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Feel for the Real

Burning Spear's gimmick-free reggae has all the earmarks of home

In recent years, the throbbing, roots-oriented style that dominated reggae's formative decade has given way to a more modern adaptation: Strutting and synthesized, dancehall is to Rastafarian-inspired reggae what disco is to the deep soul sounds of Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding. But dancehall is also what's most happening these days, and the practitioners of classic reggae have either morphed with the times or dropped by the commercial wayside.

Then there's the rare case of Burning Spear, who has managed to forge ahead without compromise. One of reggae's guiding lights for more than 25 years, Spear has never wavered from his commitment to the music -- or the messages of equal rights and justice he has consistently spread since he first emerged on the Jamaican music scene in the early 1970s.

"I have to keep doing what I have to do," says the soft-spoken Spear, who, at 53, compares favorably to Mick Jagger in the longevity department. "People always accept what I have to do."

Preparing for a quick road swing that brings him to Houston Saturday for the International Festival, Spear is speaking by phone from his home in Queens, New York. His modest digs are hardly what you'd expect of an artist of his stature. But Spear's spiritual bent, so clearly articulated throughout his career, stresses priorities in his life aside from material wealth. He travels with his typically oversized Burning Band -- not the most cost-effective way to tour, but the only way to get that distinctively lush Spear sound. He's still making releases that won't ever crack the charts but continue to reflect his singular vision, not that of some label or producer. In addition to concert halls and festivals, Spear is happy to play smaller clubs and other venues that don't pay as well. Why? Because that's how he got his start, and he doesn't want to lose touch with those early days.

"You have to remember," Spear says.

Keeping tabs on the past has been a recurring theme for Spear since he first decided to sing for a living. Born Winston Rodney in St. Ann's parish (also the home of reggae legend Bob Marley), a young Spear absorbed the teachings of his countryman Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist who in the early 20th century preached self-determination for people of African descent. Intertwining Garvey's tenets with Rastafarianism and an expanding social consciousness, Rodney chose to promulgate the word through music.

Spear credits Marley with jump-starting his career. During a chance encounter in the hills above their hometown in 1969, Spear expressed an interest in recording and asked for advice. Marley urged him to drop by Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One, which had already recorded the Wailers and was the primary vehicle for the emerging reggae sound. Spear took Marley's advice, and Dodd was impressed enough with the young singer's raw but evident skills that he added him to the Studio One stable. For the next three years Spear smoothed his delivery and developed the elements of his sound, his learning curve steepened by his association with such Studio One stalwarts as Dennis Brown, the I-Threes and Marley.

During this time, he adopted the name Burning Spear, suggested to him one day by a Kingston elder. Borrowed from Kenyan rebel leader Jomo Kenyatta, who had helped liberate his country from the English in 1963, the name resonated with the ideological Rodney, and it stuck. In 1972 Spear left Studio One and signed with sound system operator and producer Lawrence "Jack Ruby" Lindo, who was just starting out in the record business and liked Spear's musical presence. His first single, "Marcus Garvey," was a smash hit in Jamaica. Eventually, the Island label released an album by the same name that introduced Spear to the rest of the world. Songs such as "Slavery Days" and the title track had a political edge that Spear continued to sharpen with every subsequent release.

It was while with Island that Spear got his first taste of the less pleasant side of the music industry: Taking advantage of a reggae boom, labels big and small flooded the market with releases and dropped artists as quickly as they could sign them. Exploitation was the norm, something Spear addressed in the 1995 song "Legal Hustlers": "When I take a look, within and around the business section of reggae music, what did I see? / I see a lot of legal hustlers, legal hustlers / Riding on reggae band wagon."

To escape the unscrupulous characters who always seem omnipresent in the industry, Spear eventually took control of his own career. He moved to Queens and, with his wife, started managing his own business interests. In the mid-1980s, he hooked up with Heartbeat Records, an independent with a good reputation for artist support. Eleven albums later, Spear says it's not so much size that counts, but whether a label is willing to stand behind you. "The key, working with all these labels: They've got to have someone there for you," he says.

From the start, Burning Spear has been unwilling to cede control of his music, which explains his consistency from release to release. And if an experiment in the studio doesn't work so well, at least it was his experiment.

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