By RON FANFAIR
The band has tweaked its name and is going strong nine months after its heart and soul passed away.
Byron Lee’s Dragonaires, formerly Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, performs before sold out crowds in the Caribbean and North America as was evident during this month’s Caribana celebrations.
Not much has changed except that family members are now learning how to run the outfit that Lee successfully managed for over five decades.
“There was a perception that things might have been different and the profile of the band would not be what it used to be after Byron died,” said vocalist Jomo Primo who has assumed the band’s lead singer role after Tobagonian Oscar Benjamin (Oscar B.) took a hiatus.
“Bryon put a structure and blueprint in place for us to follow with the help of his son and wife who are now running the business. Of course, he did things his way when dealing with promoters and that might be a bit different with him no longer here. It’s however business as usual and we will put on a good show wherever we go. That’s what we were taught and we are going to settle for nothing less.”
Primo has come a long way since the veteran bandleader spotted him a decade ago while he was performing with the defunct Guyanese band, Jahrusalem, as the opening act for the then Byron Lee & the Dragonaires at a Labour Day event in New Jersey.
“Byron approached me when I finished performing and asked for my telephone number,” recalled Primo who is renowned for his dynamic stage presence and loose and supple waist movement. “I was quite flattered and I gave him my mother’s home number in Guyana without thinking much of it. Before I returned to Guyana, my mom called to say that Byron Lee wanted me to touch base with him as soon as possible. I did and, as they say, the rest is history.”
Primo debuted with the band at the 2000 Trinidad & Tobago Carnival and two months later became the lead singer when Benjamin took a four-month break to spend some quality time with his new bride.
“The last 10 years has been quite an experience,” said Primo, who teamed up with fellow Guyanese-born soca artist, Adrian Dutchin, to form the duet, X2 (times two). “I started off with Leon Coldero and Benjamin, who along with the other band members all played a part in helping me fit into the band.
“But Byron was the one who taught me about the way I should conduct myself in this business and how to make the stage work for the performer. I am a shy person when I am not performing, but when I get on that stage, I break loose in my comfort zone. He also always told me to be honest with myself and always remember that the fans are the most important people at a show. He was also a very shrewd businessman who always maintained that the business came first and music second.”
The eldest of 11 children, Primo said he was turned on to music by his grandparents – Albert Primo and Gertrude Giddings – who were accomplished pianists and music teachers.
“I always wanted to be a performer and I used to dream of performing in front of thousands of people,” said Primo. “As a young boy, I was fascinated by “oldies” music and as I grew older, I used to get away and peep dance shows. I liked singing and dancing, but interestingly, the first musical instrument I played was the conga drums.”
Primo, who started singing and freelancing as a disc jockey at age 14, credits former Mischievous Guys soloist, Delma Lynch, who now resides in New York, with his emergence as a versatile performer.
“She told me I had a voice to sing soul and I would have to sing that kind of music if I wanted to be part of the band,” said the father of six-year-old Jada Primo who lives with her mother in St. Kitts. “I did that and then she challenged me to sing soca and I did that.”
In addition to Mischievous Guys and Jahrusalem, the 33-year-old performer also sang with Sherriff Deputies, Mingles and EC Connections, which he accompanied to Toronto in the summer of 1994.
“That was my first trip outside the Caribbean and I thoroughly enjoyed the four months I spent in this city,” he said. “Toronto is one of my favourite places because I usually perform here to people from many ethnic backgrounds. New York is very fast and most of the shows draw people mainly from one Caribbean group while in Miami, you get a wide cross section of Caribbean people. In Toronto, it’s different because it’s people from the Caribbean and other parts of the world that come out to my shows and I enjoy that.”
Being a member of Byron Lee’s Dragonaires has provided Primo with extensive travel opportunities, including a memorable tour to China two years ago.
“When we got there, we were told that we would be performing for about 1,500 people in a theatre and that they would normally sit with clasped hands and take in the show as they would normally do,” he said. “Before the show, I learned how to say ‘good evening’, ‘stand up’ and ‘hands in the air’. When the show started, I said these phrases in their own language and you could tell they appreciated it because many of them were soon out of their seats, waving their hands in the air and having a good time.
“We were later told that it was the first time that something like that had happened at the theatre and it just goes to show the power of music. It was an experience that I will never forget.”
Nothing could compare, however, with the time in 2001 when a buxom six-foot, 300-pound female fan grabbed Primo from the stage while he was doing a show in the Bahamas, vowing that she was going to take him home, or a few months later when he was showered with women’s underwear during the band’s first ever Bay Area performance at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco.
At age 18, Primo ceased driving his father’s mini bus to become a full-time musician. At the time, Morris Primo told his son he could make more money working his bus than pursuing a singing career.
As it turned out dad was wrong and his boy has gone on to become one of the Caribbean’s leading entertainers.