A beginner’s guide to reggae legend Burning Spear

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Burning Spear is one of reggae’s most iconic figures.

Still going strong after a career that has lasted over 45 years, he remains one of the most revered and consistent of reggae’s recording and performing artists. With an unwavering belief in the Rastafari faith and a dedication to preserving the memory of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican hero of black self-determination who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the man known as Burning Spear continues to deliver meaningful and socially engaged music at a time when most performers give us frivolity or objectionable content. His live performances have retained a high standard too, as his backing band has always been a shifting bunch of competent musicians, and while on stage, he spices things up with an individual take on conga drumming.

Although the first recordings credited to ‘The Burning Spears’ featured a harmony group, Burning Spear will always be identified as Winston Rodney, the singer-songwriter who assumed the moniker of Kenyan freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta during the late 1960s. You can hear something of a country style in the vocal work of Burning Spear, and this is partly because Rodney was born in the northern country town of Saint Ann’s Bay in 1948. In his teen years, the young Winston worked at several menial jobs, all the while writing his own songs and honing his singing skills, and gaining a strong awareness of his African heritage by reasoning with the village elders, who first informed him of Garvey’s teachings and the Rastafari livity.

A momentous chance meeting with Bob Marley, another Saint Ann’s native, who was visiting the parish at the time, saw Rodney ask for advice on beginning a recording career, and Marley directed him to Studio One, where the Wailers and so many others made a start in the 1960s. In 1969, Rodney and his vocal sparring partners Rupert Willington, otherwise known as Look Up, came to Kingston to try their luck at Studio One, and after passing a successful audition, they began recording.

At that time, reggae was fast-paced dance music, based on a frantic organ shuffle, and typical reggae lyrics were simple love songs or nonsensical efforts to accentuate the rhythm. But Burning Spear was startlingly different. The duo’s arrival at Studio One heralded a new sound with serious gravity, proclaiming a Rastafari identity and revelling in their African heritage. More than any other act, Burning Spear really kickstarted the roots reggae era.

Burning Spear voiced around 20 songs at Studio One over the course of a five-year period, and pretty much the entire catalogue is classic. But studio honcho Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd felt that Willington wasn’t a particularly strong singer, so much of the material features other singers backing Rodney, including Larry Marshall and Roy Cousins, while other times Rodney sang alone. This fertile early phase yielded a number of singles, collected on the albums Presenting Burning Spear and Rocking Time, both superb sets from start to finish. If you’re not already familiar, seek out these albums immediately, or the compilations issued by Heartbeat and Soul Jazz.

Although this work helped put his career on solid footing in Jamaica, like most other artists at Studio One, Rodney grew frustrated with the financial arrangements and eventually moved on. In 1975 he was approached by Jack Ruby (aka Lawrence Lindo), a respected sound system operator from the Greenwich Farm ghetto of Kingston who had moved up to Ocho Rios, a few miles east of Saint Ann’s Bay. Ruby was trying to begin producing records himself and he wanted Burning Spear to record for him, but he felt the harmony trio format would work better than having Rodney as a solo vocalist, so Rodney brought Willington back into the picture, along with another local man, Delroy Hines. Backed by a tight set of session players known as the Black Disciples, the result was spectacular, and the Marcus Garvey album sounded so fierce that they scored a contract with Island Records for its overseas release. The Ruby-produced follow-up, Man In The Hills, was more spacious and meditative, yet still tackled important themes.

By the time Ruby’s working agreement with Island fizzled out around 1977, Burning Spear had already begun to issue self-produced work. Hines and Willington had departed, but the sound was growing stronger. Dry And Heavy, Social Living (aka Marcus Children), and Hail HIM are peak-period greats, while the amenable Living Dub series of dub companion albums start here too.

During the 1980s, after a brief stint with EMI, the Farover set was his last for a major label for some time, followed by a series of releases for independents, such as Fittest of the Fittest, Resistance, People of the World and Mistress Music, which are of varying quality, though each has something to recommend it to the committed fan. In the early 1990s, Spear was back on Island for the agreeable Mek We Dweet and its follow-up, Jah Kingdom, and then Heartbeat handled some decent sets, including The World Should Know, Rasta Business, Appointment With His Majesty and Calling Rastafari. Handling his own affairs completely in the new millennium, there was the acclaimed Free Man album of 2003, which received a Grammy nomination, followed by Our Music and Jah Is Real.

