Burning Spear: Dread Inna Grammy Babylon

Winston Rodney interviewed by Seth Jordan

Nicknamed after the guerrilla pseudonym used by the African freedom fighter and Kenya’s first head of state, Jomo Kenyatta, Winston Rodney is known better to most of the world as long-time reggae veteran Burning Spear.

He was born in March 1945 in St.Ann’s Bay on Jamaica’s north coast, also the birthplace of both Bob Marley and Jamaica’s national hero Marcus Garvey. Spear has many times told the story of walking along in the hills above St. Ann’s and running into the young Marley. “Bob was going to his farm. The man was moving with a donkey, some buckets, a fork, a cutlass and plants. We just reason man-to-man and I-man say I would like to get involved in the music business. Bob say ‘Alright, just check Studio One.’”. And the rest, as they say is reggae history.Following Spear’s success at the legendary Studio One, his 70’s albums Marcus
Garvey, Man In The Hills, Dry & Heavy, Live! and Garvey’s Ghost confirmed his status on the international reggae scene. Following Marley’s untimely death, many in the reggae community saw Spear as the most legitimate heir to the reggae musical throne.

Always dedicated to the original rastaman themes of spirituality, social consciousness, and the divinity of Jah Rastafari, his 80’s output included more crucial classics such as Farover and Resistance. During the 90’s, while many of the other original Jamaican stars fell by the wayside, Spear continued his
string of non-stop releases, producing the Grammy-nominated Jah Kingdom, Rasta Business, Appointment With His Majesty, and his ongoing series of Living Dub remixes.

Having just picked up this year’s Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for ‘99’s Calling Rastafari, featuring his revitalised Burning Band, and celebrating his 30th anniversary of recording, Winston Rodney spoke with SETH JORDAN for RHYTHMS.

Winston, there was a rumour at one stage that you had once said that you wouldn’t play down here in Australia until indigenous rights were recognized in this country. Is that true and is that one of the reasons why we’ve had to wait so long to see you live?

That’s the first I’ve heard about that! (Laughs) I know for sure that we’ve had a lot of calls over the years from people who’ve wanted to bring us to Australia. We didn’t know if the time was right, and if those were the right people, so we preferred to lay back, and now we’re working with the right sort
of people to do it for, so the time must be right too, and here we come!

There’s so many permutations of reggae these days; hip-hop reggae, electro-reggae, rapping reggae, all the dancehall tracks. Are you liking what you hear in the new sounds or do you prefer to stick with the more traditional conscious rasta roots?

There are so many different aspects of reggae these days, all of us trying to do our thing. It’s left up to some of us to do the right thing. If the music is preaching violence, I don’t approve of that. If the music presents as outrageousness, I don’t approve of that. Music should present consciousness, upliftment, unity, love, equality. Speak about the roots, the culture, speak about the history, speak about the development amongst people. Those are the things I approve of.

How about the reggae that’s coming out of Africa these days? You going to be sharing some shows done here in Australia with South Africa’s Lucky Dube, and other performers such as Alpha Blondy up in West Africa seem to have found a strong fusion between Jamaican and African styles.

Today reggae is coming from so many different places. This music carries such a strength and power and potential, it mobilises people from many different countries and Africa is an obvious place for reggae to take root and be heard by the people. I don’t mind other people playing the music as long as the music
they play has some substance and some good understanding within it.
Lucky Dube’s been doing it now for a good while and has a really good following, especially in Europe. I think he’s a really good singer.

Your own music has been an integral part of Jamaica’s musical history, and yet it’s almost always mentioned second to that of Bob Marley. Have you ever minded being in that position, maybe just a little in the shadow of Marley’s music?

I don’t really mind the position I’m in. Whatever I’m seen as today I think I put myself in this position and the people also put I in this position. I’m here for the people. Reggae is the people’s music. So there’s no problem. I’m here to do what I do best, making music for the people.

Central to your music both then and now has been the teachings of the Jamaican educator Marcus Garvey. Are you feeling that his work is still relevant for the 21st century?

I think so. There’s a lot of people who have never been told of these sort of good things that we present through the music. Self-determination, self-reliance. People still need to be taught about it, to hear what is possible, to give them hope and let them know that it’s worked for some people and that it can work for them also.

Also central to your music and rasta culture in general has been your dedication to the life of Haile Selassie, the former King of Ethiopia. In retrospect of history has your personal attitude toward him and his legacy changed at all?

It’s both ways now to be honest. I and I grow up on His Majesty, his teachings, the world philosophy around the teachings. We see His Majesty as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We see His Majesty as our saviour. Other people see other things. There’s one Creator, but the Creator comes with so many names, so many labels. Some call him Christ, some call him Jesus, some call him Lord. I and I say Jah Rastafari! You know what I’m saying? It continues.

Your own output over the last few years has been pretty prolific. A new album almost every year plus a dub version as well. You enjoy changing the new mixes around and altering the sound?

Oh yeah I love the dubbin’! I’ve done Volume 1,2 3, and 4 now, and I’ve already done Volume 5 but I’m not ready to release it yet. It’s just another experience of the music. Less vocal, listening to more instrument, mixing them down, adding a few things, playing with effects. I find it very exciting.

The studios now must be a fair bit different from the old Studio One days?

It’s a lot of advancement! So many machines! You can get a completely different sound, 24 tracks, 36 tracks, 48 tracks, whatever you want. It’s so different from the old days when we just play and it was recorded altogether. Now you can go back, clean up any mistakes, add what you want. Make it sound really good!

Winston you’ve just won your first Grammy Award after being nominated what, six times?

It ‘s been eight times!

Sorry, eight I lost count. Is it important to you to have that sort of commercial success and recognition for your music?

To be truthful I already felt recognised before winning the Grammy. I’ve been recognised ever since I began in the music business. I’ve always been popular and known to the world. Winning the Grammy is just another step. But I give thanks, knowing that I finally won this year. So many good musicians never get
nominated or if they do they don’t win, so I am grateful.

Do you think reggae will ever experience a major resurgence to the prominence that it enjoyed a couple of decades ago when it was seen as the cutting edge, a revolutionary force for musical and social change?

Well I think we need advise for this music to reach deeply into the commercial scene. We have the talent of the artists, the musicians. We do what we do, but it takes more to reach a wider audience. It’s really up to the record companies and the music industry to take that next step. We’ve got a dedicated audience
already, but I don’t know if the record companies are that interested to give us that major sort of exposure. We’re a big international music and yet we don’t get the big exposure. If they gave it that sort of push then it could be one of the biggest types of music in the world.

On the latest album you ask if anyone still remembers Burning Spear. I don’t think that’s really ever going to be much of a problem and your place in music history is secure, but how would you yourself like to be remembered?

I’d just like to be remembered as a hard working man who was involved in the music business for many years. I’d just like people to remember my work, my music, my philosophy, my doctrine, and my religion.

Author: Seth Jordan