"Forward is the key," proclaims Winston Rodney, better known to the reggae-loving public as Burning Spear. "You need to look forward. But sometimes in life, you have to look at the past, also--look at the past, and at the present, in order to move into the future. That way, everything works together right."
Spear, as Rodney refers to himself, is in a reflective mood these days--and well he should be, since his current tour marks his 26th year as a performer and his 50th year on the planet. Moreover, he stands as the living symbol of reggae in the years when Bob Marley first rose to international stardom, tugging the music he loved into the spotlight with him. Of course, Bunny Wailer, Toots Hibbert and numerous other important figures from this late-Sixties/early-Seventies period are still around and still active, but Burning Spear remains in a class by himself. His spirituality and his integrity make him the purest representation of all that is stalwart and meaningful about what reggae has been and what its supporters believe it will always be.
One of the ingredients that contributes to Spear's reputation is his sheer stubbornness. While acts such as Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse sometimes staggered beneath the weight of expectations or shifted styles in an effort to remain current, Spear refused to be moved. This tack was a perilous one; he risked being seen as irrelevant by the generations that followed in his wake. But Spear's instincts were right. In fact, he is in some ways more in vogue than ever; in May he received four International Reggae Music Awards, besting chart-topping artists such as Patra, Shaggy, Ini Kamoze, Super Cat and Shabba Ranks in the process. Today there's no doubt that Burning Spear is among the few reggae icons who didn't have to die in order to attain his exalted status.
As befits royalty, Spear sometimes exhibits a haughty demeanor. He's relaxed enough to laugh at himself, but he's also prone to making pronouncements, which he delivers with the fervor of the Old Testament prophets he physically resembles.
"I owe everything to the strength of my beliefs, and to the knowledge that I must provide something to the people who have followed me and who would feel left alone and empty without the music," he declares. "The people want Spear to continue to be what he said he would be--that is what the people expect. And if that changed, the people would get confused and start to lose their faith and trust in Spear. Then I would be worth nothing.
"Many, many times people came up to me and tried to bribe me to get involved in the kind of music that they thought was popular then," he goes on. "These companies would make offers, but they would ask me to change my music. And that made it very easy for me not to get involved with them. I always turned them down, because I think I should be able to do what I am doing with the music in my own way--the original way, which is my way. I don't need anyone to bribe me and try to bring me down and make me do things their way. That would be a sign of weakness in me. And Spear is not weak."
According to legend, Burning Spear (who shares his nickname with Kenyan freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta) was near his hometown of St. Ann's, Jamaica, in 1969, when he ran into Marley, already an important figure in the country's music community. Marley recommended that Spear head to Studio One, one of reggae's most important recording facilities. The quality of Spear's first pair of releases cut there (Burning Spear and Rocking Time) caught the attention of Island Records head Chris Blackwell, the man who deserves much of the credit for Marley's success in Europe and the United States. Spear's Island bow, 1976's Marcus Garvey, is, quite simply, among the finest reggae long-players ever made, and Garvey's Ghost, a dub version of the album's tunes, is also a landmark. In some ways, the material on these discs is less accessible than Marley's, but it rings with beauty, mystery and the deepest reggae riddims of the era.
Following up the two Garveys might have struck some as an impossible task, but Spear was unperturbed. While subsequent offerings, including Man in the Hills, Dry and Heavy, Live and Hail H.I.M., may not have surpassed his previous high-water mark, they were extremely worthy additions to his catalogue. Never a big seller, he bounced from record company to record company before settling in at Heartbeat, his present label. Recent efforts like Love & Peace: Burning Spear Live! and The World Should Know find him as fervent and purposeful as ever, and this year's Rasta Business is also impressive. Tracks such as "Africa," "Every Other Nation," "Hello Rastaman" and "Old Timer" may not bite quite as hard as his early mas-terpieces--sometimes they're a bit too smooth--but what they lack in intensity they make up for in knowledge and commitment.
Clearly, the fires within Spear still burn brightly. Likewise, his passion for promoting the Rastafarian sect is undimmed. He is particularly incensed when he sees the religion being treated as a marketing opportunity.
"There are people today who are talking about Rastafari, but they're talking about it on a commercialized level," he announces. "They skip the understanding. They don't bother finding out who's Rastafari, what is Rastafari and from where Rastafari came. The understanding is not there. They wear their hair in dreadlocks so that they look Rastafari, but if you should go up to one of these people and try to talk to them constructively about Rastafari, they would look at you as if you were stupid. They should understand that you can't just pick up Rastafari by the roadside.
"I was touring in Europe before I came to the States," he elaborates, "and when I went to a TV station to do an interview, three young people came up to me and said, `We make Rastafari fashion.' I said, `Rastafari fashion? What kind of look would that be?' And they tried to show me what the look of their Rastafari fashion was, and it was a very short miniskirt and a very short top. Everything was short and exposing. And I say, `This cannot be Rastafari fashion. Anyone who really knows about Rastafari would not wear fashion like this.' That tells you how people try to use Rastafari in their own little ways."
Also coming in for criticism from Spear is the dancehall style that's the most well-liked reggae permutation these days. He has avoided folding the faster dancehall beats into his own work, yet he insists that it's not the melodies or rhythms that he finds troublesome. To him, the root problem is the words. "The music you speak about as dancehall music is starting to get weak; it is starting to get empty," he remarks. "The lyrics tend to get violent. It's like the rapping music--it is the same thing. The record companies say that this is the kind of music that people want, but after the people hear it so many times, they don't want to hear it anymore. So it is a trap. It doesn't work. Soon people will want to hear a different kind of music, a more intelligent music. Already many of the people who make this music feel this way. If you go to their homes, many times they are not listening to that garbage themselves. They're listening to a Burning Spear album or an old Bob Marley album or a Peter Tosh album. Because that is where their consciences lie.
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"People need more substance. They need to get something more constructive, something that they can gain something from. Something that can help them in their lives. And that is why the reggae music has survived and will survive."
This unshakable confidence in the righ-teousness of his cause has kept Burning Spear writing, singing and touring for more than a quarter of a century, and he shows no signs of easing up. He admits that sales of traditional reggae discs have leveled off, but he feels that live attendance is a more accurate indicator of reggae's place on 1995's musical landscape. "I get a lot of people supporting Burning Spear," he says. "And I find people who are bringing their kids to a Burning Spear concert, because they know that their kids will not be hearing anything that they don't want them to listen to--that they will be hearing music about the future. So it is passed from one generation to another generation.
"I intend to keep up as long as I can," he concludes. "I don't think that I should be going on the stage if someone has to hold my hand and help me stand up. I think I should be strong and flexible enough to do a lot of things. And when the time is right--and I know I will see that time showing itself--I will stop. But even when that time comes, I believe I will still be able to put out records for people to buy. As long as I have breath, I will make my music."
Reggae on the Rocks, with General Public, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, the Wailers, Bunny Rugs, Jah Mark & the Soul Shakers and Judge Roughneck. 2 p.m. Saturday, September 2, Red Rocks, $25, 830-