Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Burning Spear – Jah Is Real

Roots reggae long ago took a backseat to dancehall, and relatively few of the musicians who still play it are Jamaican. In fact, it’s something of a miracle that Winston Rodney AKA Burning Spear is still alive at 63, long after so many of his contemporaries – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller and others – died under tragic, often violent circumstances. It might also be something of a miracle that Burning Spear remains not only lucid (after all that ganja), but arguably still as vital and important as he was thirty years ago.

 

Throughout the decade of the 1970s, Burning Spear was one of the most popular artists in Jamaica, second only to Big Youth. While most reggae hits from whatever era you choose are party songs, Burning Spear’s work was always serious, defiant and historically aware. Like Peter Tosh, his signature songs mix frequently scathing social commentary with Rastafarian mysticism. Burning Spear’s musical style, however, is strikingly different from many of the best-known reggae acts of his era, characterized by long, hypnotic, even trancelike anthems that in a live setting can go on for ten or even twenty minutes while the band breaks them down into spacey, echoey dub. While he’s been writing, arranging and producing for himself for decades, this is his debut on his own record label, Burning Music. It’s also his best studio album in a long, long time.

 

Unlike much of today’s reggae, this album has rich, 1970s production values, layering clinking guitar, bubbling organ, bright horns and backup singers over a fat, bass-heavy groove. Grandfather, a cautionary tale, traces the history of slavery around the world and warns that “slavery coming back again.” On the catchy No Compromise, Burning Spear announces that “My music eye opener music…hail to the one who never look back in the race.” With its Afrobeat guitar feel, One Africa is a fervent, Marcus Garvey-style call for unity. People in High Places calls for accountability from politicians; Run for Your Life snidely chronicles Burning Spear’s entanglements with the record industry, and how it’s imploded in recent years: “Distribution is so desperate…without the artist there is no company…Upcoming artists should take a stand, get some understanding before you sign.”

 

Clocking in at over eight minutes long, Step It is one of the amusingly interminable list songs that Burning Spear writes every so often. This one chronicles his travels around the world, namechecking just about every city he’s ever played, obviously tailor-made to be a live showstopper with a long instrumental break that threatens to turn into dub but never does. Stick to the Plan is a call to musicians to stay independent and original: “Remember reggae music never used to play on the radio…trying to roadblock us because we so original.” There’s a happy account of an outdoor reggae festival and another happy tale, this one about a reggae cruise, along with more bitterness returns on Wickedness, another tirade against the music industry: “Since 1969 they’ve been robbing, they’ve been holding onto what is mine,” Burning Spear laments. It has the ring of authenticity: innumerable musicians from the 1970s, not just reggae performers, have successfully sued for royalties they were never paid. The cd’s high point is You Were Wrong, a caustic, minor-key anthem with the same feel of Burning Spear classics like Door Peep or Cry Blood. Any way you look at it, this ranks with the best of his studio albums, including the classic Marcus Garvey, or Hail H.I.M, recorded with the Wailers. Longtime fans will find this a delightful throwback; otherwise, this is as good an introduction as any to one of the world’s greatest reggae artists. Burning Spear plays Irving Plaza on August 31 around 10 PM, advance tix highly recommended at the box office.

August 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lucky Dube: An Appreciation

It came as a shock to us to learn that international roots reggae star Lucky Dube had been murdered in an attempted carjacking in Rossetenville, South Africa this past October 19, leaving behind seven children including one born just this year. Dube was 43. Born to a woman who had been told she could not conceive – hence the name Lucky – Dube would release five mbaqanga albums in Zulu before turning to reggae, where he would find a vision and create a body of work that would reach pantheonic proportions. It could be said that he was the king of African reggae, although he would undoubtedly scoff at that title. Dube was a pure embodiment of the roots reggae esthetic, a champion of the underdog, passionate supporter of democracy worldwide and crusader for equal rights for people of all races. He did not merely pay lip service to these ideals: he lived them and breathed them through his music, all 22 albums recorded in Zulu, English and even one (a platinum-selling ep of satirical songs) in Afrikaans. While roots reggae, as played with a traditional band including bass, drums, guitars and keyboards, may be a rapidly dying genre, Dube remained faithful to it all the way through his final cd, Respect, issued earlier this year. While he did not play on his recordings, Dube was also an outstanding keyboardist particularly adept at the organ, something his fans would discover at live shows (his 1990 album Captured Live remains one of the best reggae albums and also one of the best live concert albums ever made). His heartfelt, sometimes anguished, Peter Tosh-influenced vocals and magisterial stage presence made him one of reggae’s most dynamic performers. Although Dube didn’t speak English until he was 18, his lyrics are terse and often even poetic, a mix of fiery political broadsides, social commentary and longing, spiritual meditations.

Considering that Dube was hardly materialistic and deplored violence, it is cruelly ironic that he would die murdered by a stranger attempting to steal his car. In his best song, Victims, Dube offers a poignant and insightful look at the effects of random violence through the eyes of a grieving woman:

Dear lord, she was crying until now
As she turned to move her head
She said boy oh boy it brings tears to my eyes
I said why

She said boy it brings tears to my eyes
Bob Marley said, how long shall they kill our brothers while we stand aside and look?
Little did he know that eventually the enemy will stand aside and look
While we kill our own brothers
Knowing that already they are the victims of the situation

Still licking wounds from brutality
Still licking wounds from humiliation
She said these words as the wrinkles on her face
Became perfect traces of the tears of a race
We are the victims everytime

We got double trouble everytime
She took me outside in the churchyard
Showed me graves on the ground
And she said, there lies a man who fought for equality
There lies a boy who died in his tracks

Can all these heroes die in vain while we sit back and kill our own
Knowing already that they are the victims of the situation
Still licking wounds from humiliation
We are the victims everytime
We got double trouble everytime

Lucky Dube was an artist we’d planned on featuring here for sometime. It’s tragic that we were never be able to do anything on this great songwriter and performer while he was alive.

November 27, 2007 Posted by | Music, obituary, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment