From The Plymouth Herald . . .
NEARLY 20 years ago life was an idyll for Myron Riley, until a strange noise began.
He thought the roaring sound was a jet engine and he couldn’t understand why the din kept going.
But then the ground shook and Plymouth was buried under many feet of mud and the reality of what he’d been told hit him.
“The noise was the volcano erupting,” he says.
That’s Plymouth on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.
The capital of the ‘Emerald Isle’ was hit by a series of eruptions that made headlines around the world and led to the population of the British Overseas Territory being dispersed almost as widely.
The reawakening of the Soufrière Hills volcano, which had been dormant for centuries, began a chain of events that led to Myron settling in the original Plymouth in Devon.
He has experienced two rather different kinds roars in his ears in his new home city too.
One came from the throats of basketball fans as he shot yet another hoop.
The other greets the lead singer when he is on stage with one of his bands. There’s the ear-pounding sound from the speakers replaced by the loud appreciation of the crowd when a song ends.
He’s a big man (6ft 5in) with a personality to match who has earned a crust in two of the most competitive areas of life: sport and music.
Myron plays basketball only for fun these days, having moved on from professional sport with the Raiders. He continues to deliver entertainment as a front man and has hopes that new combo Antimatador will propel him and his bandmates on to the national stage.
It’s all a far cry from his days growing up on the 39 square miles of Montserrat, part of the Leeward Islands chain in the West Indies.
“There was a lot of freedom,” he says of his childhood. “There were no barriers, no limits to where you could go and explore.”
The islanders weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the liberating effects of peace and isolation. Montserrat’s greatest ‘export’ was music and its visitors included some of the most famous stars of the rock and pop world.
They came to make albums at George Martin’s AIR (Associated Independent Recording) studio, set up by the Beatles producer.
Elton John, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Paul McCartney, The Police, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were among the many.
“They liked that they could wander about on the island and nobody would bother them,” says Myron, now 37.
Two natural disasters would change all that. First came Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which damaged the AIR complex. The moguls who by then were running the music industry did not want their superstar assets thousands of miles away and there was no will to rebuild the studio.
“Then there was the volcano. I didn’t know what was going on at first,” says Myron of the rumblings that preceded the July 1995 eruption.
“I thought it was a jet engine at first. But it went on for two weeks.”
Then came the eruption proper. Forget the idea of flows of highly-liquid lava making their way down the slopes and householders having plenty of time to sort out their affairs, pack their bags and move somewhere safer.
Instead there were clouds of choking ash that fell as a thick ‘snow’, engulfing everything rapidly.
But far more scary was the most dangerous type of volcanic activity, the pyroclastic flow. The fast-moving mixtures of hot gas and rock can reach speeds of 450 mph. The gas at a temperature of about 1,000Celsius incinerates everything in its path.
“It was harrowing. I had never seen or heard (about) anything like this before.”
The southern part of the island disappeared under 39 feet of mud and ash, destroying the airport and docks.
Myron, younger brother Omari and their mother Daphne were among half of the population that sought safety far from home.
They headed to Canada where they had relatives. Myron spent the rest of his youth in Toronto and Montreal.
“I’d spent a lot of holidays in Canada so it wasn’t too much of a culture shock because I knew it really well.”
Even so, Myron went off the rails. “I was not exactly on the nicest kind of road in life. That’s all I’ll say about that,” he says, with a guilty grin.
“I had the opportunity to come to England and my family encouraged it because they thought there would be more opportunities and less distractions.
“I was sent to live with an aunt in England.”
Now he did feel a culture shock, one he says he hasn’t fully got over. “The West Indies is more American than European and it’s the same in Canada. It’s different here and for me the biggest thing is that the English can laugh at anything. The hardest thing to adjust to is that sense of humour. You guys can laugh at anything.
“Somebody will say something and you think ‘what did you say?’ then you realise, ‘oh, right, it’s a joke’.”
The settling-in process was speeded up by the inclusion world of sport, though. “My aunt remembered that basketball was a big passion of mine and arranged a trial with the Birmingham Bullets development team.
