Yes I know that you have no idea who he is. You’re probably asking yourself if he is a friend of mine or some obscure member of a band that I heard in a bar in Deep Ellum in 1991.
One of my favorite things ever is when one of my friends or even just someone I know, an acquaintance says that they love Reggae music. Naturally because I am easily amused ask oh yea, so what bands do you like and then watch as they stumble because they can’t get past Bob Marley. Every once in a while some genius will smile and say oh and Ziggy of course. I love me some Ziggy. Most people can’t get past Bob Marley when the term Reggae comes up. They don’t know where it came from and few even know that before it was Bob Marley and the Wailers it was just the Wailers.
Aha you say, Winston Rodney one of the Wailers of course.
Nope, guess again.
Winston Rodney is Burning Spear one of the greatest Reggae performers of all time and one of the real early greats in on the ground floor. You see the problem I have with people who say they love Reggae but only know Bob Marley or like Jazz but only know Miles Davis or think that the Blues is some white guy is that you don’t really know or understand those genres at all. Don’t get me wrong, Marley should be included in any exploration of Reggae music but you should know that Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were also Wailers. You should know Black Uhuru, Third World, Beres Hammond, Dennis Brown, Steel Pulse, and Culture. If you are going to know something then dive on in or wait until I get there on the play list and share it with you right?
For me I had to know what some of the terminology meant, I had to understand the themes and I sure had to know what or who Haile Selassie was because it’s a recurrent theme in all classic Reggae and I had to understand the concepts and beliefs of Rastafari. All of that is part of the music part of the recurrent themes you find in classic Reggae. Before Reggae there was island music and a combination of this music with traditional R&B that was loosely called ska. Almost all of the great Reggae performers cut their teeth with ska. But there were deep covert and overt forms of imperial racism throughout Jamaica. Not only was it a white controlled island but it was a stiff upper lip imperial English white superiority and their treatment of the islanders was brutal sometimes savage in its ferocity. Rastafari grew out of this very hopeless ghettoized society where everything was based on color. Music became the outlet for so many youth in ghettos like Trench Town near Kingston and Trench Town became the very fertile ground for the Rastafari faith. Dreadlocks grew and the music became a harsh trumpet call for the religion that it sprang from becoming a clarion call for equality and real freedom. Its why I get so angry when I hear Clapton a white Englishman singing a song about oppression I shot the Sheriff. Bob loved the attention that a white star could bring Reggae music but also knew that Clapton didn’t even understand what he was singing about.
For many of the youth wanting to make a name for themselves, including the Wailers, and including Burning Spear they made their way to a series of small recording studios all white owned and controlled to try out and record singles with a b-side. Mostly these records were played in local dance halls and these bands could go and hear their record being played with some pride. Some recorded a little and some recorded a lot. For each record made the artist was paid a small sum and whether their record was played and bought by millions or bought by a few or never heard that’s all they got. Some of these artists survived and were signed by bigger labels and taken to London to record where they received real contracts with real royalty rights but for many of these bands their earliest recordings are lost to them. They don’t own the rights to their own music. If a band reached real success they might buy back their own rights. Most of Marley’s music and the music of the wailers is owned by the Marley family and if its early Wailer music then Bunny gets his share as does the Tosh family.
Now if you listen to a lot of Reggae you might not actually like Burning Spear’s music. It’s not the music but the vocals that I sometimes struggle with. I am just not crazy about him as a vocalist yet he has some amazing material. If Marley represents the peace extreme of Reggae and Tosh the aggressive equality now extreme Burning Spear falls neatly right between the two. Much of his music focuses on freedom and equality as well as spiritual Rastafari themes. I have always felt that Burning Spear became the man that Bunny Wailer should have, the elder spokesman for Reggae and he does it well. One of his most admirable qualities to me is that he points out which labels put out music, compilations or old albums re-released and the artists receive no monies from. He denounces and encourages fans to not buy music from these disreputable labels. He still speaks out against injustice, still performs his songs of freddom and demands for equality and because of it the world of Reggae is a better place as is Jamaica. So next time someone says do you like Reggae or asks what Reggae artist you like its okay to say Bob Marley, to not mention him would be like saying you like rock and roll and not mentioning the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Now though give Burning Spear a shout out and maybe just maybe take some time to actually listen to some of his music or any other Reggae star not named Marley.