September 19, 2005
“Our music / they think that we lose it,” sings Burning Spear in the opening line on his CD, “Our Music,” released on Tuesday. Coming from Burning Spear, this idea of “losing our music” could have any of several meanings.Perhaps the most obvious meaning would be the course that reggae music has taken in its nearly 40-year history. The 57-year-old Burning Spear was one of the originators of reggae. And when he and his fellow pioneers – including Bob Marley, who came from the same Jamaican hometown of St. Ann’s Bay – built the distinctive style, the music was intended for spiritual purposes. In its earliest form, reggae was fairly simple and humble, its lyrics offering praise to Jah Rastafari, giving comfort to the masses and speaking out against oppression.Reggae has come a long way since. As demonstrated at the recent Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, reggae can have as much in common with rock ‘n’ roll (in the hands of Alpha Blondy) or romantic pop (from the voice of Maxi Priest) as it does with reggae’s beginnings. From reggae has sprung many variants which have little to do with the music’s origins.
But Spear, who was born Winston Rodney, has no problem with reggae becoming the world’s music, and being distorted in the process. In tune with the easygoing attitude that can seem a core ethos of Rastafarianism, Spear accepts change.”It don’t bother me,” said Spear, speaking from his home in Queens, N.Y., where he has lived for 18 years. “Nothing in life is going to be the same. The music going to go through a lot of different places. As long as you maintain the roots in the music.”Change is part of life. And I don’t know if it’s been for the better or the worse. But I don’t think it’s for the worse. There are a lot of good young singers.”
Or the message of “Our Music” might be a statement of Burning Spear’s own style of reggae. But if there is an artist who hasn’t lost sight of his musical path over the decades, it is Spear. Compare “Creation Rebel,” a compilation of early Burning Spear recordings from 1969-70 made at Kingston’s Studio One to “Our Music,” and the distance seems minute. The music is built on the same fundamentals: an overall simplicity, lyrics that find their strength in repetition and directness. Spear began singing about black unity and the dignity of the poor, and he still sings of the same topics. The major influence on his early work was Marcus Garvey; “Our Music” features no fewer than three songs in tribute to the early 20th-century Jamaican who preached self-determination, and a return to Africa, for black people.”I think I feel that way. Burning Spear is going to be Burning Spear,” he said. “What Burning Spear is standing up for in the music, he’s always going to be standing up for. There’s changes in the arrangements, the lyrics, but the foundational part is always going to be the foundation, the essence.”So what does it mean when Spear sings about losing the music? Oddly enough, for this most pure and spiritual artist, Spear has made the title track of an album about the business side of the music business. The song “Our Music” is a warning, and a message of encouragement, to fellow reggae singers to take care of business. To not blindly trust others to handle business – as he has done in the past – but to take their careers under their control.”They want us to give it up to them,” said Spear. “Things been going on like that for a long time. People in the music business, record companies. I don’t know what’s up with that, people thinking artists don’t know anything about the business.”
That perception, says Spear, is based in reality. “A lot of us reggae singers, all we know is the music,” he said. “A lot of years, I’ve seen how singers have been treated. And I’ve been treated not the way I’m supposed to be treated.”Spear set an example by starting his own label, Burning Spear Records, with his wife and partner, Sonia Rodney. The label launched with the release of 2003’s “Free Man,” a follow-up to Spear’s Grammy Award-winning 2000 CD, “Calling Rastafari.” He was less than pleased with the distribution deal he had for “Free Man,” so he switched distribution partners for “Our Music,” and is pleased with the current business arrangement. Spear believes other musicians – and not just in reggae, but blues, jazz, rock and more – should be similarly proactive.”We are these people who should be trusted. We are they,” he said. “Not until artists get themselves involved in more than just singing, you don’t know what’s happening to your music.”
While Spear has business on his mind these days, there is plenty of room in his soul for more spiritual concerns. “Our Music” is filled with the sort of messages he has been singing for 35 years. “Try Again” is about perseverance; “Friends,” despite its warm title, is a sharp but compassionate admonition to Africa to bring an end to war and corruption, and instead “show the world that we can move together.”The music Burning Spear grew up with didn’t contain such serious words. Jamaican music before the late ’60s was calypso and mento, early Caribbean styles that focused on the prettiness of the sound. Then came ska and rock steady, which cleared the path for reggae.”They were like the same thing, from one step to another. This music has a long history,” said Spear. “After people listened to calypso and mento, it could go farther and deeper than that. It could go a different way, the lyrics could be different.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org