Friends and loved ones mourn the loss of a ‘true mas man’ who had the spirit of Notting Hill in his soul.
Written byElizabeth Pears 09/06/2013 04:00 PM
THE NOTTING Hill Carnival fraternity bid farewell to one its best loved characters last month following the death of Orville “Rocky” Byron, aged 84.
Described as a “true mas man”, the Trinidad-born dancer and artist, who died on May 16, was part of the glue that keeps alive the true spirit of carnival by passing on lasting traditions to the next generation. In his prime he had won a string of awards for having the best band and best costume.
Known for his kindness, sense of fun and an unshakeable passion for his crafts of wire bending and costume-making, Rocky was easily identifiable in his plush suits, layered with gold chain upon gold chain and rings on every finger.
His smile could light up a room, friends toldThe Voice, mostly for the warmth it radiated – but no doubt the two rows of gleaming gold teeth also played a part.
Cousin Annmarie Cowie said: “Rocky was joyous. He loved to teach people what he knew. At the nine-night [an extended wake that is a Caribbean tradition] in the Tabernacle, there was a man who sang a song in his memory. He said that as a two-year-old Rocky had once made him an Indian headdress, and would be working with him on his shoulder all day long introducing him to the creative side carnival. Everybody was in tears.”
She added: “Rocky wasn’t selfish. He always gave what he had and everybody loved him. If you say his name, you get a smile, not a scowl. No one had a bad word to say. He was a party animal and he loved champagne. At his 80th birthday, if you saw that man wining down the place you would think he was 18 not 80.”
Rocky, who had a starring role in British boyband Boyzone’s No Matter What video, was introduced to dancing by his mother as a child to help channel the lovable bad boy’s boundless energy.
By the age of 28, his career had taken off and top calypso singer, Small Island Pride, invited him to go on tour with him to Guyana.
He earned the nickname ‘King of Limbo’, and at his best could get as low as eight-and-a-half inches from the ground.
PIONEER: The mas man in action
In 1961, he set sail from Brazil heading to England, but was thrown off the ship in Hamburg, Germany, for being a stowaway.
He eventually ended up in Newcastle, in the north east of England, where he lived for many years, getting married and becoming a proud father to three children.
Rocky even successfully auditioned as a singer for Tyne Tees Television’sOne O’Clock Show– a 40-minute variety show broadcast on weekdays – and also worked with the Race Relations Council in Newcastle.
Twenty years later, he relocated to Hackney, east London, but gravitated towards the Mangrove, in west London, known for its ties with Trinidad and icons like the late Frank Crichlow, who founded the Mangrove Community Association.
Mangrove legend Clive “Mashup” Phillip, who ran the Mangrove mas band and enjoyed a 30-year friendship with Rocky, said: “Back in Trinidad everybody was involved in rivalries but in London we all united as one. Soon as people got here they would come to the Mangrove, it was a community, a family.
“I had heard about Rocky from back home but we didn’t meet until he came here. He was a showman, an entertainer, the life and soul of the party – that’s him. When he spoke, he spoke with his hands, his whole body, and a big smile across his face. All the kids came to pay their respects to him because that was the kind of man that he was.”
In true fashion, the Mangrove steel band honoured one of their own by playing outside Rocky’s funeral service on May 28 at West London Crematorium, in Kensal Green. The final song could not have been more fitting: Trini to de bone.
DAPPER: A young Rocky
Gloria Cummins, director of Flamboyan Community Association, had worked with Rocky, who played the ‘king’ character in Flamboyan’s mas band for several years.
She said: “Those old time guys from Rocky’s generation weren’t born here in England. They came from Trinidad so they were in the thick of the whole carnival thing and brought that knowledge and skill and experience with them that no university could teach. Wire-bending is not an easy craft. It’s something you have to have a feel for.
“Rocky will be remembered for all the things he showed us, someone who was always with the grassroots. Above all, he will be remembered for being a true mas man.”
In an old interview for Sequins, Soca and Sweat, a documentary on the Notting Hill Carnival, Rocky’s love was clear. He said: “Carnival brings everything together…with all its prejudice, with all its faults, with all its in-fighting, it’s the only thing that you see black people on the same spot on the same given day.”
His cousin Kim Cowie added: “Even when he got sick and was in and out of hospital Rocky would arrive dressed up with all his gold chains on. I will never forget his silky suits and shiny shoes – the man had style.
“He was so independent he hated being sick, and would threaten to discharge himself, and say he can’t be missing carnival in Trinidad. It was his life.”