Byron Lee & the Dragonaires: The Man and His Music

Over his 40-year career, Byron Lee did a lot of things for Jamaican and Caribbean music. Unfortunately, soca was one of them.

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires

The Man and His Music

Label: VP
US Release Date: 2010-02-16
UK Release Date: 2010-01-15

Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, Byron Lee presented many sounds to many people. From early on, he and his Dragonaires were tasked with popularizing Caribbean music on an international scale, especially in North America. And for the most part he succeeded. He and the Dragonaires were featured in the James Bond film Dr. No in 1962. Two years later, he was chosen by the Jamaican government to head the Jamaican music contingent at the World's Fair. Millions of folks may not be as familiar as they are with ska, calypso, or soca, were it not for the efforts of the Jamaican chameleon. Of course, if you're going to take an artform to the masses, there's going to be a tradeoff. If Lee's music was something to many people, it was everything to few.

Yes, he scored some hits and helped kick off some musical trends, but like most indigenous culture that is prepared for mass consumption, his music is largely bland, lacking in character, and disposable. You can't make an album called Disco Reggae or a song called "Star Wars Soca", as Lee did, and expect your integrity to come away scot free. You can think of Lee as the musical version of those Geoffrey Holder "Un-cola" 7-Up commercials.

Presumably to help mask the disposability of much of Lee & the Dragonaires' oeuvre, the folks at VP have sequenced The Man And His Music with no regard for chronology. That's a big mistake, for a couple reasons. First, though the set has a number of worthwhile songs, at two discs and 50 tracks, you have to work hard to weed them out. Also, just when a keeper has you admiring Lee's craft, there's a dud right around the corner to undo the goodwill. The sheer variety of styles and levels of quality, which the compilers apparently viewed as strengths, make for a nearly schizophrenic listening experience. And the lack of recording information in the liner notes means no context or bearing.

You get some straight-up 1950s and '60s-style R&B, a reminder that ska and reggae themselves began as appropriations of American and British pop and soul. You get ska, and a sampling of tracks that put R&B tunes and vocals to ska rhythms. You get some elevator music-type instrumentals, complete with lush arrangements and stadium organ. You get some calypso. And you get some soca. Actually, lots of soca.

More than anything, that's what sticks with you, exhausts you, and eventually defeats you and everything that is good about The Man And His Music. As the 1980s dawned and Lee's ska and calypso were becoming passé, he turned to the energetic, double-time island dance music for new life. He scored some hits, but boy, have they aged poorly. About a third of the compilation is made up of these tracks, made with the same 1980s and '90s-style drum machine rhythm and shrill synthesizers. Sure, a track like "Dancehall Soca" is catchy, upbeat, and kinda fun. But then there's "Soca Butterfly" and "Soca Tattie". And "Give Me Soca". And "Mambo #12". Actually, being locked in a room and subjected to a loop of Lou Bega's "Mambo #5" might just be preferable to Lee's anodyne sellout parade.

It's too bad, because the rest of The Man And His Music ranges from inoffensive to very good. You can forgive the world's cheesiest versions of "Moon River" or Marley's "Redemption Song" if the upside is a bona-fide ska classic like Toots & the Maytals' "Bam Bam" or Lee's own "Jamaica Ska", or an almost ethereal take on Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy". Yes, most of the calypso is throwaway, but that's by design, and vastly preferable to Harry Belafonte doing "Day-O". In fact, a few of the sets highlights come in the form of a trio of calypso collaborations with singer Slinger Francesco, aka The Mighty Sparrow, on Disc Two. But the Soca…

Lee is an often-overlooked figure who deserves a closer look from anyone interested in Jamaican/Caribbean music and its history. The attempt to cover his broad career in two-disc set is admirable, but VP has botched it. You can focus right on Lee's strengths with Trojan's Jamaica Ska compilation and VP's own issue of Lee and Sparrow's Only A Fool. And if you actually want the soca, there's a set for that, too. If you do opt for The Man And His Music, make sure your player is easy to program.





In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.