gall and gumption

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Byron Lee 1935-2008

Quite possibly you never heard of him.

You know that from time to time here I'll write something about really old calypsos. One recent acquisition was some from Trinidad in the 1940s. The first time my father heard it he said that when he was growing up in Jamaica in the 1940s, all the live music you heard basically sounded like that, just a little more upmarket than a mento band really. In Trinidad where calypso had become a sort of mania the sound was bigger but things like this traveled more slowly around the region.

And then in the 1950s Byron Lee happened. Since then, he gave Jamaica and the Caribbean 48 years of straight-up, fun, extremely danceable calypso, reggae and soca. Music that could work at an army officers' ball, at a road march, that went anywhere, that you might dance to in an evening gown or glitter-sprinkled semi-nude, down the middle of a big street in broad daylight.

How they endured! They were there before ska, and they were there through all the permutations of dance hall. Byron Lee founded his band, the Dragonnaires, in 1956. If you grew up in Jamaica any time after that, effectively you grew up on his music, it was like the background music to life. I would say that even though a lot of important (socially, historically, politically) Jamaican music went off in a completely different direction from the soca-calypso-reggae line that Byron Lee pretty much stuck to, I was always surprised over the years to discover that 1) he was still playing, and 2) the esteem in which he was held grew each year. And yet he was really out of fashion in an odd sort of way: he never had dreadlocks, he never did any "dub" or any of the really hard, edgy stuff that increasingly dominated the reggae scene. But every few years or so he would throw out something utterly irresistible, like "Tiny Winey", and in between hits he was simply dependable. Absolutely dependable. And yes, if you watch the video that far, "Boom boom" means what it looks like it means (the recording has a bit of a glitch in the middle but it's the original video they put out with the song).

He might have been your parents' music, but something in it made you want to dance in spite of yourself.

If you liked that, there's lots more of him on YouTube. Caribbean people love their YouTube. Watch for his collaboration with the Mighty Sparrow on one of Sparrow's few serious love ballads, "Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart," a song I remember being sung by, it seemed, every single housekeeper and domestic helper in my early life. A huge hit in Jamaica that you probably never heard or heard of. Jamaican people love sappy ballads. If you get out into the towns in Jamaica or listen to the radio you will hear a lot of the music that is known in the States as "Easy Listening." Jamaican people have an abiding affection for this stuff, and for American country music of a certain style and vintage.

In the clips you will notice that no one in his band is wearing dreadlocks. Byron Lee was middle class. He was Babylon. He was square. But he was, according to the tribute paid to him by Jamaica's House of Representatives, the first person to make reggae known in North America. My impression is that other musicians respected him for his musicianship, his total professionalism, for his genuine, generous good nature and for the fact that he always looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. And what you might not get or realize from here is that all through the reggae epoch there have been calypsonians, soca bands, and balladeers, right up to the present, singing alongside the hardcore dancehall or protest songs. Byron Lee ruled in this division of Jamaican musicl he ruled it longer than reggae has been in the world. For many people this will be like losing a friend, a familiar voice that was part of life all along.


At 2:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart' was written in 1964 in Brooklyn New York by Norman Bergen and the late Shelly Coburn. There are now more than 60 versions worldwide.


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