By Kerry Doole
The words 'icon' and 'legend' are tossed around way too promiscuously these days, but there's no denying both are accurate terms to describe Byron Lee (aka The Dragon]. He needs little introduction to anyone with a passing knowledge of Caribbean music, and he's recognized internationally as both a pioneer and crucial promoter of many of the different genres to emerge from the Caribbean.
Jamaican-born and raised, Lee, at 73, has worn many hats over the course of a career spanning 52 years - bandleader, composer, producer, music publisher, record label head (Dynamic Sounds), studio owner, and more. His skills as a music business entrepreneur have been pivotal in the evolution of Caribbean music, at home and abroad. He once explained that "I received the soul, rhythm and love of music from my mother, who was of African descent. I received my shrewd business sense from my father, who was Chinese."
An excellent entertainer and bandleader, Lee has retained a love of performance. "I love everything about music," he tells WORD in a recent interview. "I get the same pleasure up on the bandstand playing, sitting in the studio, writing or recording, playing music. Anything to do with music in whatever form it appears, they all give me the same pleasure. I guess there's a little more edge when you're on the bandstand, in front of 10,000 people enjoying themselves."
Lee has had to cut back his performance schedule in recent years because of health issues. "I do not work full-time with the band in Jamaica now, since I came to Miami for medical treatment," he says. "A few years ago I had a very serious operation and am just now recovering. The Dragonaires are playing in Jamaica now. The new Prime Minister called me personally and said 'I want you to come back for the [Jamaican independence anniversary] celebrations.'"
Lee has deservedly received over 150 awards during his long career, including the Order of Distinction from the Government of Jamaica and a UNICEF/United Nations Award for promoting Caribbean music. One honour that has eluded him is entry into the Guiness Book of World Records as leader of possibly the longest surviving band in show business.
He is proud of his longevity, noting that "when I was at the last Notting Hill Carnival in London, I challenged the Rolling Stones. In the last Guiness Book of World Records they claim the title of the band that has been together the longest. I looked at all the criteria. They started in the '60s, Byron Lee and The Dragonaires started in 1956!'
To mark his 50th anniversary in music, Lee released a superb three CD box set, a Commemorative Collection, in 2006, one that captures his eclectic big-band ska and soca derived sound. "It is our best seller," says Lee. "It is a great souvenir, as people realise we are coming to the end of our career soon, and they would like to catch us at our peak."
The upcoming Saturday August 2nd performance of Byron Lee and The Dragonaires is sure to be a highlight of the 2008 IRIE Festival.
"I've been coming to Caribana for the last 20 years, and I always enjoy playing both in Toronto and right across Canada," he says.
Lee is clearly excited about his brand new CD, Soca Royal. "It will show that we are at our peak now," he declares. "I can justify the claim that I can play all the Caribbean music out there. I started all that music. I didn't pick it up from Bob Marley or from Sparrow. I started it, from the birth of calypso in Trinidad, the birth of soca, the birth of reggae, rocksteady and dancehall in Jamaica. I created the fusion of these genres of music, of soca from Trinidad and reggae dancehall from Jamaica. That is why my album Dancehall Soca is still selling to this day."
To describe Soca Royal to us, Lee quotes from the album liner notes, written by his manager Neville Hines. "This release is designed to please those audiences who request all genres of music, and Byron Lee has found the formula to satisfy his many fans. He wants so much to bring back sweet soca music and sweet reggae music, which have been abandoned by many Caribbean artists and radio stations. He caters to all ages, so when you hear Soca Royal, you hear vintage as well as today's hits. It is a variety of tunes done in mento style, soca, calypso, chutney, rock steady, which justifies the phrase created by The Dragon, 'music that memories are made of'."
Lee adds that "what I have tried to do with this album is take all the hits and put them back as sweet music, like in the days of the sweet reggae of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, and the sweet soca of Byron and Kitchener. They are being erased every day."
There is no false modesty or humility about Byron Lee. "Which other band can play all these genres and types of Caribbean music and get away with it?," he asks rhetorically. Catching the legend in action at IRIE Festival is an opportunity not to be missed.