Here are a baker’s dozen of essential Burning Spear tracks, each delivered in his inimitable way.

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‘Door Peeper’
(Supreme/Banana, 1969/70)

The spoken introduction makes it clear from the offset that we are in uncharted territory, since Spear is speaking in the I-words of Rastafari dialect, proclaiming himself openly to be a Rasta, at one with his brethren in the faith, during a time when they were ostracized by mainstream Jamaican society. He intones in a deep voice laden with gravitas, ending with “sounds from the Burning Spear”, as though he were an MC on a sound system about to spin an exceptional tune.

We then get a tremendous fanfare that switches between major and minor keys as a tough rhythm unfolds beneath, based on a staccato bass line with plenty of rest stops (played by Earl ‘Bagga’ Walker), chilling organ chords, a sparsely picked rhythm guitar (courtesy of session player Fil Callender), crashing drum prolls (from Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace), and upfront niybainghi percussion. During his verses, Rodney calls on all the Rastafari faithful to “chant down Babylon”, as he would continue to do in his music from this point onwards.

Rodney and Willington’s wordless choruses have a rawness about them that underscores the urgency of his message. ‘Door Peeper’ is thus a spectacular beginning in just about every way, and it is also worth finding Prince Jazzob’s spirited deejay cut, ‘Imperial I’.

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Creation Rebel
(Forward/Fab, 1972)

Far more jaunty than much of Burning Spear’s Studio One material, ‘Creation Rebel’ couches a tale of hardship within a deceptively optimistic musical milieu. In the song, Spear describes his desperate conditions, with only one shirt on his back and one pair of trousers on his waist, as he struggles along life’s rough road, searching for a way to survive. He calls out loud and long, but his cries go unheeded, yet he is recognised by his peers as a ‘creation rebel’, that is, one who was born a rebel, and will eternally remain a rebel.

The spongy rhythm this time benefits from a chugging keyboard melody and a bluesy lead guitar line, everything working together to yield a timeless quality; the original Forward release B-side removes the vocal line to allow the rough musicianship to shine (intriguingly, the musicians are here credited as the New Establishment, rather than the Sound Dimension, as on other singles from the same era, though the Studio One material seems to have all been largely created by the same players).

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‘Swell Headed’
(Coxsone, 1974)

Like most of the tracks on the Rocking Time album, ‘Swell Headed’ is delivered by Winston Rodney alone. And as with ‘Door Peeper’, it uses Rastafari dialect to deliver a message of defiance that is grounded in the perspective of a Rastafari follower. Regardless of whatever evil his enemies may wish on him, Rodney won’t allow vanity to go to his head; instead, he will ground with his brother to reach a better understanding of what is taking place in his life and the world. He won’t run away from this negativity; he will eternally face whatever challenges life throws at him.

The original single release on Coxsone has a very sparse mix driven by another plodding bass part broken up by rest stops, and over a minimal drum pattern we have a delicious lead wah-wah guitar line, which offsets a scratchy rhythm guitar in the background. It’s another stellar moment from Spear’s Studio One tenure, and Pablove Black’s clavinet cut ‘Push Pull’ is an amusing recasting. (One more thing to note about this record: a white-shaded Coxsone single bears the printed date August 1974, but it’s not clear whether there was an earlier pressing before that on a blue-shaded Coxsone label, so the chronology of the release is questionable).

Other Burning Spear songs to check for from the Studio One phase include the devotional ‘He Prayed’, the evocative social protest number ‘This Population’, and ‘Ethiopians Live It Out’, which speaks of the indefatigable spirit of black Jamaicans.

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‘Marcus Garvey’
(Fox, 1975)

This salute to the Jamaican hero and pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey is one of the defining moments of Burning Spear’s career. Its widespread popularity sparked awareness of Spear outside of Jamaica, and the influence of Garvey on Spear’s belief system has seen him record numerous other discs praising him. The harmony trio format suits the gravity of the song perfectly, and the presence of the Black Disciples is another boon, since the fearsome horn section is led and arranged by veteran trumpeter Bobby Ellis, with drummer Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace and bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett anchoring proceedings.

