Our Music: Past, Present, and,
Future with Burning Spear
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2005, Volume 12, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
"Changes in the music are no threat to Burning Spear. When I say that, it’s because I’m dealing with something totally different than most people are dealing with in this time. Y’understand?"
In the thirty-six years between his chance meeting with Bob Marley on a country road in St. Ann’s, Jamaica and this month’s release of his new album Our Music, Winston Rodney, a.k.a. Burning Spear, has seen reggae experience a lot of growth and change. Styles have come and gone, and Spear’s unique brand of roots-oriented reggae has moved in and out of fashion. Through it all, with a singularity of purpose that is staggering, Burning Spear has released dozens of albums, toured the world many times over, and played before more audiences than anyone else in the history of the genre. Indeed, if Bob Marley was the first artist to bring reggae to the attention of international audiences, Burning Spear’s relentless recording and touring have kept it there.
Much to the music industry’s surprise, recent dub and dance hall hits have made reggae trendy again, and the release of Our Music couldn’t have come at a better time. Beautifully played, mixed, and engineered, the disc sounds more like classic ’70s fare than anything that Burning Spear has released in well over a decade. Each track bubbles with heavy bass, reverb, and organ, and each contains the emphatic echo of the incomparable Burning Brass horn section as well as a melody for which any DJ surely would die to obtain. With Our Music, Spear has delivered a collection of songs that serves to remind the listener just how powerful a force reggae can be.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge musically, politically, and technologically, since a self-described "young and green" Spear walked into Studio One, the legendary Jamaican hit factory, and recorded Door Peep, his first single. Speaking from the perspective of pre-retirement, Spear muses reflectively on music, religion, politics, and his unique place in the history of reggae. In Spear’s words, "You can count on your fingers how many people today know and can play that 1970s sound." Of the handful of artists who remain from reggae’s golden age — such as Jimmy Cliff, Culture, and the Mighty Diamonds — Burning Spear is the only one who records and tours with any semblance of regularity.
Ruminating on the advantages of being a survivor, Spear laughs deeply when trying to define his musical sound. "I am in my own little category, all alone by myself." If it sounds like a solitary existence, he hastens to add, "I’m not lonely. From the time I started doing live performance in the early ’70s, I have had a lot of good, clean, diehard company."
In the old days, Spear says he and his fellow musicians were united and shared "the same spirit and message." Struggling to bring reggae to the forefront of Jamaica’s dog-eat-dog popular music scene seemed to unify the artists. Despite the technologically primitive recording techniques in the early studios, Spear acknowledges there was something special about the atmosphere there that is impossible to find today. "It was acoustic. It was more like two tracks. So, you did everything live. It’s one take. So, if you mess up, you know that you will have to do it again because even if there’s just one mess up you can’t correct it. It was fun, and you were learning a lot of things. You listened. You saw things. You heard things. It was up to you how much and how deep you wanted to go. I was one of those kind of singers who could do everything. I didn’t play an instrument, but when it came to background vocals and percussion, I was good at those things."
Spear communicated a feeling of deep responsibility towards his art as he discussed the songs on his new album. "Our Music was created at a time in Burning Spear’s life that was filled with many personal conflicts," he revealed. Years of toil and experience have enabled him to express himself plainly and with an understated dignity, so, when he says that reggae music has lost something over the years, it sounds like the reverberation of fact and not the sowing of sour grapes.
"Of course, I would say reggae was better back then. It was better in so many senses. People were feeling what they were doing. We were the ones who spread the message through the music, and the music through the message," he explained.
The message has never been more clearly evoked than it is on My Duty, one of the strongest tracks on Spear’s latest effort Our Music. The singer, like Christ in Gethsemane, asks God how much longer he’ll have to keep shouldering his burdens without anyone else to help him with his load. Spear admits that the voice in the song reflects some of his exasperation with the current state of the music business, which glorifies sex and violence rather than peace and love. "Sometimes when you see how the music is turning and the kind of things that are taking place around the music, based upon the record companies and the industry, you have to question yourself. I asked His Majesty, ‘When am I going to retire? When am I going to be discharged from this duty?’ This question is wrong — please, forgive me for asking — but it is based upon what I see. If it wasn’t for some things that go on in the music industry, these questions wouldn’t even come to my mind," he stated.
When asked to further clarify his disillusionment with the music business, Spear sounds both resolute and quietly resigned to forces that are outside of his control. He indicates that he is still waiting for someone to come along and carry the torch for him. "I never thought of walking away. When the time is right, and I have said what I have to say, I will retire. Sometimes I ask myself the question, ‘who is going to be the replacement?’ Of course, there are a lot of singers saying Rastafari, peace, and love, but it takes much more than that," he declared.
