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.
"I always do what I want to do [in the studio], even when I was with major labels" Spear says. "I'm one of the singers who stand up for that. I don't believe I would let a record company change me or twist me around, telling me what I should be doing or how I supposed to be sounding."
For the most part, that sound has remained consistent for much of the last quarter-century, whether live or on CD. Spear's voice, in a hypnotic chant, carries the lyrics through gentle insistence; subtle harmonies are then laid on a pulsating instrumental bed loaded with bass and percussion, and the whole thing is punctuated by a brash array of horns. Though most of his contemporaries have abandoned horns in favor of their electronic facsimiles, Spear refuses to relinquish his brass.
"I always prefer to do horns in my music," he says. "When you get horns playing a couple of melody lines, it's really uplifting. It creates a lot of excitement. That is the sound -- the original sound."
This musical composite provides the ideal backdrop for Spear's dispatches, which have remained equally undeviating over the years. To the blueprint of Marcus Garvey's teachings he's added the wisdom and fire of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, blending in historical context as he goes along; combined with spiritual fulfillment through allegiance to Jah, the creator, Spear's path to peace and righteousness is clear.
Unlike some of his more militant reggae brethren (Linton Kwesi Johnson, for instance), Spear takes a cool, less confrontational stance in promoting change. But his exhortations -- offered two, three, four times in every song -- are no less radical for their softer sell. When he sings, "If this is a war, a musical war / I want you to know, I decided to fight," you can bet Burning Spear is armed to the teeth.
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As his latest disc, Appointment with His Majesty, shows, Spear gives no sign of losing his spunk. If anything, his declarations have become even more universal: In "Commercial Development," a song as much about Houston as Jamaica (the intended target), he sings of greed and corruption undermining the social fabric. "Come in Peace" decries the macro-violence that pits nation against nation, as well as the micro sort, neighbor versus neighbor. And Spear revisits the issues of unity and history in "Don't Sell Out," urging his countrymen to remember the farmers, the workers, their neighbors, "the Afro slave yard," and not get complacent.
Given that the world situation seems as desperate as ever, it's a wonder that Spear doesn't get frustrated and hang up his clenched fist. But in times of strife, those messages become more important than ever. Besides, progress is measured in inches, not miles.
"The real, 100 percent positive changes is gonna take time, in any country, or any island," Spear says. " But I think we're moving along in the right direction. It might be slow, but we're still getting there."
Burning Spear performs at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, on the Houston International Festival's Chase World Music Stage, City Hall. Festival admission $6 (adults); $3 (children under ten). For info, call (800) 541-2099.