Happy Birthday Dragon–Byron Lee

Byron Lee on left in yellow jacket in Dr. No.

Byron Lee on left in yellow jacket in Dr. No.

In celebration of Byron Lee’s birthday today, I devote today’s blog post to this masterful musician, businessman, marketer, and family man. Byron Lee, through ska, put Jamaica on the map. In an interview with Sheila Khouri Lee, widow of Byron, she said to me, “Byron Lee and the Dragonaires today is more than just a band, it is an institution, it is a part of our culture and a part of our heritage.” I couldn’t agree with Sheila more, and so let’s learn a little more about Byron Lee who passed away in 2008.

byron lee nov 19 1957

I will devote a chapter to Byron Lee’s strong, talented, and business-savvy wife, Sheila, in my upcoming book which is nearly complete, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, but for this post, let us read the following article was written by David Katz for the Red Bull Music Academy in March 2013:

Byron Lee was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Jamaican music industry. As leader of The Dragonaires, one of the island’s top show bands since the early ’60s, Lee helped build the careers of dozens of vocalists, including Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals and The Blues Busters, and was instrumental in raising the profile of ska. He later established Dynamic Sounds, then the best-equipped recording facility in the Caribbean, where excellent material was recorded by Bob Marley, The Melodians, Junior Byles and countless other Jamaican greats, as well as Paul Simon, Roberta Flack and The Rolling Stones.

As if that wasn’t enough, Lee staged Jamaican concerts with leading calypsonians and soul stars during the ’60s and ’70s, before swapping dancehall for soca in the mid-’80s, and was also instrumental in bringing Carnival celebrations to Jamaica. He received over 120 official awards for his achievements, most notably being granted the Order of Jamaica.

Yet some found Lee controversial. Many of Jamaica’s black ska originators have consistently complained that Lee appropriated their creations, angry that the Dragonaires were chosen to back the ska delegation that performed at the 1964 World’s Fair. Claims of political nepotism have been levelled, and disapproval of his penchant for MOR. Furthermore, most accounts of Jamaican music describe Lee as “Chinese” and dismiss his ability to play “authentic” Jamaican music. Similar criticism has never been directed against Mikey and Geoffrey Chung, renowned roots players of Chinese origin, nor the Hoo-Kim brothers, whose Channel One studio scored huge reggae hits in the ’70s. The Chin family of Randy’s/VP fame have also largely avoided censure.

That “Chinese” label is problematic in Lee’s case: His maternal grandmother was a woman of part-African descent, from the Jamaican village of Auchtembeddie, whose family still practiced traditional forms of African cultural expression such as Jonkunoo and Bruckins during Lee’s youth. Some point to social class as the bigger factor: Lee was definitely “uptown.” Issues of race and social class continue to be fiercely debated in Jamaica. The often privileged social status accorded minority groups with origins in Asia, Europe and the Middle East has naturally resulted in tremendous resentment, yet the complex nature of intertwined class and race elements make these issues difficult to generalise about where Jamaica is concerned.

In any case, the family moved to Kingston when Lee was eight years old and settled in the posh Mountain View Gardens district while he was still attending Mount St Joseph’s, an elite Catholic boarding school. He discovered music there through a nun’s intervention: “I used to torment the girls, so she said, ‘If you promise me that you will not hassle the girls, I will give you music lessons free,’ and that’s where I learned to play the piano. All of a sudden music became more important to me, and then, when I came to Kingston, that gave way to football.”

At St George’s College, he became a star football player, and after one successful match in 1956, Lee created an impromptu vocal group with fellow students to perform at a school victory dance. The following year, The Dragonaires officially formed with Lee as bassist and bandleader. Their recording debut, a version of Doc Bagby’s organ-and-sax instrumental, “Dumplins,” was produced by Edward Seaga at the end of the ’50s.

It was not until the Dragonaires’ appearance in the 1962 Bond film, Dr. No, that Lee felt they had made it, however. “The high point of my life was to be in the first James Bond film. I am proud of that because all the young people who watch the James Bond series can remember seeing us; it goes on forever, and the parents will tell their son or daughter, ‘I danced to that band.’”

Following the Dr. No guest spot, The Dragonaires solidified their reputation as the island’s most prominent band by staging a series of gala concerts across the island, supporting Ray Charles at the National Stadium and Ben E. King at the State Theatre. And after Seaga introduced him to ska, The Dragonaires backed many of the upcoming stars of the day. “Jimmy Cliff, Stranger & Patsy, Prince Buster, The Blues Busters, Millie Small, all these artists worked through the first couple of years of ska with us.”

