NPR

Burning Spear: Reggae On Course

In 1969, upstart reggae singer Bob Marley introduced a friend from his hometown to one of Jamaica's top record producers. The friend's name was Winston Rodney, but the world would soon know him as Burning Spear. Now a gray-beard reggae veteran, Burning Spear has a new CD called Jah is Real.

Reggae music has gone a lot of places over the years, from minimalist dub to culture-warring dancehall. Through it all, Burning Spear has never veered from his course. Almost 40 years on, he still hews to the reggae basics: a deep, easy groove; the brassy R&B flavorings; and a mystical take on history.

In "700 Strong," he describes a joyful party at the home of iconic black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Back in the '20s, Garvey's prophecies inspired the Rastafarian religion. And Garvey's ghost, along with an Afrocentric, Rasta worldview, have been constants in Burning Spear songs.

On "Wickedness," he wields the archaic, biblical language he loves. Interesting that in this case, he's not calling down oppressors or warmongers, but rather music moguls who have been exploiting reggae artists. On Jah is Real, his verbal jousting is mostly aimed at personal foes, not the grandiose evildoers of more political reggae. Even on the album's toughest song, "You Were Wrong," his tone is more avuncular than angry.

Much of this album has the feeling of a victory lap. Over the years, Burning Spear has often been overshadowed by all the new voices and trends in reggae, but his core audience has never abandoned him, a fact he proclaims joyously on the song "Step It."

Listening to Jah is Real, it's hard to resist his infectious pride. Against heavy odds, this is one public figure who can actually sell the idea that more of the same is better than change.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Back in 1969, Bob Marley helped out a friend from his hometown in Jamaica. Marley introduced him to one of Jamaica's top record producers, and that introduction kicked off the career of Winston Rodney. He soon came to be known as Burning Spear. He's now a gray-bearded reggae veteran, and he has a new album out called "Jah is Real." Banning Eyre has this review.

BANNING EYRE: Reggae music has gone a lot of places over the years, from minimalist dub to culture-warring dance hall. Through it all, Burning Spear has never veered from his course.

(Soundbite of song "700 Strong")

Mr. BURNING SPEAR: (Singing) Seven hundred strong down on Garvey Lawn. Cane man was selling. The fish were steely. I touched you; you were running.

EYRE: After 40 years in the business, Spear still hews to the reggae basics, a deep, easy groove, brassy R&B flavorings, and a blend of mysticism and history. In this song he describes a joyful party at the home of iconic Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey. Back in the '20s, Garvey's prophecies inspired the Rastafarian religion. And Garvey's ghost, along with an Afrocentric Rasta worldview, have been constants in Burning Spear songs.

(Soundbite of song "Wickedness")

Mr. SPEAR: (Singing) Wickedness (unintelligible). Wickedness. Wickedness (unintelligible). Wickedness. They be looting, looting, looting reggae music. Wickedness (unintelligible). Wickedness.

EYRE: Wickedness, that's just the sort of archaic, biblical language Spear loves to wield. Interesting that in this case he's not calling down oppressors or warmongers, but rather music moguls who've been exploiting reggae artists. On "Jah is Real," Spear's verbal jousting is mostly aimed at personal foes, not the grandiose evildoers of more political reggae. Even on the album's toughest song, "You Were Wrong," Spear's tone is more avuncular than angry.

(Soundbite of song "You Were Wrong")

Mr. SPEAR: (Singing) I see them. I know them. Never live with them. They want I to claim what is not mine. I was just a hardworking, honest man. They want to surround I, To bring I down, way down to the ground. Little do they know I will never give up my tune, never give up my tune.

EYRE: Much of this album has the feeling of a victory lap. Over the years Spear has often been overshadowed by all the new voices and trends in reggae, but his core audience has never abandoned him, a fact he proclaims joyously on the song "Step It."

(Soundbite of song "Step It")

Mr. SPEAR: (Singing) From the first time I stepped within Europe, something's been working for me. The people keep following me. I step within France. I step within La Reunion. I step within Switzerland. I stepped within Holland, Holland. From the first time I stepped within England...

EYRE: Listening to "Jah is Real" it's hard to resist Spear's infectious pride. Against heavy odds, this is one public figure who can actually sell the idea that more of the same is better than change.

NORRIS: The new album from Burning Spear is called "Jah is Real." Our reviewer Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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