Winston Rodney (a.k.a. Burning Spear) strolls onto the stage, serious and concentrated, positioning himself next to his two standing drums. The crowd goes wild. Although he doesn’t jump around on stage, the fans can feel his energy for miles. The man is a musical legend: his band is tight, his vision is pioneering, his following is tremendous. A Spear concert is a spiritual experience.
Burning Spear, who got his start with Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One has just celebrated his 30th year in the music industry. He has just won a Grammy Award for his 21st album, Calling Rastafari, and he’s still going strong. Putting out such legendary albums as Man In the Hills, Marcus Garvey and Garvey’s Ghost on Island’s label and recording Hail H.I.M. for EMI, Spear established himself early on as a Reggae visionary. He has become an international star, especially favored in Europe by the French who have taken him in as their own, tributing websites and releasing live music that can’t be found on this side of the Atlantic. In 1983, he teamed up with the independent Heartbeat label out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to release such gems as The Fittest of the Fittest, Rasta Business, Appointment With His Majesty, the Living Dub series, and most recently Calling Rastafari.
It was with Slavery Days that he made his mark, Do you remember the days of slavery? he chanted over and over. Thirty years later on the Living Dub, Vol. 4 album, he chants on My Island Dub, Remember, you live on my island. In addition to his strong lyrical commentary, it is his musicianship, his vision for melodies and arrangements, his ability to enlist all the right musicians to carry out the Burning sound that makes him a star.
I had the opportunity to speak to The African Teacher via the phone from New York on March 9, 2000. As he has been an inspiration to me for many years, I was trying to hold back excessive accolades. He proved to be pleasant, very down-to-earth, and mighty grounded. The following are excerpts from our conversation:
Laura Gardner: Greetings from the San Francisco Bay Area and congratulations on your Grammy win and your 30th anniversary in the music business.
Winston Rodney: Thank you.
LG: Is it true that you first got your start when Bob Marley introduced you to the people at Studio One?
WR: Yes. I got started in 1969 and Bob and I bumped into each other [in St. Ann’s parish], and we were there reasoning and discussing and talking about music: the roots, the culture, Rastafari, etc., when I asked him where I could go and get started in this business. He turned to me and said I should check Studio One. And since that time (1969) Spear has been burning from that time until this time!
LG: Definitely. So what happened that you ended things with Studio One?
WR: After Studio One, I was taking it easy for a time. I wasn’t doing any formal recording. I was just getting melodies and lyrics together, preparing myself just in case I would have to make another step. So that time, Jack Ruby came about and I did two albums for him, which were Man In the Hills and…
LG: Marcus Garvey.
WR: Yes. I was there with Jack and then the whole tour got started for Burning Spear within that same time. That would be the first time ever touring outside of Jamaica. After being there with Jack for a couple years, Jack’s contract expired. Moreover I headed up my own production, working on the side, so I decided to get involved, by dealing with myself.
LG: Your music is packed with social commentary. Have you noticed that your message has changed within the last 30 years?
WR: The message is not going to change, you know. Just in case I change the message, it can become confusing to the listeners. You just have to keep building on that message and keep it. And now I think I am very capable, fully mature and have the know-how of how to maintain that message. We do create changes when it comes to arrangement and melodies and lyricsthey are not the same.
LG: In the last few years, you’ve changed the Burning Band around.
WR: Yes. I created a lot of changes over the past year when it came to musicians.
LG: So how did that come to be and how is the vibe different from what it used to be?
WR: I tell you the vibes are stronger and more vibes up! Changing musicians and replacing people is part of the business also, which is very vital. Sometimes a musician will be playing the same thing over and over. And when you draw for a new musician, he will come with a new idea as to how he’s going to be playing whatever he is supposed to be playing. In the studio, I use various musicians also and combine them with some of my musicians who I would take on the road. It creates stronger vibes and keeps the Burning sound more together. It’s my duty to make sure the Burning sound doesn’t water down. It’s supposed to tight!
LG: What’s the advantage of recording in Jamaica rather than in the States?
