With the news of the death of one of the few remaining Panamanian Calypsonians, “Lord” Byron Downing, we can’t help but feel even more motivated and convinced that they are gone but not forgotten. We are also convinced of the great importance of preserving our wonderful Westindian heritage here in Panama and for the entire world to recognize and cherish.
Byron Downing left this world on Sunday April 24, 2011 to be with his ancestors. He was only 79 years old, but, in his own humble way, he left a part of the Westindian Intangible heritage behind that will never fade from our cultural scene. The Calypso, that simple musical rhapsody that reached his soul, made him become known to the musical world of Panama as Lord Byron and he popularized the “Push Push”song. He also sang as lead voice with many popular groups including La Nueva Alegría, (The New Joy).
We picked up some details of his life from a series put out by Vanderbilt University, College of Arts and Sciences. It is entitled Voices From Our America and in it you will find a section highlighting some Panamanians of West Indians descent. Please do look it over as they include audio clips from the interviews of the personalities they spoke with. Among them was Byron Downing and in his interview you are given a wonderful opportunity to listen to his voice during the interview. Please check it out here; his accent, gentleness and exuberance just jump out at you.
A real grass roots artist, his best memories are from his childhood in Wachipali. He says he was probably born in Bocas del Toro Province. Both his parents, Doris Dowman (dedicated to domestic work) and James Emmanuel Moisden (a tailor), were from the Island of Jamaica and so were his grandparents. From Bocas they went to settle in Wachipali of the district of Calidonia near the Little Market, the popular Calabash Alley known to all childhood calypso enthusiast to be precise.
From there he admits that life as a young person was filled with adventure and joy as well as many challenges since he says that back in those days there was extreme discrimination against blacks, especially the Westindian blacks who were the most visible and always harassed with the negative Chombo. Naturally most black boys had to become adept at either ducking street fighters or learn to defend themselves somehow. Hence, he says, he had to “fight, fight, fight.” This was par for the course in those days when most black boys alone most of the time as he was had to always be ready to fight.
He reveals a very different environment in those days on the streets of Calidonia and of his Wachipali of Panama City and Colon. The air was filled with a vibrant blend of West Indian English, Spanish what the Spanish called Wari-Wari and also a great musical atmosphere. He himself picked up and learned how to play the ukulele which, he admits, he could never buy strings for. He met up with most of the famous Calypsonians of his time which we have described in our previous articles here, including The Mighty Sparrow whom he says he sang a duet with on one of his trips to Panama.
He remembers that the days of his youth were “the good ‘ol days” and, although this may seem like something trite coming from an old timer, he underscored it by saying that his ancestors, the Silver People, were a people who loved to go to church and he recalls the “jumpy-jumpy” churches, or the African derived churches and how he used to love that musical heritage. We’ve described these “jump up” churches in our series on the Beji-nite legacy amongst our Westindian people in Panama.
We cannot say goodbye to this wonderful part of our cultural past as we are striving, working and actively promoting the restoration of our Panamanian Silver Heritage and culture.
Our Silver People Law, which seeks to legally establish the Black Canal Zone areas, particularly the Silver Cemeteries of Silver Corozal, Mt. Hope, Gatun and Paraiso as National Cultural and Historic Patrimony, just passed first debate at the Asamblea. We know this because we were there vehemently presenting our case to the Honorable Legislators. Needless to say, most of them were left wide eyed and open mouthed with the facts that we started to present to them.
We are presently preparing other presentations for our case in greater detail for the second and third rounds of debates after which, if it passes, it will go to Plenary Session to be signed into the law of the land. We will keep you all posted on this important turn in our efforts. In the meantime, dear readers, you have a lot of reading to catch up on in what is our Intangible Cultural Heritage.
This story continues.