There is a real sense in his new songs that Spear is trying to pass on some of his wisdom to the next generation of listeners who did not have the opportunity to grow up hearing the conscious roots-based music of reggae’s golden age. Spear’s belief that self-discipline and inner strength are essential to living a natural life is emphasized on several of Our Music’s tracks. When questioned about the importance of these things, Spear let out a deep, earthy laugh and responded without hesitation: "My brethren, it’s a lot of work for someone to reach where I am today. A lot of hard, hard work, which carries a lot of discipline, control, and respect. Forget about grouchiness or negativity. If something is a problem to you and you don’t prevent it from being a problem, it will always be a problem for you. That is what you choose. So, if you don’t want it to be a problem, you have to correct it, do you understand?"
Even though many of his lyrics are about black cultural heroes such as Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, he rejects any insinuation that his music is exclusionary and directed at only one community. "I am the people’s singer, you know. When I talk about the people, I’m not the kind of individualist who just chooses to talk about some people. When I use the word "people," I mean all the people of the world regardless of color, nation, religion, or whatever it is. It is just people. I see people as plain, natural people," he explained.
Lyrically and musically, Spear is an idealist, but he’s also a person who demonstrates a work ethic that is unsurpassed in show business. For him, music may be an art form, but it is also a job that brings with it a certain set of responsibilities. He takes his relationship with his audience very seriously because, as he explained, "I have these people always being there for me and reaching out for what I am presenting to them."
As for the particulars of a Burning Spear performance, Spear quipped, "Everything is in it."
Forget what you hear about U2 or Bruce Springsteen’s live shows. Anyone who has seen a Burning Spear concert can tell you that when it comes to taking an audience to an all-out catharsis, no one does it like Spear. There are few opportunities for transcendence in western society, and Spear’s shamanic performances — part gospel, part call-to-revolution, and totally healing — are what going to church ought be like. There are no halfhearted measures; Spear’s sense of obligation is too great. "You have to have that sense of responsibility because it’s a job, an important work. I know that I’m going to be working for these people for an hour and a half, or two hours, or more. So, I have to do what I do best, and be there the way I should be there so that they see and feel what I am doing for them," he explained.
When asked how he manages to give such profoundly moving performances night after night, Spear said, "I know how to prepare myself. Come on, I have been doing this for how many years? I have some capability. If you do it right, it is you that you offer."
"Well, when I first felt the inspiration and the spirituality of Rastafari," he continued, "it was on the beach, Key Largo beach. That was the place we hung out. As a matter of fact, everything that became Burning Spear was based upon that beach — music, my way of life, everything."
Spear’s religious faith is front and center in the lyrics of Our Music, as it is on all Burning Spear discs, but a person doesn’t need to be a Rastafarian, or religious at all for that matter, to enjoy his music. The songs are a celebration of the human spirit and a call for perseverance in hard times. Even the love songs, such as the bouncy Fix Me, carry the positive message that a better life is within everyone’s grasp, given hard work and a correct attitude. Though all of the songs illuminate aspects of Spear’s Rastafarian faith, none of them are dogmatic. The imagery in Spear’s lyrics avoids diving into religious cliché, and it urges understanding among faiths. "I was brought up by my mother and father who were Pentecostal people. I had to go to church twice every Sunday. I went in the early morning and then had to wait and go back at two o’clock," he said.
Somehow, even with this strict upbringing, Spear was instilled with a sense of open mindedness and an innate understanding of the unity of all religions. "Most of these churches say the same thing, you know, and this is the only kind of argument that I never like to get into with nobody. Everybody has different names for the master. People call him Christ, Allah, Lord, Father, Savior, Almighty. I praise Rastafari, and I call Him Jah. Everyone is trying to convince each other, saying that the church you’re going to is not the right church. The way you’re dealing with the Father is not the right way. The way you’re calling the Lord’s name is not the right way. Everybody wants to be on top, feeling that they’re doing the right thing and saying the right words. At the end of the day, there’s only one creator," he explained. If only Spear could spend a few minutes explaining this to George Bush, the world might be in a lot less trouble than it is today.
Spear has traveled a long way since those early days when he played his bongos on Key Largo beach, but aspects of his journey to fame still mystify him. "If I should really get the full understanding about the amount of different people who have been supporting me, maybe I couldn’t even deal with it. I would ask myself the question, ‘Could it be true that so many people are listening to Burning Spear?’" The answer, of course, is "yes;" the reason is because Spear’s songs are universal, and with any luck, the world will have the chance to continue listening for many years to come.
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Copyright © 2005 The Music Box