues as diverse as Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, a cavernous
aircraft hangar in Toronto, and that pub basement in Newcastle. And he’s
never put on a show that wasn’t 100 per cent entertaining. He’s never failed
to get the crowd up and dancing, usually from the opening number. And he’s
always treated the music he plays with a respect that might surprise his
detractors.

Byron Lee may be more ambassador than innovator, and there’s no question
he’s treated music as a business as much as a vocation since he first formed
the Dragonaires way back in 1956. But with Lee’s 50th anniversary in the
business just around the corner, I can think of few people who have done
more to advance the cause of Caribbean music in all its forms over the past
half century.

Lee’s no-nonsense, businesslike approach to music has helped him in just
about every facet of his career. He’s been as big a hit as a concert promoter
and recording executive (his Dynamic Sounds studio in Kingston is one of
the most successful in the Caribbean) as he has as a bandleader.

Perhaps the pinnacle of his behind-the-scenes success has been Jamaica’s
Carnival. Virtually single-handedly, Lee — a regular at Trinidad Carnival
for decades — decided in the late 80s that Jamaica was ready for an annual
extravaganza centered around calypso and soca.

I was editor of Caribbean Week, a Barbados-based newspaper, when I
read the first press releases about Jamaica Carnival, and I must confess
I was skeptical. A soca-based carnival in the home of reggae? I had my doubts.

But Byron Lee didn’t, and, once more, he’d read the market accurately. Today,
Jamaica Carnival is the island’s biggest annual event.

So what’s next for Lee? He’s often thought about slowing down, and I distinctly
remember him telling me just that, after a show in Montreal.

That was more than a decade ago — and, to this day, it remains no more than a thought.

As he put it then, “I’d like to take it easier, but the problem is we’ve
never been in more demand, and I can’t bring myself to tell the people no.”