The Humble Calf: A Conversation with Burning Spear

Burning Spear
Jah Is Real
Burning Music

It is impossible to talk about Burning Spear now without talking about Burning Spear then. Four decades and still dropping knowledge: no other artist, with the possible exception of Toots Hibbert, can lay claim to being reggae’s true elder statesman. And of course, when it comes to art, there are two types of living legends. On one hand, there are the ones who get props for simply surviving, even if their better days are far in the past. The other, far less common cases, are the ones who remain relevant and, by the sheer quality of their output, difficult to ignore. Burning Spear is without question of the latter ilk, and his latest release, Jah Is Real should appeal to fans and stands to attract new listeners.

Nevertheless, when people speak of Burning Spear, it is usually his early work that they fondly invoke. With good reason, as his third album (and masterpiece), 1975’s Marcus Garvey is correctly considered one of the absolute cornerstones of reggae music. Burning Spear spent the rest of the decade establishing his legend, and the series of records that followed are all considered classics. While most of his compatriots dropped out of public consciousness, due either to death or the ever-shifting whims of the public (the ’80s were a challenging time for rock music; to be certain, times were considerably more difficult for reggae), Burning Spear soldiered on, releasing a steady stream of albums and seemingly never not on tour.

Throughout his entire career, Spear has been productive without being repetitive, he has been old school without being old-fashioned, and he is progressive without being totally unpredictable. He is, in short, in a class of his own: a unique artist who has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fashion, and persevered despite the rapacious, and often repugnant, practices of record label chiefs. Jah Is Real is the inaugural CD from Burning Music, the label Burning Spear controls and helps operate. For an artist who has known the (fleeting) heights of stardom and the depths of shady-dealing industry swine, this is a near miraculous act of freedom and redemption. “It’s a lot of work, to be honest,” he explains. “But I don’t mind work. I look at it like a test. I test myself and see my capability and determination.” How strong have you found yourself to be, he is asked. “Very strong. I will keep doing what I should be doing. I have to finish what I start. But I give thanks just to wake up and see the rising sun. I focus, and humble myself. You know, a humble calf gets more milk. Not always more milk right now, but I know if I stay back and be humble; the humble calf gets the most milk.”

Jah Is Real is not just the title of Spear’s new release, it’s also a very sincere shout-out to life and how to live it. Reggae music has fallen on and off (mostly off) the radar since its heyday in the mid-to-late ’70s, but if there has been one consistent, reliable force it has been Burning Spear. Having made music for the better part of four decades, he has somehow managed to remain respected and loved by critics and fans. He still tours regularly and his live shows remain events, genuine celebrations of — and about — music. How does he keep going so strong? “I enjoy all the time,” he says. “I love what I do, there is no pressure. The music doesn’t like pressure.”

Still, there was always something missing. If it is a distressing commentary on the record industry that an artist of Burning Spear’s caliber was having problems getting paid, it’s a common one. One thing that differentiates his story from countless others is that, quite simply, Burning Spear was getting screwed longer. Fortunately, times have never been better for musicians everywhere to take control of their own business, and cut out the blood-sucking middlemen who have always made sure their piece of the pie is biggest. They who do the least gained the most — this is the sordid epitaph for entirely too many artists, especially African American artists, all through the 20th century.

Burning Spear, who operates these days out of Queens, New York, is no babe in the woods. Enough was enough, so he finally took matters into his own hands. That he now controls the recording and distribution of his material is reason enough for celebration. That Jah Is Real is a fairly incredible addition to his catalog seems almost like just rewards — for the artist and his fans. Burning Spear, who has long been amongst the most ardent, and convincing advocates for the positive power of Rastafarianism, has developed a sound and style that makes his work instantly identifiable. That he has avoided a formulaic approach is to his credit, but he has not been especially noted for taking risks (why should he? Nothing was broken, so there was nothing to fix).

It might at first seem a curious decision to welcome the participation of funk legends Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrel. A risk, possibly, but one that pays substantial dividends. How could it not? Collins adds his signature, grooving thump and Worrel’s keyboards flesh out the proceedings with an authoritative elegance. The result? Another solid Burning Spear outing, but there’s something more here. The production (by Burning Spear) is stellar, and the songs sound tight, but animated. From first note to last, this album is infectiously alive. One is unlikely to come away from any Burning Spear album, and Jah Is Real is certainly no exception, without feeling a little more informed and a little more enervated. His message remains the same, and in a year where many people are looking for positive change, it would be proper, and more than a little righteous, for one of our great living artists to acquire a larger audience — at home and abroad.

The songs have an added urgency, courtesy of Burning Spear’s recent activities. For one, his decision to go it alone is covered in the celebratory “You Were Wrong”, while “Stick to the Plan” is a reaffirmation of an unwavering commitment to his peaceful, but empowering vision. The other fruitful source for this new material is a trip Burning Spear took to Kenya last year, where he played an outdoor concert for over 60,000 people. That he was asked by the United Nations to perform is testament not only to his reputation, but to a collective acknowledgment of the man’s ability to educate and inspire. “Music is what I give, music alone will live,” he sings on “Step It”, and song titles such as “One Africa” and “No Compromise” make it abundantly clear where he is coming from. Despite festering bad blood and the constant threat of violence resulting from a recent election, there were no incidents during the concert. “It was an outstanding experience,” he recalls. “I always wanted to go to Kenya, since that is where Burning Spear is from.” (Spear, born Winston Rodney, had taken the nickname originally bestowed on Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya). “When we get there it was people versus people. My job is to bring people together and shine a musical light. They can see they are one people. That is what happened.”

The trip provided artistic inspiration, and several songs on Jah Is Real deal with his Kenya triumph. Spear also wrote about the experience on his blog, which he has kept going for the last eight years. “The blog is a great way for me to tell my story. I can speak with many at once. My fans always there for me; I respect (them) and hope to give them as much as they give me.” Asked what else motivates him, Spear reiterates that the support and encouragement of the people he loves — particularly his wife — keep him always going in the right direction. Spear is also, not surprisingly, a passionate fan of all types of music. “In reggae, Bob [Marley] was my number one. I also admire Toots (Hibbert) and so much from the late ’60s and early ’70s. I like any music I can feel.” What about non-reggae music? “In the past, I listen to Curtis Mayfield a great deal, also James Brown and Aretha Franklin … so many (musicians).”

What can we expect from Spear, looking ahead? More music, obviously. Touring. There is also the documentary DVD he has been working on. He also makes tantalizing mention of prime, unreleased video from Europe. “I control the masters, and now that I control more of my music, I can make more of it available.” That is certainly cause for celebration. Mostly, he intends to keep it simple. Spear has lived in Queens, New York for many years now, and the city suits him. “I go by myself, live amongst the people. That’s my style of living: low profile, nothing flashy.” It’s never been about money, he insists. It’s all about respect — for himself, for his music. “It’s like construction. I am building something. We are building something, which is bigger payment than money.” What about a day when he stops making music? “I’ll ever walk away,” he says. “If I walk away from music, I walk away from myself.”