Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff keep reggae spirit alive
That reggae has become an international force is one of the more unlikely musical happenings of the last half-century.The music came not only from the tiny, Third World island of Jamaica, whose population totals less than three million – by contrast, Cuba, another Caribbean island that has made a profound contribution to music, is home to over 11 million people and is roughly 10 times the size of Jamaica – the music also was created in the impoverished black ghettos of the capital city of Kingston.To see how far reggae has come, one must look not only at the heights the music reached in the mid-’70s, when Bob Marley was among the most popular and powerful entertainers in the world. Reggae has come down from that lofty position over the last 25 years, but it has settled into a comfortable, prominent and seemingly enduring niche.Reggae remains popular in Japan, England, the States, South America and Africa. The sound has had a major impact on hip-hop and, to a lesser extent, some varieties of rock. New reggae stars continue to emerge, and top early acts – Toots & the Maytals and Bunny Wailer among them – are still significant draws on tour. Though not embraced by the largest record labels, reggae artists are well represented on significant, second-tier labels. The typical music store has a substantial section devoted exclusively to reggae.To at least two of the singers, however, who were there for the birth of reggae and are still making the music, the rise of reggae came as little surprise. Burning Spear and Jimmy Cliff, both featured performers on today’s bill at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, recognized the power and appeal of the music from the first.”I did think it would become a big music, a world music,” said Burning Spear, who was born Winston Rodney in the same small village of St. Ann’s that produced Bob Marley. “I think this music is a very strong music.”Cliff, too, recognized reggae’s potential. “I can’t say I was surprised” about the popularity of reggae, said Cliff, who was born James Chambers in the country town of Somerton, 12 miles from the northern Jamaica coast city of Montego Bay, in an interview earlier this year with The Aspen Times. “I was relieved and happy. Because I had always had a global outlook. I wanted my music to be heard across the planet. It was more glee and joy and happiness that I was being heard.”Much of the power and significance of reggae stem from the circumstances – political, social and economic – under which the music was created. Marley, Cliff and Maytals leader Toots Hibbert were influenced musically by a variety of sources – American R & B and New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll that were available over the radio waves, Cuban cha-cha and mérengue, the earlier Jamaican form of mento. But from the start, reggae was infused with a diehard consciousness. Reggae artists sang out against war and oppression, described the struggle of the poor in the Third World and called for a deeper connection with the black motherland of Africa. The music could be beautiful, but the message was often delivered with a sharpened blade. It stemmed from the British colonial structure that had shaped Jamaican society.The consciousness “came from the Jamaican society, the society as an offshoot of the British colonial time,” said Cliff. “The British had a very sophisticated method of classism and also a very sophisticated method of racism. These things existed and I felt it growing up as a child.”Despite the injustices that helped spawn it, however, reggae music has never been essentially an angry means of expression. Rather, it has taken on a spiritual tone, preaching tolerance and peace. Cliff’s best-known songs, some of the finest in the reggae tradition, include the anti-war tune “Viet Nam” and two which address the inner spiritual journey, “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Sitting in Limbo.” Another well-known song, “The Harder They Come,” the title song from the movie that made a star of Cliff, states that justice is most certainly coming: “So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m gonna get my share of what’s mine.” — Along with the political and social overtones, much reggae is also suffused with religious meaning. Many reggae musicians are followers of Rastafarianism, a fundamentalist faith that believes that midcentury Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the predicted second coming of Christ. To much of the public, the observances of Rastafarianism – dreadlocked hair, smoking of marijuana as a religious ritual and spiritual aid, a vegetarian diet – are inseparable from the practices of reggae musicians.No reggae singer has approached the music with as deeply religious an angle as Burning Spear. Through his career, Spear has used his music to spread the word of the black Jamaican educator, journalist and union organizer Marcus Garvey.”He was an African Jamaican like myself,” said Spear, who has lived in New York for most of the last 25 years and now resides in Queens. “He was one of the first prophets to stand up for a lot of constructive and conscious things. He traveled the world talking about people, so black folks could have a foundation, so they wouldn’t have to rely on other people. He wanted to set up a black government in Liberia, for all black people. He was there for the people, not only for himself. He stood for a direction.” — In style, as performers and songwriters, Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear could hardly be more different. Where Cliff is exuberant, even athletic on stage, dancing and jumping and pouring out emotion, Spear is intense, almost stationary. Cliff’s voice is dynamic and beautiful, with great range; Spear’s voice has a simple but authoritative depth.Cliff’s older songs draw on R & B, rock and even folk, and his later tunes have taken on more of a pop and hip-hop flavor. He has been one of reggae’s most polished songwriters; his tunes have been covered by the Neville Brothers, the Jerry Garcia Band and many more. Spear’s albums have had a more consistent quality. His songs have always taken on a trance-like quality from their repeated rhythmic structure and phrases, getting power from the voice and personality of the singer.What the two have in common is a vast ability to communicate to an audience, whether through Cliff’s outgoing charisma or Spear’s mystical presence. Cliff’s presentation has a more obvious appeal: His appearance this past spring at the Double Diamond filled the club with energetic dancers. Spear’s vibe is more subdued, more spiritual. But Spear has had little trouble getting his ideas across.”To be honest, what I’m trying to get across, I get across,” said Spear. “People understand exactly what I’m saying. I think I became the people’s singer; people could relate to the lyrics and relax and feel comfortable with the music. People tell me my music turned them around.”And the two continue to put the message into the music. Cliff’s latest CD, last year’s “Humanitarian,” is full of uplifting vibes, as he sings of keeping the family together, the oppressed rising up and the disgrace of war. Spear’s 1999 release, the Grammy-winning “Calling Rastafari,” takes a more pointed stance. He points a finger at America for slamming the door on immigrants in “Statue of Liberty”; in “Sons of He,” he points at black people who can’t unite for their own good.Cliff and Spear acknowledge that reggae is not quite the force it was when Bob Marley was a living, international presence. But both agree that reggae has established its place in the world and is not about to fade away.”Sometimes, I think even we don’t know the potential of the music,” said Spear. “It became international, and it’s up to us to maintain that international standard.”
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