Burning Spear: do you remember?

After 40 years, Burning Spear is an elder statesman of reggae. David Katz looks back at a long and glorious career

  • London, 1978. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot
  • Burning Spear at home in St Ann’s, Jamaica. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot
  • Burning Spear’s home doubled as a local. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot
  • Burning Spear in a London studio, 1992. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Tim Barrow
  • Burning Spear in performance, 1991. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Lee Abel

Burning Spear holds a very special place in the rich history of reggae. He’s been a recording and performing artist for the better part of 40 years, with an unwavering commitment to upholding the Rastafari faith and creating music of social relevance. Burning Spear is a man of gravity: his sonorous voice, one of the most expressive to emerge from Jamaica, sings of matters such as injustice, the legacy of the slave trade and the need for black people to find their own place in the world. All this is expressed through minimalist lyrics that are emphasised by the dramatic backing of his session musicians, who cultivated a particularly sparse and edgy feeling on his classic recordings of the 1970s, placing his distinctive and often forlorn tenor at centre stage.

Burning Spear was one of the first recording artists to sing about Rastafari, during a time when wearing dreadlocks could result in police beatings or imprisonment. He has never been swayed by the fads and fashions of reggae culture, which have shifted dramatically during the last three decades. Instead he uses his music as a tool for uplifting the downtrodden, singing of how the rootless can find self-determination, and exposing the wrongs of the reigning political systems.

His classic albums helped roots reggae reach a pinnacle during the late 1970s. It was Burning Spear who shifted the direction of the reggae sound in the late 1960s, and he became one of its most important artists in the mid- to late 1970s, upholding this top-ranking status to the present.

One of the ways he has maintained international popularity has been through the electrifying stage performances he has given around the world each year. His Burning Band has always been renowned for its professionalism. On stage, Burning Spear himself is a powerhouse, typically performing two-hour workouts, in which he bangs on the conga drums as if in a trance, as well as belting out his inspiring vocals, his clothes inevitably drenched in sweat by the end of the night. At concerts across Europe, North America, Australia, Africa and Japan, as well as in his native Jamaica, he performs to crowds that encompass black and white, young and old. Yet Burning Spear always connects with his audience, and although the music is often heavy in feel, it is clear that the man greatly enjoys himself onstage.

In person, the tall and commanding dread comes across as one of reggae’s elder statesmen, his beard and waist-long locks now largely grey. As with his music, Burning Spear’s general demeanour is one of seriousness and gravity, though he also often has a smile on his lips—a sense of humour is another strong part of his character. And although somewhat reticent in interviews, preferring to let the music speak for itself, Burning Spear is a warm man of great conviction. He was born into poverty as Winston Rodney in 1948 in a small country town on Jamaica’s north coast, close to where Bob Marley hailed from. “I raised where I born, in St Ann’s Bay,” he explains in a slow drawl that holds echoes of the Jamaican countryside, “raised by normal parents who always be there for their children. My father was a man who believe in farming, raising little animals and chickens. My mother was in the food business, doing food for people on construction jobs.”

The young Winston worked at several menial jobs in his teen years, all the while writing songs and honing his singing skills in the community, where he gained a strong awareness of his African heritage and first learned of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican hero of black self-determination who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

“I do so many things, to be honest,” he laughs. “As a young man, at one time I was learning the mechanic trade and another time I was cleaning clothes. But singing, it’s just a natural thing.”

Although Rodney speaks of Rastafari as an “inborn” concept, it was also during these years that he first began identifying with the faith.

Then, in 1969, he met Bob Marley by chance in St Ann. Marley mentioned a studio in Kingston where aspiring artists could kick-start their careers, so, soon after, Rodney travelled there to audition.

“Before I went to town I happened to meet Bob,” Rodney recalls, “cause Bob is from St Ann’s too, and that is how it really come about. I didn’t know about the studios, so Bob told I I should check Studio One.

“I went there and sing my song, and they listen to it and like it, and the following day we start to record. The harmony was done by Rupert Willington, a young man who grow up in the same town where I’m coming from. Sometimes he’s going by and he involve in what I was doing, and I happens to like his tone, so I travel with him.”

