Byron Lee’s Jamaica Carnival concept is like a classic vehicle for culture
A kaleidoscope of colours, the pageantry of costumes, craft and designs and clean-cut fun.
Byron Lee envisioned the streets of Jamaica painted with people of all ages, adorned in all the colours of the earth, the revelry, and at the centre of it all, the musical culture cutting a magnetic but revolutionary presence, exuding a rareness befitting global recognition – that was the concept of Jamaica Carnival – and still is said Julianne Lee, daughter of the late musical legend and businessman.
As the carnival celebrations colour the streets of Kingston today, Jamaica and the family of Byron Lee reminisce on the contributions to what has been named a ‘billion dollar industry’, bringing in a large percentage of tourists annually.
“He would be pleased that carnival is ongoing and would want his input. It was one of his passions even in the final stages of his life. There was a significant amount of investment financially, over the years, and he also gave up other streams of income to concentrate on building out the vision he had for the event,” Julianne told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I absolutely think more can be done to honour him, to acknowledge the massive industry that was born out of his brainchild, investment and talent, and by way of leveraging his relationships throughout various industries worldwide and in the region,” she added.
Jamaica Carnival’s inaugural staging in 1990 was not a ‘push to start’ execution. The vehicle was being fuelled from the year before, Julianne explained, with pre-production beginning early. It required her father to take time off from other businesses and tours and put his other brands on the back burner.
“He was not a promoter promoting an event. He was developing an offspring of our Jamaican culture to include a different genre and make it our own by giving it our own spin and flavour, adding our amazing talent to create a product, which he did do with Jamaica Carnival,” she said. “It was to be a vehicle that mirrored what happened when ska became the genre to promote Jamaica during our Independence. That was a unique concept, and it was not just a cookie-cutter product that could be had in other cities around the world. It was unique to all the other carnivals in the world … second to Trinidad. We made it luxurious with drink and food on the road because that was not done on a mass scale when we developed the carnival in 1989.”
Reminiscing on Jamaica Carnival in the 1990s into the early 2000s, Julianne delighted in memories of pan night, the calypso tent, the display of Carnival Kings and Queens, the songwriting aspect, and her father being at the steering wheel.
She said, “It wasn’t about going to a fête and partying and having revenue at your gate. It was an actual presentation. The mandate – objective and drive – is that we want this to be accessible to all people, meaning from all socioeconomic backgrounds, for people that like all different genres of music and also the traditional calypso and soca lovers. He wanted it to infiltrate all nooks and crannies of Jamaica.”
Julianne shared that she appreciated being a child spectator at the annual road marches but that the younger generations had been missing out. The Kiddies Carnival event would have petered out in the last two decades. Even so, there are many Jamaicans locally and within the diaspora that always go back to that memory of parading in costumes as children, she said.
“There will always be persons who we meet, and will share with us, fond memories of playing mas with their parents or grandparents in Junior Carnival – it bonded families, three or more generations together. That shared experience appealed to generations, and it does exist at some level but infrequently. I have not really seen a collective musical experience or movement that appeals to children, parents, and grandparents,” she shared.
Julianne added, “No matter how many have entities come along or how many agencies rebrand themselves, and while we have not been active in several years, people still refer to it as Jamaica Carnival because of those timeless memories.”
The memory of Jamaica Carnival and of Byron Lee has been the glue for the legend’s family. They would have celebrated his 87th birthday on June 27, to which Julianne explained it always involves some amount of storytelling and honouring his name among relatives and friends.
“Dad only relaxed on his birthday and anniversary because every other milestone or day he was celebrating for others. He would spend up to two weeks in London for vacation and have dinner with the same circle of friends, tell the same stories, and it was a simple way for him to totally disconnect. My daughters, Victoria and Amanda, and my mother, Sheila, and siblings do that same telling of stories … we are blessed with wonderful memories and try to embrace that,” she shared.
“We’re not the only ones [who] suffered loss over the years and in the past two years. So many things have claimed lives between a pandemic and war. Your coping mechanism gets stronger, but the loss and void is absolutely still there again, especially because of his colourful and charming personality. It gets painful when we hear other persons share their memories of him. It tugs at our heartstrings,” Julianne explained.
Imagining what the great Byron Lee would be doing on Sunday if he were alive, she said he probably would have found himself a music truck to drive around from Carnival Wednesday. To keep abreast of all the other bands, “he would check to see how they were packing their trucks, inspecting the rest stops” because Byron Lee was a man who was passionate about logistics and musical presentation.
“By this time, songs would have been honed, musicians and also disc jockeys are well-trained and well-versed on Carnival and the music. So he would also be on a truck playing his own music because he was also a musician and an entertainer at the core, and he was Jamaican through and through. Personally, this Carnival Sunday, I would love for any disc jockey to do a mash-up of their favourite Byron Lee songs, to hear Tiney Winey, Wine Down, Soca Butterfly and what was special to him, Denise Plummer’s Carnival Killer because it was the first time a song mentioned going through Half-Way Tree and Constant Spring and spoke of Jamaica,” Julianne shared.
Noting that the now Carnival in Jamaica entity is experiencing a reset, she explained that the past cannot be the future but that people must learn to pivot.
“It’s been a dry spell, but it has given people the opportunity to appreciate early soca songs and take pleasure in the nostalgia of reconnecting. This carnival season is certainly an odd year, but I hope this weekend will prove to be a new start – the industries need to move forward because families need to survive. It would be unwise to return to how things used to be, having seen so many shifts. I would love to see more road activity and expansion into local culture to put our own stamp on it and continue making carnival here a unique experience. If dad could speak, he would say write your music, see things evolve as if storytelling through a genre of calypso and soca,” Julianne said.