Very, very few of the original founding fathers of reggae are still active. It has been more than 30 years, after all, since the music of Jamaica bubbled onto the world stage. But Burning Spear, aka Winston Rodney, who first went into Studio One in 1969, has been steadily pumping out new music every year or two since then. He broke through locally and internationally with the vocal trio record Marcus Garvey in 1975, also making a key appearance with Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace in the 1978 film Rockers. His long succession of studio and live recordings since then has not wandered very far from his original formula of sharp Rasta social consciousness, riff-like melodies, and rippling, smooth flow. These discs have been successful in a commercial sense, garnering him eleven Grammy nominations and one win.
Spear’s roots reggae, to indulge a cliche, is very much alive and true to its original colors on Jah Is Real (red, gold, and green, to be precise). The overall glow of the record, with its easygoing vibe and gentle groove, is magnetic. But lest you suspect that Burning Spear has lost his power to ignite, be sure to listen to what he has to say. From the start, his music has been part protest, part celebration, but usually conscious of history and the importance of self-determination. This disc is no exception. (Its release date was timed to coincide with Marcus Garvey’s birthday, and Garvey appears in both name and spirit on the record.)
Hidden in and among the catchy horn choruses and rising refrain of “Wickedness”, for example, Rodney denounces the music industry (and yes, he takes it personally): “They been looting, looting, looting reggae music … / Since 1969 oh 1969 / They been robbing I … / They been exploiting I”. Rodney’s not always gotten along well with studio and label people, whether Studio One, Island, or otherwise. That’s why he’s taken control of his own work, releasing this album, like the past several before it, on his own label. The sound is rich and full, some of the songs really stick in your head, and the lyrics are printed in the liner notes in their entirety. (When they’re all laid out on the page, you realize how incredibly repetitive the words often can be. But that’s actually key for making the loose, easygoing quality of the music work. The word “jamming” appears over 70 times in the opening track, “The Cruise” — it’s true — but that’s the point, I guess.)
Burning Spear started as a vocal harmony unit before Rodney took over the name for his own work. And vocal harmonies appear all over the record, fleshing out Rodney’s voice and serving as counterpoint. Check out the female gospel riffing and choral parts on “Africa”, for example, which embody Rodney’s exhortation to “come together now” and bring a healthy dose of African-American church music into the mix.
Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins (each of whom is far better known for funk than reggae) guest together on four tracks, playing organ and bass, respectively. These pieces don’t really stand out in the overall even flow of the record, but they have certain attractive quirks. Worrell also lends a hand on “No Compromise”, where his organ sounds fresh with the horns, adding a dynamic, soulful vibe. Brian Hardgroove’s remix of “Step It”, which closes the record, definitely stands out from the other tracks. But the perky, insistent overlaid drum-n-bass pattern fits surprisingly naturally in with the rest of the (otherwise much more organic) music.