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The Rasta always try to live a life within the system, at the same time living around the system," declares Winston Rodney, the international reggae superstar better known as Burning Spear. "So he's preventin' himself from feedin' the system and preventin' the system from taking all of him. So regardless of what the system do, Rastaman gonna present himself with no interference."
Speaking by phone from a hotel room in Prague, Rodney sums up the political balancing act that has accompanied his 34 years as one of reggae's most exalted composers and fiery performers. The seemingly tireless 58-year-old (who currently calls Queens, New York, home when he's not touring), boasts one of the longest and most influential careers in popular Jamaican music. While synthetic, recycled dancehall sounds have gradually eclipsed the conscious roots era, Rodney has continued to deliver the same purposeful music since day one, eschewing gimmicky formulas for more contemplative methods. With a back catalogue of over forty full-lengths and countless compilations and anthologies to his credit, the Victrola-shaped paperweight he received a few years ago has only boosted his rocksteady confidence.
"If you weren't doin' something constructively, musically, you wouldn't end up ever winning a Grammy," Rodney says without a trace of irony or contempt for the Christina Aguileras of the world. "A lot of things involved in winning a Grammy -- a lot of poli-tricks in it, mon. I been nominated eight times. I knew that I did a lot of strong records, clean records. They don't think any time is right to give I a Grammy. There's so many album I know that deserves to be a winner: Appointment to His Majesty, you know?"
Burning Spear, with Judge
9 p.m. Sunday, August 24, $25
Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder
Rodney did finally win a Grammy in 2000 for Calling Rastafari, though as he puts it, "I been winnin' since 1969 -- winnin' until this time."
During that fabled year, when Woodstock made rock-and-roll history in upstate New York, St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, was emerging as a legendary musical breeding ground in its own right. The rural northern coast town claims not only ska pioneer Justin Hinds of the Dominoes as a native son, but also Rodney and his righteous childhood pal, Robert Nesta Marley.
"We hung out together on the back road; we kick soccer and burn a little tree here and there," Rodney remembers. "I really know Bob, and Bob was the man who told me about [Kingston's] Studio One. But even before I met Bob, I was singin' active, singin' here and there amongst friends and bredren."
Rupert Willington was among those friends and bredren. Rodney formed a harmony duo with Willington and borrowed their stage name from Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Mau Mau Rebellion's successful war to free Kenya from British colonial rule in 1953.
"I get to know about Burning Spear from an elderly person by the name of Pantan who read a lot of African history and stuff like that," Rodney recalls. "He was like the people's mon, who run a business on Industrial Terrace off Spanish Town Road. If you need a little tree, Pantan could give you that little tree to go burn. He was all-around in that sense."
"I think smokin' should be private," Rodney says when asked about the creative applications of the "tree." "I'm not gonna get into that. No disrespect. Many people might give a journalist the impression that without smokin' there is no music. But I don't believe in that. It's not like when I discuss smokin' that I am promotin' smokin' or tellin' people that smokin' is part of the music. Music is music, and smokin' is smokin'.
"It's not like people need to feel different or get high or junked or everything like that," Rodney continues. "Without the smokin,' can the music be created? Of course! The music will always be the music."
Either way, once Marley fatefully pointed Rodney in Kingston's direction, Burning Spear mesmerized Studio One producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd with a fat, rootsy sound that showcased the frontman's throaty, gospel-tinged voice and hypnotic style of chant-singing. After cutting the debut single "Door Peep" (a somber, earthy tune based on ancestral ghosts), Burning Spear became a trio by enlisting Delroy Hinds (Justin's brother) and released a series of singles; those were followed by the group's 1973 debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear, and by Rocking Time a year later. After splitting with Dodd in 1975, Spear released a pair of back-to-back dread classics that most critics consider watermarks in reggae music.
During reggae's mid-'70s gold rush, Island head Chris Blackwell -- whom Peter Tosh perpetually referred to as Chris Whiteworst,despite the Englishman's far-reaching distribution network for black product -- remixed Garvey for U.K. consumption; Blackwell added squealing guitar solos to a sped-up tempo that clashed with the album's overall themes of oppression, repatriation and religious devotion.
"Island do a lot of things with those albums; they do a lot of changes," Rodney notes. "Those albums reach out to a lot of people, and they sell a lot of those albums. But since that time, they made compilation. They re-release. They do a little touchin' up here and here. I think one of the reasons they keep doin' that, Island didn't have no unreleased track of Burning Spear. But at that time, I didn't sign no contract with Island; Ruby could only give them as much as I did for him.