Carrying on Byron Lee’s legacy
ACCORDING to the Chinese zodiac, the Dragon is one of the 12-year cycle of animals which relate to the Chinese calendar, and the only animal that is mythical. The Year of the Dragon is associated with the earthly attributes of honesty, sensitivity and bravery.
These are but some of the virtues associated with distinguished Jamaican musician, Byron Lee, affectionately called the Dragon.
The enduring musical institution he started in 1956, which since his death two years ago has been rechristened as Byron Lee's Dragonaires, is determined to keep the torch burning the way the iconic visionary built it, and would have wanted to see it continue.
"Nothing really has changed, in terms of where we are going and what we want to do," music director/keyboardist Neville Hinds, who has been a member of the Dragonaires for more than 40 years, told Splash.
"Where we are heading is in the same direction that Byron has envisioned. The way he saw it, and what we are doing is carrying on that legacy," Hinds said; adding, "there are four principles that he would speak of — the band to look good, the band to sound good, the band to have discipline, and the band should give value for money. Those are the four pillars that he built the band on. And Byron is the epitome of all of those. So we continue with that legacy."
The band is presently working on the first album to be released since its leader has departed. "We are in the studio now," Hinds explains. "We are coming out with a new album Softly Volume 9... It's a series of albums. It came about from the softer side of Byron."
He further revealed that the album, which will be out in time for the Christmas season, was put together by himself and Byron's widow, Sheila. "She knows how dear it was to Byron and we came together and decided that we are going to do Softly in memory of the Dragon. In the past, Byron and myself used to do the selections of the songs for the albums. For this one, selections were between myself and her (his wife Sheila). Some of the songs I have choosen because he had mentioned before that he wanted to record them. And she picked some that were dear to her and him and so we came up with this compilation."
Included on this memorial set for the Dragon are Michael Jackson's You're Not Alone and the Titanic theme song, My Heart Will Go On. A follow-up album is scheduled for release in time for next year's carnival season.
The veteran musician promised that the band, noted for its blend of music — mento, reggae, rocksteady, ska, soca, calypso as well as R&B — will be concentrating on more original dance music.
But that does not mean that it will be the end of covers for the Dragonaires. The Dragonaires prided themselves on being able to play any style of music. Their expansive repertoire, beginning with their first single Dumplin in 1959 to Dollar Wine of recent vintage, includes covers of American pop and R&B hits.
"In terms of our dance music we are heading in the direction where we are going to be doing more originals, but will never stop doing covers. Music is music. And we are song stylists. We can take a song and put our own stamp on it."
In pointing to the way forward, Hinds, who is also a longstanding studio engineer at Dynamic Sounds Recording Company, also said that greater emphasis would be placed on touring, especially in Europe.
"We are looking forward to next year for a season in Europe for the summer festivals. We have been contacted for quite a few festivals. And that is something that Byron had looked at in the past, but we were more North American and Caribbean oriented in the carnivals and the festivals in these regions, but now we are going in the direction of the European festivals.
"Come next year carnival period, we are also going into doing what we call dance fêtes for ourselves. The band will be involved in that, playing different places around the island. We are the wheels, we make the people dance. So long as there are festivities, we will be there."
The Dragonaire, led by its late founder Byron Lee, played a crucial pioneering role in bringing Caribbean music to the world. Originally playing mento, over time the Dragonaires had become a fixture on Jamaica's musical landscape providing backing to visiting American stars including Harry Belafonte, Chuck Berry, The Drifters, Sam Cooke, and Fats Domino among countless others.
The band became one of the major ska bands of the early 1960s, releasing singles such as Fireflies, Mr Lee, Joy Ride, and a ska version of Over the Rainbow.
In 1961, the band received a huge break when they were cast as the hotel band in the first James Bond film, Dr No. The Dragonaires received another major boost when they were selected by Edward Seaga, then the island's head of Social Welfare and Economic Development, in 1964 to travel to the New York World Fair and perform as a backing band for a showcase of Jamaican talent, including Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, and Millie Small.