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.
Photo by Lee Abel
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
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.
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."
courtesy of Mara Weiss
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