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Reggae Flame

[whitespace] Burning Spear Man From the Hills: Reggae great Burning Spear delivers serious messages with hypnotic beats.

Kris Dewitte

The intense musical light of Jamaica's Burning Spear remains undimmed

By Nicky Baxter

BURNING SPEAR is the shining black light of roots and culture reggae. Since his days at Studio One Records a quarter of a century ago, Burning Spear has shown an unwavering dedication to Marcus Garvey's Pan-Africanist philosophy. While plenty of trends have come and gone, Burning Spear's idiosyncratic style has changed little over the decades. Indeed, if any reggae artist can claim the legacy left behind when Bob Marley died, it is Spear.

Born Winston Rodney in St. Ann's Bay (also the birthplace of Bob Marley), he took the name Burning Spear from the late statesman Jomo Kenyatta when he began recording for producer Clement Coxone Dodd in the late 1960s. His first single, "Door Peeper," was a commercial flop; it wasn't the carefree fare then popular in Jamaica. Rather, the tune was a reflective chant delivered in a way that was frighteningly serious. This recording set the tone for ensuing releases. Initially a solo artist, Burning Spear later brought in the harmonies of Rupert Wellington and Delroy Hines.

By the mid-'70s, Jamaica had caught up to his nationalistic chants. The epochal singles "Marcus Garvey" and "Slavery Days" struck gold, but it was the album named after the former song that led the way for more culturally oriented reggae. The disc was filled with uncompromising songs about black history.

Spear's brooding intonation rarely varied; his was an unrelenting, primeval singing style that cautioned oppressors while tendering succor to the downtrodden. Other significant albums include Social Living and Hail H.I.M. Not all of his material addressed political concerns; tracks like "Man in the Hills" detailed the pleasures of country living.

By the 1990s, Burning Spear had become widely acknowledged as reggae's roots-styled patriarch, a musician whose prophetic preachments never settled into complacency. His concerts mixed an eerie mysticism with smoldering midtempo music.

Love & Peace: Burning Spear Live! (Heartbeat) provides a useful overview of his career. Recorded during his 1993 U.S. tour, these cuts offer difficult to refute evidence that the old man (accompanied as always by his longtime sidekicks the Burning Band) hasn't lost a step. Spear's keening, prayerful tenor has changed little over the decades; indeed it has gained a certain resonance.

Last year's Appointment With His Majesty (Heartbeat) is yet another inspirational chapter in the Burning Spear canon. Complementing the Burning Band is a large backing ensemble. Even so, the inside-out rhythms are spare, free of the intrusive, jittery beats that characterize so much of contemporary reggae. The subject matter ranges from the admonishing tone of "The Future (Clean It Up)" to the vocalist's homage to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X on the title track.

"Play Jerry" is something of a surprise, as the Jerry in question is the late leader of the Grateful Dead. The tune features a sprightly percolating pulse, intricate harmonies and Garcia-like picking. "Reggae Physician" is similarly lighthearted; Spear requests a doctor's prescription to fine-tune him on the dance floor. And the dance floor is the place to be when Burning Spear plays.

Burning Spear performs Wednesday (Sept. 2) at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Dub Nation and DJs Spliff Skankin and Robert Rankin also appear. Doors open at 8pm. Tickets are $12. (650/324-EDGE)

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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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