BLACK WA-DA-DA Burning Spear

If all you know of reggae music is Bob Marley: two hugely influential albums by Winston Rodney, newly reissued as a
two-fer, aim to set the record straight.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

To the
casual reggae fan, the sun rises and sets with Bob Marley. From his earliest
work with the original Wailers (Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) during the late
1960s and early ’70s, to the international stardom afforded his late ’70s
albums (which, to be honest, were really solo albums by Marley with an assorted,
albeit talented backing crew), Rasta Bob is the name and face associated with
reggae for many.

 

Truth is,
the island of Jamaica has shared many musical wonders with music lovers through
the years, from the soulful Heptones, Toots and the Maytals, and the
charismatic Jimmy Cliff to lesser-known, but no less talented artists like Steel
Pulse and Black Uhuru. In terms of importance and popularity on the small
island nation, however, perhaps none of the above-named artists personifies the
pride and hope of the Rastafarian ideal better than Winston Rodney, a/k/a
Burning Spear.

 

During a
chance late ‘60s meeting with the already-legendary Bob Marley in their shared
hometown, Marley pointed the young, ambitious Rodney towards Kingston and producer “Sir Coxson”
Dodd’s Studio One. Rodney spent around five years with Dodd, recording better
than two dozen songs, and honing his craft as a singer and songwriter. It was
when Rodney hooked up with sound system operator Lawrence “Jack Ruby”
Lindo during the mid-70s, however, that he became the Burning Spear.

 

Sound
systems, for those of you not in the know, were an important part of Jamaican
musical culture, and the impetus for the development of both ska and reggae
music. Starting in the late 1950s, sound system operators would hold large street
parties in the ghettos of Kingston, with music provided by huge, turntable-driven
sound systems powered by portable generators. The operators would charge
admission and sell food and drink as DJs played the hottest American R&B
sides for the hundreds, sometimes thousands of partiers.

 

These
events brought in a lot of cash for the operator, and a sort of “arms
war” started as they built larger and louder sound systems to compete with
other operators. Eventually, as the demand for new music grew faster than American
labels could supply records, operators like Sir Coxson became producers and
studio owners. Enlisting Jamaican musicians, a steady stream of new music was
created, and the styles of ska and reggae developed as the island’s artists tried
to approximate American R&B music. Often times, the songs recorded by
artists like the Wailers would be “exclusive” to the producing
operator, who played it at parties and would release it on 45rpm single only if
demand warranted it. Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc would bring the sound
system to America
in the late-1970s, which led to the rise of hip-hop in NYC… but that’s really a
story for another time.

 

It was
from this sound system culture that Jack Ruby emerged, the owner of Jack Ruby’s
Hi Fi and one of the most popular “roots reggae” DJs in the country.
In Rodney and Burning Spear he found his cash cow, much as Dodd had with Marley
in the 1960s. The first collaboration in the studio between Ruby and Burning
Spear – now a trio that included Rodney, Delroy Hines, and Rupert Willington –
resulted in the scorching single “Marcus Garvey.” A mesmerizing track
with Rodney’s lyrics paying homage to the Black nationalist hero Garvey, the three
men’s deep enchanting vocals are backed by the seasoned studio outfit The Black
Disciples, which included bassists Robbie Shakespeare and Aston “Family
Man” Barrett, drummer Leroy Wallace, and guitarists Earl
“Chinna” Smith and Valentine “Tony” Chin.

 

“Marcus
Garvey” was originally used by Ruby as a sound system exclusive, but the
song’s popularity led to its eventual vinyl release, and it became a
best-seller. Burning Spear followed up this initial success with the blistering
commentary of “Slavery Days,” a hypnotizing rhythm threaded,
snakelike, beneath Rodney’s outraged vocals and condemning lyrics. It, too,
would become a big hit and Ruby put Burning Spear in the studio with The Black
Disciples to record a full-length album, resulting in Marcus Garvey, a powerful collection of roots reggae with often politically-explosive
lyrics.  

 

When the
album started selling by the truckload on the island, and sensing that he was
holding commercial dynamite in his hands, Ruby took Marcus Garvey to England
and Chris Blackwell, where it was released by Island Records in 1975. Fueled by
Rodney’s socially-conscious lyrics, Burning Spear’s infectious vocal harmonies,
and an inspired reggae soundtrack, the album blew up almost immediately. Aside
from the two aforementioned singles, Marcus
Garvey
included some of the darkest, scariest, and most potent reggae music
then put to wax, songs like “The Invasion,” with its deep dub soundtrack
and trancelike vocals; the horn-driven “Old Marcus Garvey,” another
tribute to the Jamaican legend; and the uptempo “Jordan River,” with
its Biblical references and rapid-fire (almost rapped) vocals.  

 

Given the
popularity Marcus Garvey in both Jamaica and England
(and, to a lesser extent, America),
and it seemed for a while that Burning Spear might challenge Bob Marley &
the Wailers as the champions of reggae. Rodney was angered by Island’s remix of
the album’s tracks, however, which changed the speed of many songs to appeal to
white audiences… a situation not assuaged by the subsequent “dub mix”
of Marcus Garvey that was released by
Island as Garvey’s Ghost in 1976.

 

Garvey’s Ghost# downplayed Rodney’s intelligent
lyricism and haunting vocals in favor of instrumental mixes of the original
songs that placed the emphasis on The Black Disciples’ amazing musical skills.
With just scattershot vocals rising above the fray, the music is free to dart
and jump throughout the mix, and while ten songs of mostly-instrumental dub may
seem like overkill to the casual fan, it’s worth the investment in time and
attention to catch the subtle nuances and the immense talent poured into the
performances on Garvey’s Ghost.

 

Burning
Spear would release Man In The Hills,
its proper follow-up to Marcus Garvey,
in late 1976. Again working with producer Ruby and The Black Disciples, the
album offered up another ten politically-charged tunes, including a re-make of
Burning Spear’s original Dodd-produced single “Door Peep.” Still
chafing at his treatment by Island Records, however, Rodney would break away
from producer Ruby, dump Hines and Willington, and take on the Burning Spear
mantle as his own, wearing it proudly for almost thirty-five years now. Rodney
launched his own Burning Spear label to ensure control over his music, and has
produced or co-produced every album since. During the ensuing years, Burning
Spear has become one of Jamaica’s
most legendary artists; a status reinforced by the recognition afforded Rodney
by his Grammy Award win in 1999.

 

***

 

The new
Hip-O Select reissue of Marcus Garvey and Garvey’s Ghost pairs the two
albums back together again, and brings both of these essential slabs of reggae
history back into print after years of neglect. While other reissue versions
have drawn from the Island Records albums, this reissue package was digitally
remastered from the original analog tapes. While I don’t know how much of
Ruby’s initial production was restored here – it’s been over three decades
since the Reverend heard the original albums in their explosive Jamaican vinyl
versions, courtesy of my old Rasta friend Earl – these new century versions of Marcus Garvey and its dub companion
sound pretty esoteric to these ears.

 

Regardless,
it’s good to have an album of the importance of Marcus Garvey back in print, even if for a little while. If all you
know of reggae music is Bob Marley, you own it to yourself to check out Burning
Spear. You’ll never think of reggae in the same way again…

 

 

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