“I got in and that changed me. Before that I didn’t want to be in England. I wanted to be in Canada. Basketball really started to make me feel at home.”
He would go on to play through the age teams but found himself on the bench in first team games. Rather than hang around at what was then one of the biggest clubs, he opted to get time on court with lower league side Birmingham Aces.
When the Raiders wanted to sign him, Myron, then 23, didn’t hesitate despite having no connection with Plymouth. The club’s association with what is now the University of St Mark and St John (Marjon) meant the opportunity to improve himself away from basketball, too.
“I was offered the chance to do a degree. I didn’t finish high school so that was big opportunity.”
He went on to complete his studies in IT and event management, which would ensure he could get a good job outside of sport when time required.
Meanwhile he was loving life on court, and Plymouth’s love of basketball.
“Bristol, Birmingham and London you associate with basketball. It’s to do with having large black communities. Plymouth doesn’t have that but the sport is still huge here.”
Myron spent four years with Raiders as the Pavilions-based team enjoyed great success. They would do the double of winning the English Basketball League and the National Cup in 2003/4.
“It’s a really, really great club with great fans and really, really friendly.” But he still felt the need to leave after four years, despite Raiders having moved up to the top tier, the fully profession British Basketball League, in 2004.
“My love for basketball started to dwindle. Once you lose that passion, and you start doing something for the money, whatever it is, you have to move on.”
By 2006 a new passion was taking over. “I wanted to learn to play guitar. I had lessons with a friend, James Hood, and learned a few basic chords.
“He asked me one time, ‘have you done any singing?’. I had sung around the house but never paid any attention to it, never saw it as a craft.
“I sang a bit and he said, ‘Why are you learning to play guitar? I’ll play guitar and you do the singing’.”
The next step was to sing in public. He made his debut in front of a few dozen at the Fresher and Professor pub and admits to being plagued by nerves despite having played in front of up to 6,000 fans in his basketball days.
“I sang Under The Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers – and I was terrified. When you are playing sport you are in your comfort zone. You are so focused on the game you don’t really notice the crowd.”
But the debut gig went well and Myron went on to sing regularly with James as part of 20Past4, a hip-hop/ska/funk outfit. Next came reggae combo 007 and more recently funky Freshly Squeezed. Now the latter has morphed into another eight-strong combo, hip-hop/soul/electronica/jazz Antimatador – the same personnel are in both.
The differences are that in the newer incarnation they sound more edgy, says Myron, and everything is original. He is one of the writers.
The aim is to take the band beyond the South West where Freshly Squeezed are widely known.
Myron still has a day job – his IT degree background helped secure work as an information analyst, based at Plymouth Railway Station (he helps provide data for train companies, including on customer satisfaction).
But the hope is that, one day, the band – with a highly skilled set of musicians (for example trumpet player Simon Dobson was voted UK Composer of the year in 2012) – will be full-time.
Myron’s own taste includes jazz/funk icon Stevie Wonder and rapper Tupac but is wide-ranging. “Abba is a guilty pleasure,” he says.
He reckons his sporting background helps him personally, and the band.
“As a sportsman you have to have discipline and be self-dependent and to work hard if you want to be successful. You have to sometimes give up a shot if somebody is better placed or they are the better shooter – you work for the good of the team. That’s important when there are eight in a band.”
Another factor Myron hopes will propel the band to great things is experienced manager Ray Rose. “He’s awesome.”
Currently the band is recording an album, as-yet untitled.
“Obviously we hope it will sell. I’d love to walk into HMV and see it there.
“We want to take this as far as we can. I really believe in going for something if you want it. You should never be afraid to fail.”
He has no problem about being recognised or any worries about fame – being 6ft 5in he is used to being noticed “and there aren’t too many other people around called Myron”.
So he doesn’t think he will ever feel the need, or the great desire, to seek anonymity under the volcano on the island where he grew up.
“Montserrat is probably the most beautiful place in the world,” he says about his other Plymouth home. “But I am not in any rush to go back. I’ve moved on.”
You can catch Antimatador next on Friday October 31 at Maker Heights for a Halloween party