I asked Lee about the charges laid against him, concerning his alleged appropriation of ska and his supposed initial dislike of the form. “Totally untrue,” he insisted. “We knew nothing about ska until Seaga sent us down there; it was being played on the western [Kingston] sound systems, but it was not played on the radio stations because they wouldn’t accept the quality: the guitars were out of tune, the records were hop, skip and jump, so when I made ‘Dumplins,’ it was the first stereo record that really got played. Ska, I helped to bring it up. I didn’t find it, nor did I originate it, but by bringing it out, we made famous, and gave the market to The Skatalites and all the people who were playing ska. Eddie Seaga was the politician whose constituency ska was in; he knew that the music need help, and he wanted to be the Minister of Culture who said, ‘I have given you a music from the ghettoes of Kingston to celebrate our sovereignity of independence.’ So in 1962, he sent us down there to study the music. Ska was always there before us, but it was sort of kept down in the ghetto. It wasn’t recognised by the people mid-town and uptown who could afford to buy it. So I took it to the people who could afford to support it.”

The music’s status was raised a notch when Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun visited Jamaica, aiming to launch ska in the USA. The result was ska cut for the American market and a chaotic set of live dates in New York, which inspired Lee to build Dynamic Sounds, the studio of choice of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “When my tour went to America, I saw the technical improvements; we saw how eight-track was coming, so I decided to go back and build a studio. Dynamic Sounds was the studio that had 90% of the things happening here: all the stuff when Leslie Kong was alive, Bob Marley, Toots and The Maytals, The Maytones, The Gaylads, The Melodians. We had four A&R people working as in-house production for us: Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, Tommy Cowan, who did Eric Donaldson’s ‘Cherry Oh Baby,’ and Boris Gardiner, and I used to produce with Neville Hinds, who used to co-direct and arrange. Lee Perry had tremendous talent. Out of all the producers we had worked with, his ear for a hit before it was actually recorded, he had that gift in his head. We had in-house engineers…. [and] we trained a lot of engineers too; most of the people came from nowhere, and we gave them the opportunity to learn.”

After the mid-’70s peak, when Lee played on The Maytals’ Funky Kingston album and brokered their contract with Island, rival studios like Harry J, Channel One and Joe Gibbs became more prominent, but Dynamics was never abandoned, with Bob Marley even recording “Blackman Redemption” there in 1979. However, when Jamaican music began drifting towards dancehall, Lee returned to the pan-Caribbean party music he’d promoted in the ’60s. A few years after he was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1982, he concentrated on soca almost exclusively, scoring the smash hit, “Tiny Winey” with Montserratian soca singer Hero in 1984, and later enjoying another huge success with “Bacchanal Time,” recorded in 1993 with Trinidad’s Super Blue. He went on to back most of the leading soca performers at concerts held worldwide.

In 1990, Lee brought Trinidad’s Carnival culture to Jamaica by launching the annual Jamaica Carnival. Again, only Byron Lee would have considered such a thing. Carnival is a strictly Catholic beast, and Jamaica’s culture is far more Anglican/Protestant than that of the islands in which Catholicism took hold via extended colonial domination by the French and Spanish. But as noted earlier, Lee was himself the product of a Catholic education, so perhaps the influence helped convince him Carnival would be successful in Jamaica.

Additionally, his long association with the calypso and soca scenes of Trinidad gave him firsthand experience of Carnival’s potential for bringing people together – as well as its prospective income generation. However, Jamaica’s annual Carnival event somehow ended up being aimed at the upper-class elite and foreign tourists, whereas Carnival in Trinidad has been embraced by everyone and is historically more associated with the working class than anyone else.

In Lee’s view, though, Carnival was simply part of the same cultural continuum that gave rise to calypso, soca, reggae and ska. “It’s in our blood,” he told me. “Even today, if you play soca, the people who are really reggae enthusiasts will feel good. That’s why they love Carnival so much, because in their blood and in their heart and soul is the brown bread of the African music, which is the sound of the congas and the rhythm of soca and calypso.”

Regardless of the controversies, Byron Lee’s incredible career remains unparalleled in the history of the Jamaican music industry. Through the ’90s and into the new millennium, Lee continued a grueling tour schedule, even after reaching his 70th birthday in 2005. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer the following year, and, after a partial recovery, he went back on the road, and continued performing until just a few months before his death, at the age of 73, in November 2008. The diverse manner of his involvement in music, as well as the huge number of hits he was responsible for, has left an immense legacy.