The song’s immediate impact leaves little doubt as to why Chris Blackwell decided to issue the Marcus Garvey album when producer Jack Ruby offered it to him, yet for some unknown reason, the Island issue saw the material sped up during the remixing process, so seeking out the original Jamaican single release can be something of a revelation. Big Youth’s wonderful ‘Marcus Garvey Dread’ is a fantastic deejay reading of the tune, and the entire Garvey’s Ghost companion dub album makes for mighty compelling listening (opening number ‘The Ghost’ is the dub of ‘Marcus Garvey’).

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‘Slavery Days’
(Fox/Marts, 1975)

Another landmark from Spear, on which he dares to ask the question that everyone shies away from: “Do you remember the days of slavery?” He talks about being made to pull “the big fat boat” with “shackles round our necks”, and calls on his brothers and sisters to remember.

The backing vocals again emphasise the gravity of the material, and over fancy drumrolls from Horsemouth, we get some nice keyboard flourishes from Tyrone Downie and Bernard ‘Touter’ Harvey, cementing further links with the Wailers band. The dub companion piece on Garvey’s Ghost (also issued as a 45, ‘I And I Survive’) completely breaks it down, allowing us to hear each individual musical element.

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(Spear/Clocktower, 1975)

One of Burning Spear’s first self-productions, ‘Travelling’ is a testament to the endurance of black people, surviving a terrible journey across the Atlantic hundreds of years ago; they had no possibility to rest along the way, yet,music aided their physical and spiritual endurance.

And again, all of the correct musical ingredients are present, from Horsemouth’s military drum roll which kicks everything off, to Chinna Smith’s expressive guitar line and the brilliant blasts of the repeating horn fanfare. B-side ‘Walking’ breaks it all down once more, allowing the intricacy of the drum pattern to be heightened. A near-perfect effort, proving that Burning Spear didn’t need any outside producer.

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‘Man In The Hills’
(Wolf, 1976)

Winston Rodney’s lyrics often have a visual quality to them. Instead of just relating a tale or delivering a ballad, he sings the entire scene for you, so that you can see in your mind’s eye what he’s trying to describe. Nowhere is this more apparent than on ‘Man In The Hills,’ the title track of the second Burning Spear LP produced by Jack Ruby. Here Spear sings of the appeal of country living, up there in the hills, where his brother must go to the river to get the water for his sister to wash the dishes; you pick up the brambles to keep mama’s fire burning, so that everyone can eat; and meanwhile daddy has gone far over yonder to cultivate the food supplies.

It seems an idyllic life, especially compared to Kingston, and to emphasize the idea we get some bird whistles in the background, as the backing singers chant repeatedly of the allure of life in the hills. There is some wonderful guitar work throughout courtesy of Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, and again the original Jamaican single on Wolf has a significantly different mix with fewer keyboards, but the poor audio quality of the pressing and the scarcity of issue means that the Island issue is where most should head.

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(Wolf/Island, 1976)

A surprisingly playful track from Man In The Hills, ‘Lion’ sees Rodney messing around with Rastafari symbolism, since one of Haile Selassie’s honorary titles is ‘conquering lion of Judah’. To emphasize that we’re still in Rasta territory, there’s plenty of Nyabinghi percussion jockeying with the offbeat drum pattern, and again Spear tells us the tale from within a family setting, bawling, “Mama, call brother, to tell papa who live in the jungle, don’t kill the lion.”

It’s as though the song is a continuation of ‘Man In The Hills’, with Spear’s father still way off yonder somewhere, so he appeals to his mother to get his brother to reach the father, in case the father should make the wrong move. The musical backing is strikingly unique, with swirling organ runs and clattering percussion behind the chanted choral vocal parts, and Spear’s own shouted vocal at the top; check the dub version on the single B-side to better understand who’s doing what.

