For more than 20 years, Winston Rodney — better known as Burning Spear — has been one of reggae music’s most consistent and enduring forces, if not its most essential embodiment. Singing in a unique, soulful growl, the beloved Spear is known for his commitment to the African chant style, as well as his potently heavy, penetrating sound. He has largely devoted his life and art to the teaching of black history, in particular the work of Marcus Garvey. (Like Garvey and Bob Marley, Rodney was born in St. Ann’s, Jamaica.)
Spear’s recording career began in 1969, but he became a local legend in the mid-’70s with the release of “Marcus Garvey” and the classic album of the same name. Soon after, a London appearance that found him backed by members of Aswad made him the toast of England, and he has remained a major international figure ever since.
All three of Spear’s early-’80s albums on Heartbeat are excellent. Farover contains two of his best songs: “O’Jah” and “Jah Is My Driver,” with his haunting vocals and trance-inducing music. Fittest of the Fittest is another typical Spear effort, highlighted by the title track. Keyboard stabs, creative percussion and intriguing arrangements provide a solid background to his cries and moans of passion. The soulful and sensuous Resistance (which got a Grammy nomination) matches his voice to a stellar horn section, with Burning Band drummer Nelson Miller providing a strong backbone. The record contains some of his most memorable songs, including the title track, “Queen of the Mountain,” “We Been There” and “The Force.” Turning in a surprising new direction, “Love to You” finds Spear scatting and singing almost like a bluesman.
Signing to Slash, Spear made one of 1986’s most far-reaching reggae records, People of the World. Taking its title from the Starship hit, “Built This City” relocates the idea to Kingston and shifts the music to reggae, and combines Spear’s lyrical gifts with the incredible instrumental sounds of the Burning Band. Featuring an all-female horn section, they manage to integrate a multitude of musical styles — borrowing from calypso, rock, jazz and African — while staying within the dub context. The trumpet solo on “Winner,” the sax on “Little Love Song” and the blues jammin’ on other tracks combine to make this quite an LP.
Mistress Music finds the production (by Spear and Miller) and orchestration reaching a new level. In a lyrical departure, the album predominantly contains love songs (not that it doesn’t include the tributary “Love Garvey”). A Spear attempt at commerciality is almost a contradiction in terms, but the record does serve to expand his parameters.
Spear’s concerts are legendary; he frequently reaches unknown heights in a hypnotic trance. The extraordinarily clean-sounding two-LP Live in Paris — his first concert album since 1978’s Live (which was done in London, with Aswad behind him) — captures Spear in the throes of his 1988 tour, performing songs from Mistress Music and People of the World, as well as some early classics. The Burning Band lays out the groove and blazes the path for Spear’s lift-off.
Spear returned to Mango (the label which issued his most classic works) for Mek We Dweet (“make we do it”). Impeccably recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Spear delivers a message that’s both state-of-the-union and state-of-art. With a vision that encompasses both families and the greatest crises of social injustice, Spear focuses on a panorama of topics, repeatedly underscoring the album’s roots theme, preaching respect and awareness for heritage and origins.
100th Anniversary is a CD pairing of Marcus Garvey and its dub counterpart, Garvey’s Ghost. Although never issued in the US, Hail H.I.M. is worth seeking out, as it contains two Spear classics — “Columbus” and “African Postman.”