Miriam Makeba–Mama Africa and Jamaica

miriam makeba From the Daily Gleaner, November 26, 1967

miriam makeba
From the Daily Gleaner, November 26, 1967


I haven’t blogged in the past two weeks because I have been in South Africa and Swaziland. While there, I picked up some great South African jazz from Zacks Nkosi, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, the Manhattan Brothers, and Dennis Mpale, and of course some Lucky Dube, but I also found plenty of Miriam Makeba still making the rounds. So I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the legendary Miriam Makeba and her impact on Jamaican music.

Zensi Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, was born in 1932 in Johannesburg where today there is a street named after her. She was jailed with her mother, a Swazi, when she was an infant and her father, a Xhosa, died when Makeba was just six years old. Like many vocalists, Makeba began singing in her school choir and she started singing professionally with the Manhattan Brothers in the early 1950s before joining an all-female group, the Skylarks.

It was in 1956 that Makeba produced perhaps her most well-known hit, “Pata Pata.” This song, and here is one of the Jamaican connections, was covered by Millicent Todd, better known as Patsy, who recorded it for Sonia Pottinger in 1967 as “Pata Pata Rocksteady.” Patsy also recorded “The Retreat Song,” or Jikele Maweni, another Miriam Makeba song that is sung in the Xhosa language. The lyrics tell of a vicious stick fight.

Like Jikele Maweni, Makeba’s lyrics were typical love songs crooned by women during the 50s and 60s. Instead, Makeba’s songs were political and social commentaries on the Apartheid government in her homeland. They also celebrated Africa with content on culture and folklore, sung in the Xhosa language instead of Afrikaans or English which was a bold move during these years since the government forced the Afrikaans language on its citizens to the point of death (the Hector Pieterson massacre of over 600 school children in 1976) as a way of exerting power over and oppressing the black Africans. As a result, Makeba was banned from her country, forced to live in exile for years. When Makeba traveled to the United States to further her career, her mother died and so Makeba returned home for her funeral. She was denied entry. From 1960 until 1990, Makeba lived in exile. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he encouraged Makeba to return home which she did.

Photo by Heather Augustyn, June 2014

Photo by Heather Augustyn, June 2014

In an interview with Roger Steffens in 1988, Makeba said, “I’ve always been branded as a political singer. I never set out to sing politics; I just happen to come from a country that is oppressing my people. And I grew up under that oppression. And so I sing about my own life and the lives of my people. . . . So, the strength I get is from my people. And I get if from my mother and my father and my grandmother . . . and I get strength from all the people who have given me their love in different countries.”

Makeba was married five times to such men as fellow South African legendary musician Hugh Masekela and Black Panther Stokley Carmichael. She has won a Grammy Award in 1966 for her work with Harry Belafonte, and she has worked with such artists as Paul Simon, Nina Simone, and Dizzy Gillespie. She has appeared on the Cosby Show (now if that’s not success, I don’t know what is), and she has performed for John F. Kennedy’s birthday, as well as Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium. She died in 2008.

Another Jamaican connection to Miriam Makeba is that Makeba actually came to Kingston to perform for adoring fans in 1965 and again in 1967 and 1973 during her exile. Makeba visited countries all over the world during this time. In 1967 she performed with The Paragons, The Jamaicans, and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. She also performed at a charity ball at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, invited by Edward and Mitzy Seaga and Byron Lee. She returned in 1973 to perform and met with P.J. Patterson who was the Minister of Industry and Tourism (prior to this he was the attorney who defended Don Drummond in his murder case, and after this he became prime minister). Patterson paid tribute to Makeba for her struggle for the recognition and dignity of her South African people and the excellence of her art. It was at this time that the Jamaican government also revoked the order prohibiting Stokely Carmichael from entering Jamaica, an order that was made in 1967.