The dominant sound in Jamaican music was then defined by the frantic organ shuffle of the early reggae style, a gritty groove on which dance tunes and love ballads were based, but Burning Spear’s music was startlingly different. Here was a new sound that strongly proclaimed an African identity. It was heard most dramatically in the first recorded single, the hugely successful Door Peep, which called upon the Rasta faithful to “chant down Babylon” whilst “sipping from the cup of peace,” spurred on by a rousing brass fanfare.

“I think Door Peep create a newness musically in Studio One,” Rodney recalls. “At that time, when I went there and do my thing, the music wasn’t in that flavour or arrangement; it was kind of different. So I think I bring a newness at that time, and the newness based upon how you really set yourself up musically. You’re not doing what other people would be doing in terms of melodies, so it became very unusual.”

Rodney continued to record at Studio One, with a variety of backing singers, during the next five years, cutting Rasta-themed songs such as Ethiopians Live It Out, He Prayed, We Are Free and This Race for the albums Presenting Burning Spear and Rocking Time. Although much of the material is rightly regarded as classic, Rodney grew frustrated with the financial arrangements and moved on.

In 1975 he linked with Jack Ruby, a sound system operator based in Ocho Rios who was trying to break into production. Ruby suggested that Rodney’s material might sound better with harmony behind him, so Burning Spear became a trio through the re-acquisition of Rupert Willington, plus another St Ann’s singer, Delroy Hines. Helped along by a very tight set of session players, the Black Disciples, Burning Spear came to the attention of the outside world through a contract with Island Records.

The Marcus Garvey album was a fierce wake-up call that won international acclaim for songs such as the title track and Slavery Days, the latter built around the refrain: “Do you remember the days of slavery?”

“Those songs was part of my history, part of my heritage, the struggling of my people,” Rodney explains. “Knowing that I am an African descendant, African-Jamaican, those songs based upon the struggling of black people over all. That is how those songs really came about, carrying a different concept, sending a different message.”

After the release of the more spacious and meditative Man in the Hills album, Hines and Willington were no longer with the group. But Burning Spear’s sound was growing stronger, and Dry and Heavy was even more contemplative and philosophical than its predecessors. The 1978 release Social Living was another step in the same direction; it shows Burning Spear approaching what many feel was his artistic peak, and remains one of his most majestic works.

At the start of the 1980s, Burning Spear briefly signed to EMI for the albums Hail HIM (on which he accused Christopher Columbus of being a “damn blasted liar”) and Farover.

But subsequent changes in the music industry saw major record labels turning their attention away from Jamaica in the aftermath of Bob Marley’s death, which meant that Burning Spear’s next few albums were handled by independent labels overseas.

The late 1970s had been a particularly turbulent time in Jamaican history. With a divisive two-party system allegedly backed by Cuba and the CIA, the 1976 and 1980 general elections were particularly bloody, with many losing their lives to election-related violence. Like many other Jamaicans who left the island in this era, Burning Spear started spending more time in New York during the early 1980s and eventually settled in Queens. But he insists that “life is everywhere,” because “when you move, you move with your roots,” so he feels that being a long-term resident abroad has not really changed his outlook, particularly as he still maintains a home in St Ann.

Burning Spear entered the new millennium by retrieving the rights to much of his back catalogue and concentrating on the record label and production company, Burning Music, which he runs with his wife Sonia. He has since released the well-received albums Free Man, The World Should Know, Our Music and, most recently, a retrospective called The Burning Spear Experience, compiled by his son Winston, Burning Spear Junior.

Of even greater importance is Rise Up, a documentary film being made for Burning Music by journalist Wes Orshoski, featuring footage of Rodney travelling around Jamaica, reunited with his original backing singers for the first time in decades, as well as scenes of him at work in the studio and at play in the rainforest, plus testimony from his peers such as Ijahman Levi.

Approaching his 60th birthday, Burning Spear shows no sign of slowing down. And although he has been based in the USA for nearly 20 years, he remains unmistakably Jamaican, recording virtually all his creations in the island of his birth.

“I still go back and forth to Jamaica very often, still have my place there, and you know the roots is springing out from Jamaica,” he emphasises. “It’s important to stick to the original, that’s how the music create itself. If everyone should shy away from the creativeness of the music, then the music will be too watered-down. So somebody have to stand up.”

For more information, go to: www.burningspear.net

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.