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Reggae Torch Bearer

For concise background information on this reggae great, look at this Burning Spear page.

    As Spear himself proudly proclaims in Rastafarian style, "I & I got started in 1969, y'know? And Spear has been burnin' from that time till this time." Considering his recent triumphs, it's easy to forgive the reggae legend's apparent immodesty. Critics and audiences alike praise Burning Spear--not only in New York, where he now resides, but damn near everywhere else fans of roots and culture reggae exist. Though the graying Rastafarian chanter hails from Jamaica, he decided to move to the Queens borough of New York in order to handle his business, the cornerstone of which is Burning Productions. "Nobody books Spear," he rasps on the phone. "I book Spear."

    This fierce will for artistic authenticity and economic self-reliance has been the Spear's philosophical and practical modus operandi since those early days when he was scuffling to make ends meet, recording for "Sir" Coxone Dodd's infamous Studio One label and getting royally shafted in the process.

    Although "Door Peeper," his introductory single, flopped, Burning Spear's association with Dodd eventually paid off artistically. The resulting singles--"Ethiopians Live It Out," "Creation Rebel" and "New Civilisation"--were largely ignored when they were released but are now considered roots-reggae classics.

    At the outset, Rodney adopted the name Burning Spear from Kenyan nationalist Jomo Kenyatta's nom de guerre, using it as both his stage name and band moniker. Early on, the band was a quintessential reggae trio, consisting of lead singer Rodney along with Rupert Willington and Delroy Hines, a pair of functional if faceless background vocalists.

    Even then, Spear's archetypal sound was in full evidence: the primal niyabinghi drum pattern, the subterranean throb of the bass, the stabbing staccato horn lines. Riding atop of the harsh but leisurely paced "riddims" were Rodney's keening, hypnotic incantations. His repetitive chanting style was inarguably African in origin; one can detect it in idioms ranging from Zairian soukous and Nigerian juju to stateside blues and soul.

    The effect was underscored by Willington and Hines' plaintive call-and-response backing. Like a Jamaican griot, Rodney reminded listeners of Africa's glorious past. He also paid homage to prominent Diasporan leaders, past and present--particularly Pan-Africanism's greatest mass leader, Marcus Garvey--and urged the African Diaspora toward self-reliance and self-determination. Spear, like Bob Marley, was born at St. Ann's Bay--the same parish that produced Garvey, whose "Africa for the Africans" philosophy Spear adopted.

    Ironically, Spear was referred to Studio One by none other than Marley himself. Spear had first encountered Marley in the sloping hills of St. Ann's Parish as the former was lugging supplies to his farm. "I met him; we reasoned about roots, culture, history," he remembers.

    Spear claims that the Studio One sessions were his first public performances. Despite his lack of experience, even then Spear's confidence in himself was unwavering. "Music is an inborn thing," he avers. "After I realized that music was within I, I started to create space for it to come out."

    An essential aspect aiding this midwifing process was the music of already established stars. "[Back then], I usually listen to Bob [Marley]," he tells me. "I used to listen to Bob all day. [And the] Heptones. I listen to Impressions, James Brown, Aretha Franklin."

    Although the early recordings with Studio One were, and are, seminal works, it was not until the band hooked up with Island Records in the mid-'70s that Burning Spear's sound began to catch a fire with the Jamaican public. Marcus Garvey, his 1976 Island Records debut, is an extraordinarily riveting work, roiling with passion and conviction. On "Slavery Days," the album's centerpiece, the line "Do you remember the days of slavery?" is repeated until one isn't sure if it is a pointed reminder or a curse.

    Ultimately, Spear's haunted lament captured the quixotic power of the Akan proverb that asserts that a people cannot move forward without confronting the past. Hot on the heels of Marcus Garvey came Garvey's Ghost and Man in the Hills, equally superlative efforts. Remarkably, these sessions were all released in a single 12-month period. Such subsequent releases as Dry and Heavy, Social Living and Hail H.I.M. only confirmed that Spear--now minus his two backing bredren--was more force of nature than mere tunesmith.

    The post-Marley '80s were trying times, as Spear flirted with less challenging styles, including, most surprisingly, lover's rock. His early '90s recordings (Mek We Dweet and Peace and Love in particular) seemed further confirmation that Burning Spear was dimming his righteous fire to boost his potential for mass appeal.

    The new album, Rasta Business, though, is what it says it is. Vivified by the spirit of '76, it is a reclamation of the past in an attempt to chart the future. "I've been a musician in this business so long," Spear muses, "I've learned that you have to remember where you come from. So I decided to get back some taste from back then."

    Several cuts recall themes first explored on Marcus Garvey and Slavery Days. Tunes like "Africa" and "Every Other Nation" are unrepentantly Pan-Africanist preachments, while "Not Stupid" explodes the cultural arrogance of folks who ridicule Africans in general and Rastas specifically.

    The "Old Man From the Hills," as Spear is affectionately referred to, maintains that "Not Stupid" is "universal thing," whose meaning is manifold. On one level, it's about how "people make fun of others," on another, the tune is a broadside against the state. "A lot of times," Spear says, "politicians tell people what they're gonna do, but people know they're not gonna fulfill their promises."

    On perhaps an even more profound level, "Not Stupid" is one dread's response to the prejudice Rastas often encounter. "Many people," he says, "think that Rasta is stupid, illiterate. But as time goes by, they will understand the truth."

    The tune--along with the similarly themed "Subject in School"--is also a penetrating critique of a Eurocentric system of education that Spear believes continues to ignore or distort the history of African people.

    "I never seen a holiday to remind the people that there was the days of slavery," he observes, "or our contributions to dis heah worl'. It is plain to see [that the] first black man and woman was from Africa." As he warms to the subject, Spear's Jamaican patois thickens noticeably. "Dem haffa remembah that I-man's roots [are] in Africa. A lot of people say Africa all jungle and bush, but Africa have a lot of good tings, but the media don' tell dem tings."

    Concerning the essence of Rastafarianism, Spear is forthright: "Rasta is a black business. As long as dem a black man, dem is a Rastaman. Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, Marcus Garvey--alla dem Rasta." Spear dismisses the widely held notion that simply sprouting dreads and beards makes one a "true" Rasta, using Garvey as an exemplar of Rastafarianism: "Him shave four times a day! Still, him a Rasta. Real dreads carry the concept within dem."

    His plaintive chanting on the title track for the new album reiterates the point, at the same time dissing what he refers to as "fashion dread." Although Rasta Business' "reasonin' " is heavy, the music is airy and highly accessible. His current sound is more streamlined than his earlier work, but it is far more expansive. Spear's Burning Band incorporates elements of jazz-derived grooves, star bursts of melodic keyboards and crisply played guitar even as it retains its signature elemental bass and heartbeat steady rhythmic core.

    Last year's profusion of accolades confirms Burning Spear's place in reggae's pantheon of heroes. Rasta Business, while not a groundbreaking effort, offers yet more proof that the "Old Man of the Hills," as Spear is fondly referred to, can still out-skank musicians half his age.

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From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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