From the Daily Gleaner, December 9, 1967

From the Daily Gleaner, December 9, 1967

Why was Makeba so popular in Jamaica? Perhaps because she sang of common themes—themes of Africa, oppression, struggle, and survival during a time when the message needed to be heard the most. She celebrated her people, and as a result, her people celebrated her back. We all still celebrate her legend today, every time we put on one of her tunes. I am proud to have played her music for my young children who now sing along with her songs, although they may not know the language or its meaning. What they do understand is that universal language of music and so we pass it along to the next generation.

miriam makeba2

Here is an excerpt from the article from the Daily Gleaner, December 3, 1967 with the headline “Miriam Makeba to Return to the Regal.”
THE EXCITING Miriam Makeba — “The Voice of Africa” — returns to Jamaica with her world renowned troupe to give two performances in “The Miriam Makeba Show” at the Regal Theatre in Kingston this week Saturday. The two shows scheduled for 7.00 and 11.30 p.m. will also include a special contingent of specially selected Jamaican artistes including Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Hugh Falkner who recently won the coveted Best Singer Award in the 1967 Brazilian World Festival, Archie Lewis, Louise Bennett and The Jamaicans. The fascination of her eloquent voice, the warmth of her quiet humility, and the charm of her personality have combined to make Miriam Makeba the first South African songstress to attain international stardom. She has been referred to as “a high voltage star,” a typical example of the work camps, the bush villages and the city slums,” “a highly disciplined performer with a chic sophisticated style,” “a totally untutored performer with the stark simplicity of a primitive style and a natural feeling for the jazz idiom,” “a deliberate, very refined artiste,” Makeba, it seems, is all things to all people. Her repertoire, ranging from African songs in Zulu, Swazi, Xosa, Sothor and Shangaan languages and dialects to melodies sung in Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, Yiddish, Indonesian, and English, often features one of the most spectacular vocal effects in contemporary music, her famous Xosa click songs. In these, the featured sound has been variously described as something like “uncorking a bottle,” “the quick brush of sandpaper on sandpaper,” “two sticks striking against each other,” “the click of castanets,” “a glottal click and tribal panting,” “the explosive sound of a locomotive,” “the quick click of ‘tsk’ of tongue against palate,” and other bits of imagery that fall somewhat short of the actual, sound of the Xosa click songs. The unique star has only one suggestion that might help in categorising her. “When people ask me what I sing like,” she says, “the best I can do is tell them, ‘Come and hear me.’”

Here is columnist Harry Milner’s review of the show in the Daily Gleaner, December 11, 1967 with the headline, “The Velvet Voice of Africa.”
Last time Miriam Makeba came to Jamaica she gave a concert; this time her ”Show” was closer to cabaret….very much more polished, with a greater emphasis on presentation and considerably shorter. She wore two different costumes, both with a Nefertiti-style headdress, the first a glorious white creation in which she was a truly regal presence.
Happily, this time, she was not suffering from the appalling microphone system that marred her last appearance, and her voice came through, using her own “mike” as clear as a bell and as soft as velvet. As before, her programme was sufficiently varied, though this time there was a little more emphasis on songs of protest, such as the lovely “The Answer is Love” and Jeremy Taylor’s exciting song from the South African revue, “Wait a Minute, A Piece of Ground,” (which is a sort of potted history of her country ) and “When I Pass On”; but still her most exciting music remains the Xosa and Transkei wedding and tribal songs that she has made so indisputably her own. She included also her amusing “Poor Old Man” and also a fine Brazilian work. Her performance would have been a complete triumph had there had not been a slight misunderstanding just before the break in her show. Miss Makeba was apparently unaware of the terrible acoustics of the Regal, and she pitched her voice too low when introducing her songs for those in the far stalls or the balcony to hear. A few of the audience called on her to speak up and this she looked upon as a breach of courtesy. It was all very unfortunate as the crowd really loved her, and I think that they were quite as hurt as her by this unfortunate and jarring incident.
Milton Grayson who sang three numbers, whilst Miss Makeba changed came into a rather changed atmosphere, but soon won the audience back with a gloriously strong voice in “A Cuban Lament” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” Harmony was restored, while the two artistes brought a real party spirit to the Johannesburg “Patta Patta” urban song and dance . . . so we all parted good friends and Miriam Makeba received the hearty ovation that she deserved.
The first half of the show in which Jamaican artistes and Adam Wade performed was spoilt by bad “miking,” which was particularly hard on Archie Lewis with his “Old Man River” and “Edelweiss.” Archie somehow got hold of the worst one of the two microphones. Adam Wade was luckier, and his three numbers, including “Julie on My Mind” and fast soul offering went over well. Of the local trios The Paragons were much more successful than The Jamaicans, who in one of their numbers sounded abysmally Alabaman. Byron Lee accompanied this half of the show well, but musically Miss Makeba’s threesome was a great deal more pleasant with a very sensitive Brazilian doubling up on guitar and accordion. Miss Lou, as the “Voice of Jamaica,” immediately preceding Miriam Makeba as “The Voice of Africa,” was at her cozy best.