Vincentian musicians pay tribute to music icon Bernard ‘Bonnie’ Browne

Bonnie Browne’s son, Damany, left, and other other members of the Browne family in front pew.
Photo by Nelson A. King

Despite the snowy weather, several Vincentian musicians and artistes in the New York Metropolitan Area on Friday evening paid tribute to Vincentian music icon Bernard “Bonnie” Browne during a Memorial Tribute at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church on Hawthorne Street in Brooklyn.

Browne died on Dec. 10 in Brooklyn. He was 73.

The late Vincentian musician Bonnie Browne.
The late Vincentian musician Bonnie Browne. Courtesy Browne family

Among participating musicians and artistes were: Pre-eminent Caribbean musical arranger Dr. Frankie McIntosh (piano); Adrian Bailey (keyboard); Gordon Sutherland, Peter Knight and Steve Harry (guitar); Garry Tate (saxophone); Ike Jeffers, Phillip “Phil Patch” Baptiste and Ploomie Lewis (bass); Nedi Billinghurst and Owusu Slater (congas); and Donald “Dakka” Griffith, Garfield “Gary” Palmer, Dr. Roxie Morris and Chester Peters (vocals).

Dakka sang some of Bob Marley’s musical hits, including “One Love” and “No Woman, No Cry”; and Dr. Morris, sang, among others, “For the Goodness of God.”

During the near two-hour-long memorial service, the congregation participated in the signing of hymns and intercessory prayers, which were presided over by the church’s Jamaican-born rector, the Very Rev. Canon Donovan Ivanhoe Leys.

“Comfort us in our sorrows at the death of our brother Bernard,” Fr. Leys prayed. “Let our faith be our consolation, and eternal life our hope.”

Later, he said: “We convey to his family our deepest sympathy.”

Bonnie’s widow, Annette, and their children Damany, Niambi and Lisa; grandchildren Kylie and Leo; siblings Mackie and Shani; as well as other family members and friends, were among celebrants.

“It’s beautiful,” Damany Browne told Caribbean Life immediately after the Memorial Tribute. “I really appreciate everything. This is what he always wanted.

“He was Clymax forever,” he said, referring to the defunct band that his dad had formed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Peters said the musical tribute was “quite apropos”, stating that “Bonni was not just a band leader, he was a lover of music – all genres.

“And he was willing to share his knowledge and collaborate with other musicians,” he said. “So, it was fitting that musicians who worked directly with him. or collaborated with him at any point, chose to come together, regardless of the weather, to pay tribute to him in the language he knew and loved so much – music.

“In as much as I expected the inevitable passing of brother Bonnie, nothing quite prepared me for the actuality,” Peters added. “It was a sad day, indeed. Bonnie was not only a prominent musician in SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines), he was a true music lover. And beyond that, he was a born-leader – a bonafide professional.

“I remember, as a very young singer, going to practice for a show at the Clymax band room, how professionally he conducted the rehearsal,” he continued. “He had a great respect for punctuality, order and organization. Also, he commanded the respect of his fellow band members and the other artistes.”

Peters said his “greatest memory of Bonnie has and will always be his willingness, at Winston Soso’s request, to have my group, Soul Factor, perform with Clymax at a dance at Crow’s Nest (in St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

“It was the highlight of my fledgling career,” he said. “Bonnie and Winston would never fully understand what that did for me as a young, impressionable, immature, unsure performer. To me, it was an acknowledgment of potential that I clung tightly to henceforth.

“And I know that he similarly helped other young artistes, such as Motif, and many more,” Peters added. “It’s just left for me to say thanks for the assist, brother Bonnie; thanks for the musical memories; thanks for being a great role model for young artistes. The ancestors are proud.”

Dr. Frankie McIntosh plays the piano.
Dr. Frankie McIntosh plays the piano. Photo by Nelson A. King

Dr. McIntosh said the Memorial Tribute was “deserving,” stating that Bonnie “would appreciate it.”

“He was always committed to music; he was always studying,” he added. “He was aware of what was new in jazz harmony. He was an inspiration to me.

“Although we knew his (medical) condition, the next day he was practicing,” Dr. McIntosh continued. “My main impression was his commitment to music, his devotion. He was a musician at heart, primarily jazz.”

Phil Patch said the celebration was “perfect,” adding, however: “We could have gotten more people, if it weren’t for the storm.

“Even though the session wasn’t crowded, the session was great,” he said. “He (Bonnie) was the man who organized Vincy Carnival in 1977. Bonni was an icon; I have him as St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ icon in music.”

Jeffers, a bass guitarist with the defunct Vincentian band Asterisks, described the tribute as “good.”

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “As musicians, we have to actually support and keep each other’s spirits up. This is our life.”

In eulogizing Bonnie at his funeral service in Kingstown, the Vincentian capital, on Jan. 5, Michael “Mike” Browne, Bonnie’s eldest brother and former education minister in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said his brother’s first musical influence was their mother, who read music and played the piano.

Browne said that, at 14, Bonnie “took control” of his box guitar that their father had bought for Mike “as an award for good performance in the 1964 GCE (Overseas General Certificate of Education) exam.

“There was no turning back,” he said. “He literally lived on the guitar.

“Bonnie’s musical evolution over teenage years, combined with regular attendance at the Calypso Tent shows, resulted in his development into a serious music enthusiast,” he added. “Alongside his co-enthusiast Band-I, both still teenagers, he took the courageous step of forming a band with the backing of our sister, Elma, then recently returned from nursing training in England, and financial support from uncle Chippie Browne.”

Browne said Bonnie formed Volume 5 in 1969, with five members: Bonnie (marimba); Band-I (guitar); cousin Noel John (bass guitar); friend Vin Boney (drums); and Ken “Growler” (vocals).

“Known for mastering the Spooge beat, originating in Barbados, Volume 5 became a popular combo, performing at venues throughout St. Vincent (and the Grenadines),” Browne said.

He said Clymax “grew out of Volume 5” in the early 1970s, soon becoming “the reggae band”, and that its popularity grew.

Browne noted that 1977 was a “watershed year” in the life of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, stating that the country’s “cultural umbilical cord” with Trinidad and Tobago, was cut, when the local Carnival Development Committee (CDC) shifted Vincy Carnival to July.

“Bonnie wrote the iconic calypso, ‘Vincy Style in July,’ “which soon became the Carnival Anthem,” Browne said.

He said that, over the years and decades, Clymax produced many recordings and hits, and performed in several venues in the Caribbean, Canada and the US, “and backed up the great bards of calypso, including Sparrow, Shadow, Nelson, Calypso Rose, Arrow and Barron.”

During his life, Browne said his brother was always concerned about the three “Rs” of the music industry: “Rights, Recognition and Returns.”

“Rights: all legal rights, including copyrights, must be defended; recognition: artistes, including musicians, should be accorded full recognition of their role in national development; (and) returns: artistes should receive appropriate financial returns for their work,” Browne said.

“Bonnie had many loves but, by far, his two passionate loves were music and family,” he added. “When these two came together in the USA, he decided that that is where he would make home, even though SVG remained one of the many loves.”

Palmer, one of the organizers of the Memorial Tribute and a former vocalist and trumpeter with Clymax, said that, when he approached the Vincentian musicians and artistes to hold the event, “they were ready and willing to come,” adding that “not one had reservations.”

“And we thank you all for coming out,” he told the service.