WR: All my albums are recorded in Jamaica. Jamaica is the founder of Reggae music and there’s where all the vibes surround the music. I’m not saying that the vibes are no place else. You can vibes up any place you feel like vibes up, but talking about foundational vibes the original vibes Jamaica is the key when it comes to that.
LG: You go on tour a lot and you’re in the studio a lot. Does it ever get tiring for you?
WR: Well, it’s a work. This work is totally different from many works. It’s a work that costs you a lot of energy. It’s a work that costs you a lot of fitness. Going into the studio is the first step towards this work. We have to create the albums so we can present the album to the people. After awhile people need to see you, performing live! Then, we have to do that. We have to do it every night.
In the studio, you don’t even have to go to the studio every day. You can take a day or two off! But on the road you have to continue to do this thing, so sometimes it becomes strenuous, of course, and sometimes a lot of things start to close in on you. But then again, when you are an upfront person, you know that this is work. You have to ignore some of those things, keep a clear head and keep moving.
I don’t know if I will be moving all the time until I’m 70 or 65! I don’t know! [laughs]. I think there’s a time of retirement. And it can be very close by. Retirement, I would say, is not touring but still going to the studio and creating music. Everyone has to have a retirement time in whatever you do. When one’s looking forward to retiring, I think you should retire in style! You can’t wait and you can’t go on stage before you’re going to retire. You have to retire still in the best of health and still going strong and fit.
LG: You just won the Grammy Award for your latest release, Calling Rastafari on Heartbeat Records. What does it mean to you to finally be recognized by the mainstream?
WR: To be honest, there wasn’t over-excitement for me. I think from the first time I get involved in the music business, I’ve been winning! I think I got my international recognition many years ago, without having won a Grammy. That recognition has been there. I’ve been all over the world to different countries, dealing with different people and people who could identify with what I was doing, on an international level. Winning the Grammy doesn’t mean that no people recognize Spear. Spear was already recognized by the people many years ago.
I still have to give thanks knowing that there’s another set of people who identify the quality of the music. I also have to give thanks knowing that this record is a good record and that no other record at this time could really come in front of this record. Winning Grammy, it’s a good thing. Many people have been nominated for many years and never win. I nominate for eight times! And end up being the winner on the eighth time in the Reggae category. I give thanks.
Laura Gardner: I get the feeling that music is not only a profession for you, it’s more of a way of life. But when you’re not playing music, what do you do in your spare time?
Winston Rodney: There are so many things I do when I’m not playing music! [laughs] When I’m not playing music, I might just be creating melodies. Maybe I might just be playing some other kind of music…get relaxed and listen to some other singers. I might travel…go to some island and chill out for a weekend. Maybe I’m outside juggling my ball! But then, I always go gym. I go gym in the morning time. There are so many things I have to do and I can do when I’m not touring.
LG: What are some of your favorite songs or albums that you’ve put out?
WR: Everything is favorite to me, you know. Some track might stand out more, but when you combine everything, all the albums are great. I say favorites would be coming from the fans. They have all the right to come up with what they think are the best or what’s better than what. I don’t feel no way about that. To be honest, all my albums are very good.
LG: I agree. Who are some of the artists that you like to listen to in this time?
WR: I like to listen to artists wherein substance is within the music.
LG: With a message…
WR: Exactly! With a message and concept. The artist must be saying things wherein people can properly understand what he’s saying. I listen to various Reggae music. Today I was listening to the Best of Aretha Franklin, and I just turned it down because of the interview. I listen to blues, African music. I listen to so many different types of music!
Because I do my own production, people are always sending me stuff to listen to. It’s just a matter of fact that I’m not producing any other person away from myself. But I get a wide variety of music to listen to and it’s very good. When you’re a musician or a singer, it’s very important to listen to other people.
LG: Lastly, what’s next for Burning Spear? I know you have a big tour to Australia and New Zealand in April.
WR: It’s not a big, big one. But then again, it’s big. It’s the very first time Burning Spear is going to Australia. We’re going to be a couple of days doing a couple of shows, but the big tour is going to get started in July, back in the States. And it’s going to run us right up to the early part of November.
Special thanks to Joshua Blood for making this interview possible.