Sierra Nevada World Music Festival - 2004

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2004 Performers

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SNWMF 2000
Photo by Lee Abel

The haunting voice of Burning Spear has long carried the torch for conscious reggae roots music. Uncompromising, Spear sets the highest example of living the teachings. Born Winston Rodney in the rural seaside township of St. Anne's Bay, Jamaica, he learned, while still a youth, of the visionary black leader Marcus Garvey, who shared his same birthplace. Garvey's teachings would later influence Burning Spear deeply.

Winston spent his early years on the land, working with his hands as a stonemason and builder. Music always held an attraction for him, but opportunities were few. It was Bob Marley (also from St. Anne's) who first pushed him to try his luck in Kingston, and in 1969 introduced him to the top Jamaican record producer of the time, Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd.

The first single to come out of the sessions at Dodd's Studio One was "Door Peeper," a chantlike rastafarian prayer that still ranks as one of the best reggae records ever made. "Zion Higher," "Free Again," and "New Civilization" followed in the same footsteps--spiritual, and overtly political. Although these first songs were too radical to sell well, they formed him a cultlike following among roots enthusiasts.

Rodney took the name Burning Spear as an homage to Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta, who used the same alias. Burning Spear continued to work with Sir Coxsone for the next five years, during which time he put out a dozen or so singles and two albums: Studio One Presents Burning Spear and Rocking Time. But as was not uncommon in the industry, financial quarrels caused a break.  In 1974 Spear recorded "Marcus Garvey" with Jack Ruby's Ocho Rios Sound System. The song was enormously successful, and 1975 was the year of Burning Spear in Jamaica.

Marcus Garvey was the prophet of the rastafarian movement. Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Black Star Line steamship company, he planned to transport all willing blacks in the Americas back to Africa. Living in New York, he was persecuted by the US government in the mid-1920s, and returned to Jamaica. His statement, "Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned," concretized in 1930 when Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned the 111th Emperor of Ethiopia. With the title track, and other strong singles including "Slavery Days," the album 'Marcus Garvey' was released to an outpouring of critical acclaim in England. Burning Spear was now an international celebrity.

His next major album 'Man in the Hills', put aside fiery militancy and set a more meditative tone. Songs like "Resting Place" put the focus on a back-to-the-land ideology. 'Dry & Heavy' revisited some of his successes from the Studio One days, including "Swell Headed" and "This Race," and prepared Spear for his first trip to the UK in 1977. There he performed and recorded with the popular London reggae band Aswad. His following album 'Marcus' Children' was released under the name 'Social Living' in the UK, and returned to hard-driving rhythms and lyrics. The crucial track "Hail H.I.M." co-produced by Aston "Family Man" Barrett, remains a singular anthem to rastafari.

Since those legendary days of the late '70s, Burning Spear has never ceased to produce. 'Farover', with the winning single "Jah is my Driver" and "The Fittest of the Fittest" solidified his international audience in the '80s.  Over two dozen artist albums and another dozen or so dub albums have defined a career that never ceases to inspire the hearts of fans all over the world.  His most recent offering FREEMAN, containing 12 new original songs, released on his own label Burning Music, is as solid a piece of work as he has ever delivered--the Original Roots and Culture and a powerful, deep message. 

A tireless artist among his people, Burning Spear continues to tour with the vigor of a man with half his years. A beacon of black cultural pride and social commentary, Burning Spear declares: "I and I just sing what I know to be right... So you see, everyone is on a separate track, but through the music... everyman can claim a part for himself."

Artist Biography courtesy of Mara Weiss

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