By Kati Schardl
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER
The trademark dreadlocks may flow from a wiry nimbus of gray hair. And the bristling beard may sport more salt than pepper.
But Burning Spear‘s energy is as vigorous and potent as it was when he was a youth looking to put his musical stamp on Jamaica’s nascent reggae scene. His voice is as rich, resonant and compelling as it was back then. And Spear continues to use it to express the socially conscious values rooted in the teachings of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.
The 59-year-old Spear – born Winston Rodney in the parish of St. Ann’s Bay, the same rural region that Garvey and the late Bob Marley called home – has kept the roots-reggae blaze crackling for 35 years. He’s celebrating with characteristic verve by bringing his message-laden music to the masses on a summer tour that includes stops at both festivals and clubs. Spear’s path wends through Tallahassee this week for a show with his nine-piece Burning Band.
“When I-man look back from where I’m coming from and where I am today, I think I was a singer who got started with a lot of patience,” Spear said in a phone interview. “There were lots of times when I could have lost my patience and walked away (from the business). But I had focus and tried to discipline myself.
“You got to try to be in control and keep your mind in line. Don’t get carried away and don’t get stressed out. Patience is something you work with and it work with you. It doesn’t come overnight.”
That spirit of forbearance has helped Spear build one of the most prolific and respected careers in reggae. His first recordings in 1969 with fabled producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Kingston’s Studio One – “Burning Spear” and “Rocking Time” – are heralded today as groundbreaking. When they were released in the late ’60s and early ’70s, they were golden pebbles dropped in an already roiling reggae pool.
“It was different recording back then (at Studio One),” Spear said. “There wasn’t a lot of modern equipment. Everything was done live in one take. You had to give it your best one shot. It was fun.
“That was good for learning (how to work in the studio). In this time today, there are more modern machines, but I still take the same approach. I don’t program or recycle the music. I try to be creative.”
Spear cemented his place in the reggae pantheon with a trio of remarkable records made with producer Lawrence “Jack Ruby” Lindo for Island Records – “Marcus Garvey,” its dub-version twin “Garvey’s Ghost” and “Man in the Hills.” A ferocious live album recorded in England and featuring Aswad as his backing band came next, followed by an appearance in the reggae film “Rockers” (1978) performing a standout a-capella rendition of “Jah No Dead.”
‘Clean roots and culture’
Spear left Island Records and skipped from label to label to make one acclaimed album after another. Unlike other reggae artists who changed their music to suit the whims of technology-obsessed producers with an eye on the profit margin, Spear’s melodic, rhythmic and uplifting sound has remained the same.
“I have no choice about that,” he said. “There’s not a second sound like that sound. It’s the foundation of the reggae sound …. There are no changes and no turning away from it.”
New trends in reggae – hip-hop and electronic elements, more aggressive lyrics and artists whose focus is more on their bank balances than their message – have made much contemporary reggae sound synthetic and removed from its rootsy origins, Spear said.
“Young people start to learn a different way of dealing with the music,” he said. It’s like a fast-food thing – who can sell the most fast food and which company has the biggest reputation. People don’t take time to do the right thing.
“In the ’70s, companies and producers and promoters cared about the artists and the music. You don’t have that no more. It’s all based on the money.
“But that’s not going to interfere with the original sound, with clean roots and culture. We need music all the people can listen to and get some understanding about what it’s saying. We need more people involved in that kind of reggae music.”
Spear is doing his part to see that happens. In 2002, he and wife and business partner Sonia Rodney launched Burning Spear Records, the first label owned by a reggae artist since Marley’s famous Tuff Gong Records. The label has two releases to its credit – “Live at Montreaux Jazz Festival 2001” and the aptly named and excellent “Free Man.” After he wraps the current tour, Spear goes into the studio to start recording a new disc for release in 2005.
“Free Man” features Spear in fine vintage-reggae fettle, singing about such timeless topics as trust, pride, acceptance and Garvey’s principles of self-determination and self-reliance.
“Now is the time when the people need teachers like (Garvey),” Spear said. “People need to know more about how to go about dealing with things, how to speak up for themselves.
“If the teachings of Marcus Garvey and other great men like Martin Luther King Jr. are publicly told, people won’t be so indifferent.”
“I wish that people can be cheerful to each other and exercise a little more love and unity, regardless of race or belief,” Spear said. “I believe the only medication to solve the problems in this time is for everyone to come in peace.
“If we talk about love and unity and justice and we’re not living it, it’s not going to happen.”
Spear hopes to continue to continue his musical mission for many years to come.
“What I looking for in the future is to make sure I always be in the best of health and live as long as I can,” he said. “I just want to enjoy myself and be happy. What more could anybody want for the future?”