On Friday, July 28, 2001, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires made their historic first appearance in the Bay Area. Presented by H.A. Productions, Caribbean Summer Fest 2001 at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco turned a hotel ballroom into a Carnival-style party for a full night of entertainment.

This gala event was one of most talked-about shows of the summer. High ticket prices resulted in a predominantly upscale crowd, and the well-dressed party-goers enjoyed a marathon performance by the legendary Byron Lee’s high-energy, professional band. Like no other show in recent memory, Summer Fest 2001 attracted a diverse crowd from throughout the Caribbean, South America and beyond – uniting islands, cultures, and generations of fans.

The Long Musical History of Byron Lee

Jamaica’s Byron Lee has recorded and toured his ever-changing Dragonaires band for more than four decades. Beginning in the early days of ska music, Byron Lee has followed all the trends of Caribbean music, from ska and reggae to the cutting-edge soca (Carnival dance music) he performs today. Since his debut single “Dumplins” in 1960, Byron Lee has grown a successful, enduring career and has become an entertainment legend. His studio offerings include an annual “must buy” release of remakes of Trinidad’s top Carnival songs. As always, this year’s “Byron Lee’s Soca Vibes 2001” features a scantily-clad beauty on the cover.

Of course, success breeds controversy. There are two schools of thought regarding Byron Lee, and 40 years later, the sides still debate. Some say he has appropriated the music from “other people’s cultures” in Jamaica and Trinidad for his own gain. The opposing viewpoint is that Byron Lee is a musical ambassador responsible for bringing Caribbean music to the rest of the world like no one else has ever done. In any case, there is no doubt that Byron Lee can put together a formidable show.

While the band members have changed throughout the years, the current Dragonaires lineup includes four singers who trade lead vocals, a guitarist, a keyboardist, rhythm sequencer, bassist, plus a three-man horn section.

A Rousing Performance

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires had never before played the Bay Area and at first glance the ticket price of US$35 ($45 at the door) seemed steep, but the show was more than four hours long, and attendees happily danced throughout the night. With musical styles ranging from the dancehall-based soca to classic reggae, from R&B to 50s rock ‘n’ roll with a little ska thrown in for good measure, the versatile, hard-working and talented band went on stage at 10 p.m. and let up only for a short break mid-evening.

The band ably covered this year’s top Carnival tunes and the crowd’s flags were waving to songs like “Accident,” “Tremble It,” “Jump,” “Leggo Mi Man,” “Kim,” and “Julie Mango.” Energetically performed soca classics like “Pump Me Up,” “I Command You,” “Old Woman Alone,” and “Footsteps” were crowd pleasers as well. Reggae-lovers enjoyed covers of hits like Beres Hammond’s “They’re Gonna Talk,” Junior Kelly’s “If Love So Nice” and Morgan Heritage’s “Down By the River,” while others sang along to the ska and R&B tunes that added to the depth of the performance.

Audience participation in jump-and-wave dancing, many of the songs’ suggestively playful lyrics, and the good-natured professionalism of the band all contributed to a rollicking good time. The band performed for 90 minutes non-stop leading to the one intermission that featured awards and DJ music.

Awards Presentations

H.A. Meyers along with Tomi Seon and Maria Gardner organized the event’s awards presentations. Members of the Bay Area’s Caribbean community were honored and presented with plaques of appreciation for their service and contributions to a variety of causes. Honorees included: John Bent (Jamaica, musical and cultural ambassador); Fred Dixon (Belize, musician and master of ceremonies); Michael Noordzee (Suriname, human rights activist); Rohit Paulus (Suriname, business owner); Joan Savoury (Jamaica, media and cultural promoter); Jean Seon (Trinidad & Tobago, community service); and Maude Wilson Hodson (Nicaragua, humanitarian).

A Marathon of Music

After the intermission, Byron Lee strapped on his bass and joined the band on stage for only one song, “Tiny Winey.” He obviously enjoyed himself, but he quickly left the stage and returned to the soundboard where he spent most of the evening monitoring the mix and the flow of the set.

One of the night’s biggest crowd-pleasing segments was the “wine your bumpsy” contest, featuring beautiful women from the audience who took the stage to represent their homes of Jamaica, Liberia, Guyana, Oakland, Belize, San Francisco, New York and Trinidad. Diversity and unity was in the house!

A few people in the audience remarked on seeing Byron Lee when they were young children in Jamaica, more than thirty years ago. This show brought together both long-time reggae fans from Jamaica and soca lovers both young and young-at-heart from around the world.

With the Dragonaires playing for more than four hours, along with DJ entertainment provided by DJ Omar and S&N Sounds (plus Clique International spinning in the VIP Lounge), Summer Fest 2001 was a marathon musical event. The house lights came up at 2 a.m. and revealed a tired, sweaty, and satisfied crowd. It wasn’t exactly a dusk-to-dawn party that the Caribbean is so famous for, but it was a great likeness-not bad for a foggy summer night in San Francisco!

L.A. Carnival Alert!

Kudos to H. A. Productions (reportedly the largest, Black-owned sound system in Northern California) for promoting this successful event. Look for them at Los Angeles Carnival 2001, during the weekend of October 12-14, 2001. Don’t miss the L.A. concerts by Barbados’ Carnival Queen Alison Hinds & Square One (Friday, October 12), The Mighty Shadow along with Traffic and Dell & the Sensations (Saturday, October 13, both shows at the Hollywood Park Casino), plus the Carnival Road March on Sunday, October 14, 2001. For more information, e-mail H.A. Productions at mailto:HA12157@aol.com.