MUSIC-JAMAICA: Burning Spear Keeping Things Fresh

Howard Campbell

KINGSTON, Mar 30 1999 (IPS) - Lacking the charisma of Bob Marley but packing the fire of Peter Tosh, Burning Spear shares the tag of reggae greats with two acclaimed performers.

With a slate of albums that rank among the best in roots reggae, the 54-year-old Spear was recently in Jamaica working on the 21st album of his 30-year career.

“Calling Rastafari,” the name of the latest set from the venerable roots singer, is Spear’s eighth album for the Massachusetts independent label Heartbeat Records, and his first since the Grammy-nominated “Appointment With His Majesty” in 1997.

As is the case with most of his albums, Spear worked out of his native St. Ann (located on Jamaica’s north coast) which has acted as a source of inspiration for the Rastafarian vocalist in the past.

“Recording is a vibe, yuh nuh (you know) as a Jamaican a ya so (here) the vibe dey,” says Spear who splits his time between the New York borough of Queens and St. Ann.

St. Ann has provided sufficient inspiration for Spear to record some of his most influential work including the seminal “Marcus Garvey” and “Man In The Hills” albums, both for the late producer, Jack Ruby.

Those albums rank alongside the best in roots reggae, producing songs that rate among the 1970s roots craze’s most enduring. Among those songs are “Slavery,” “Old Marcus Garvey” and “Liberation” songs which helped announce Burning Spear (taking the moniker given to African nationalist Jomo Kenyatta) as a reggae great.

Spear’s Heartbeat material is unlikely to gain the reverence of the albums he recorded for Ruby and Island Records 25 years ago though he says measuring up to those legendary sessions has never been a concern.

“No matter how good the new stuff is, people will always love the old songs,” says Spear. “On tour the people still want to hear the old songs, yuh try and squeeze in a one song in between.”

The new songs have not fared that badly for Spear with three of his Heartbeat albums – “The World Should Know,” “Rasta Business” and “Appointment With His Majesty” – accounting for three of his seven Grammy calls.

“Appointment With His Majesty’ s folksy flavour was a departure from the roots feel fans have come to expect from Spear who has chosen to stay the course of his previous album by keeping things fresh.

“It’s going to be much different; different arrangements, different vocal styling…,” he says, before adding with a laugh: “Is still the Burning sound, though.”

Another facet of the Spear sound that will remain unchanged is the message. “Rasta wi a deal wid, that can’t change; original Rasta who deal wid the concept jus’ deal wid the works,” he explains, his pitch becoming more pronounced.

“The ways and attitudes of others may change but not mine.”

It is an attitude the man named Winston Rodney at birth, first upheld in the late 1960s growing up in Discovery Bay, one of 13 children born to a labourer father and his wife, a homemaker.

Keen on getting a start to a music career, Spear found his way to Kingston and Clement Dodd’s Studio One at the urging of another St. Ann-born musician, Bob Marley.

Spear’s two albums for Studio One (“Burning Spear” and “Rocking Time”) introduced a singer with a different sound and message. But his apprenticeship with Dodd ended after three years and it was back to St. Ann to “chill out”.

It was during that period that he met Ruby a producer with links to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

“Him hear some a mi song like ‘Marcus Garvey’ and ‘Slavery Days,’ after some reasoning mi decide fi (to) work wid (with) him,” Spear recalls. That decision turned out to be a fruitful one. “Jack (Ruby) neva understand the business side of things but him did know music, full of ideas,” says Spear.

Spear recorded two albums for Ruby – “Marcus Garvey” and “Man In The Hills” – but their power and passion ensured Spear an international fan base that has enabled him to maintain one of the most hectic touring schedules by any reggae performer.

“When mi start out mi usually play place wid (to a crowd of) 75 people, now is all 10,000, 15,0000 people….young people, old people, everybody come out,” he said.

Such a reputation has benefitted Heartbeat which Spear signed to after splitting with Island early this decade. According to Heartbeat’s Joshua Blood, Spear is easily the label’s biggest act. “He’s by far our biggest seller, our number one artiste,” Blood says.

Based on the response to his albums with the label, Spear says he is keen to maintain his longstanding relationship with Heartbeat which will release “Calling Rastafari” in April, another album in a career that he says has been satisfying.

“Mi satisfull (I am satisfied) with everything, man,” he says, managing another laugh. “Remember nothing neva a gwaan (was happening) early on, yuh nuh, so when something a gwaan now yuh haffi (have to) give thanks.”

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