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‘Throw Down Your Arms’
(Spear, 1977)

On ‘Throw Down Your Arms’, Spear does more than issue a standard reggae call for unspecified unity. Instead, he brings that visual quality into play once again, recounting how a simple quarrel may quickly escalate. After repeated choral chants of “throw down your arms and come”, Spear invokes the wisdom of his grandmother, who admonished misbehaving children. Towards the end of the song, he begins to wail; “I long to hold your hand in my hand,” he says, with obvious concern.

The song was recorded in the aftermath of the bloody 1976 general election in Jamaica, in which hundreds were killed in politically motivated violence. The Black Disciples band give a suitably heavy backing, with more blues guitar licks from Chinna, a rumbling bass line, and plenty of accentuated percussion. On the original single issue on Spear, flip the disc over for its wonderful dub version, which feels even more dark and broody than the A-side. Another truly moving work from the Burning Spear peak.

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‘Social Living’
(Island, 1978)

Plenty of confusion greeted this record on its initial release. Was Burning Spear promoting socialism, as declared by Jamaica’s then prime minister? Or did the idea that “social living is the best” mean something different? Winston Rodney has subsequently explained that the message was not meant to be partisan, and that the song was really just a plea for neighbours to get along.

In any case, the song has some spectacular horn refrains, and this time you can hear a trombone more prominently in the mix, imparting a melancholic feel, and though Spear’s voice speaks of positive things, the percussion, horns and rumbling bass retain an element of menace. The extended 12″ single issued by Island is the best way to experience this track; play it loud in the dub portion to get the most from the bird calls, Nyabinghi drumming, and deep, deep bass.

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‘African Teacher’
(Spear, 1980)

At the dawning of the 1980s, the classic Burning Spear sound was still intact. The keyboard element was becoming a bit more modernised, but everything else was as expected, and the lyrics still spoke from within the Rastafari worldview. On ‘African Teacher’, Spear talks about grappling with the Amharic language in his early days within the faith. He even confesses that he never finished his instruction, but the point of the song is that learning Amharic was part of a move by Spear and his brethren to reconnect with their distant African heritage. And in a place like Jamaica, which remains a largely Eurocentric nation even today, that was a radical move in the 1960s and 70s.

The horn parts are a more understated here, but no less powerful, and the chanted chorus (apparently a double-tracked Winston Rodney) allows Spear to almost scat-sing towards the end. And if you are fortunate enough to locate the hard-to-find original Spear 7” release, you will be treated to another excellent dub on the flip.

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‘My Roots’
(Island, 1990)

Although many of the albums Burning Spear released during the mid-1980s had moments of interest, some felt a little generic, compared to what proceeded them in the 70s. So the 1990 Island album Mek We Dweet felt like a return to form, with stronger production values. On both the title track, and the celebratory ‘My Roots,’ we get a great drum part from Nelson Miller and the kind of vibrant horn arrangement that we expect from Burning Spear.

And even if the keyboard sound seems a little dated today, everything hangs together nicely, as Spear sings of an awareness of his ancestral past, even as he steps into the future. A very uplifting and spirited number. Please note that the 2007 release The Burning Spear Experience includes an alternate Jamaican mix of the same song.

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(Burning Music, 2003)

The mid-1990s felt a bit like the mid-1980s for Burning Spear fans, with a number of albums surfacing that all had their moments, but lacked the distinctive features of Spear’s best work. So the appearance of the Free Man album in 2003 was very welcome indeed. It saw Winston Rodney assemble a sterling cast of musicians in Jamaica for a set that proved he’d lost none of his power and relevance; with Horsemouth back on drums, Chico Chin on trumpet, Sticky and Sky Juice on percussion, as well as Pam Hall, Dalton Browne and Lukie D on backing vocals, plus Gibby Morrison on guitar, all the ingredients were there for something outstanding, and ‘Trust’ is evidence of the excellent result.

The song sees Rodney warning us not to go into situations with our eyes closed, because the people we meet, those we work for or who work for us, or even those we elect, are not speaking the truth when they promise us the world. And somehow, Rodney’s voice is just as strong and emotive as it was in the beginning. It is one of the better moments of an impressive album that ultimately proves the continual relevance of Burning Spear.

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