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"A touching, unforgettable and simply superb moment"

By Mel Cooke (from the Jamaica Gleaner, January 20, 2004)

Photo by Sista Irie

It was probably, just probably, the longest time a performer has spent between walking on to the stage and starting to sing on a huge show in Jamaica.

And, in a country notorious for being impatient with performers and quite willing to express themselves verbally and "bottlecally", the huge crowd at Rebel Salute 2004 was remarkably gentle with Junior Byles. In return, he gave them a touching, unforgettable and simply superb moment in the history of Jamaican music.

Junior Byles went onstage at Port Kaiser in St. Elizabeth at a few minutes before 3:00 AM on Sunday after an appropriately regal introduction from MC Elise Kelly, as the rhythm of "Beat Down Babylon" rolled over the venue. Wearing the colours of his Rastafarian faith across his chest bandolier style and carrying a staff, Byles looked at the audience then sank to his knees and stared at the microphone in his hand.

And the audience waited.

He took a draw, not of the "high grade", but a cigarette, still on his knees.

And the audience waited.

The harmony vocalists sang the refrain "Curly locks...", while the saxophonist ran through the notes and added flair to the music, as Byles remained on his knees, seemingly transfixed.

And still the audience waited.

Then about three minutes after he went onstage the drums rolled, the beat changed and Junior Byles began to sing. It was "Curly Locks" and the audience roared.

His voice was not ripping out of the speakers to hit the hills at the rear of the venue, but he was on key and it was unmistakably the same voice that has rocked many a reggae and dancehall fan, some of whom do not even know his name.

The song was played out to the end, then they moved on to a more uptempo number, "Heart And Soul". Byles was now sounding stronger as he dropped in an ad lib invitation for the audience to sing along with him. "Your heart and soul you must give to Jah," Junior Byles sang. "Give it to Jah!"

When he sang "he who seeks only vanity..." the place buss.

And then the band switched gears and the strains of the immortal song that has engraved itself in Jamaican music rolled over Port Kaiser. Over 20,000 throats opened up to salute "Fade Away", even before Junior Byles began to sing. When he sang "he who seeks only vanity...", the place buss.

There was a falter, as the band thought about "wheeling up" as would be customary for a "forward" of that magnitude, but Mr. Byles was having none of that. He continued through the tumult of the audience and, showing that he is very much in touch with the changing times, dropped in the names of the current political leader as those who "take it away".

His set was not finished, though, and the songs were run together more tightly as Byles invited Rebel Salute to "get ready rocksteady", inviting the audience to say "yeah" if the feeling was good. It was.

There was a long intro to "A Place Called Africa", and the song marked the point where Byles' set came to an end, accompanied by warm applause. Byles held his arms wide and allowed the acclaim to wash over him, but he could not hold them far enough apart to embrace even a fraction of the outpouring of love from the huge audience.

As it was in the beginning so was it in the end. Junior Byles stayed on-stage a lot longer than customary for an artist at the end of the set. And once again the audience was gentle and waited.

"This is a very special moment in the history of reggae music. This show has been blessed with the presence of Junior Byles," MC Elise Kelly said. "And the people my age and older who know what Junior Byles is going through, I want you to tell the younger people that Junior Byles is royalty in reggae music."

"Give it up, give it up for Junior Byles!" she said.

And Rebel Salute did.

March 2004