More than a quarter century after achieving his first major success with the 1975 album Marcus Garvey, Winston Rodney — better known as Burning Spear — remains one of reggae’s most politicized performers.
Hailing from Marcus Garvey’s birthplace, St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica, Burning Spear was perhaps the first reggae artist to use his music as a vehicle for the dissemination of Garvey’s creed of Black liberation. Since the mid-’70s, Spear has taken a didactic approach, infusing his roots grooves with Garvey’s pan-Africanist philosophy of economic and cultural self-determination and self-reliance.
But even before Spear made his first recordings, his creative identity had become inextricably linked with the politics of resistance and liberation. He had borrowed his stage name from the Kenyan Mau Mau rebel leader Jomo Kenyatta (“Jomo” meaning “burning spear” in Swahili), who led his country and its diverse African communities to independence from British colonial rule, eventually becoming the nation’s first president in 1964.
If figures such as Kenyatta and Garvey influenced Burning Spear’s ideological formation in the late ’60s, another resident of the Parish of St. Ann would have a significant impact on his nascent musical career. A chance meeting with a certain Robert Nesta Marley on a hillside in St. Ann’s in 1969 led to Spear’s recording debut. Marley arranged an audition for Burning Spear with storied producer Coxsone Dodd in Kingston, resulting in the release of the single “Door Peep” the same year.
Spear cut numerous singles during the early ’70s, releasing an eponymous debut album in 1973 and a follow up, Rocking Time (1974) — both produced by Dodd and put out on the Studio One label. Although these records failed to have any major impact in Jamaica at the time, they nevertheless laid the foundations for the rockers style that would become immensely popular by the late ’70s. (The Ultimate Collection features a re-working of Spear’s first single that appeared on the 1976 album Man in the Hills, as well as versions of other tracks from his first two Studio One albums.)
Having parted ways with Dodd, Spear signed to the Island Records subsidiary Mango and his third full-length release — Marcus Garvey, produced by Jack Ruby (Lawrence Lindo) — set him on the path to global fame on the heels of Bob Marley and the Wailers. For this album, Spear was backed by a stellar band, the Black Disciples, that featured drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, guitar players Valentine “Tony” Chin and Earl “Chinna” Smith, and bassists Robbie Shakespeare and Aston “Family Man” Barrett (the Wailers). The Ultimate Collection includes three of that record’s most memorable numbers: Spear’s first hit single, “Marcus Garvey”, “The Invasion”, and “Red, Gold, and Green”. These dark, snaking grooves — in which Burning Spear’s vocals are nicely supplemented by the harmonies of Delroy Hines and Rupert Wellington, topped off with resonant horns — encapsulate Spear’s pioneering, heavy roots sound (enhanced, of course, by the mixing magic of Ruby). Moreover, these numbers showcase Spear’s genius for penning songs that combine a knowledge of pan-African history and a commitment to spiritual redemption and material liberation.
The alliance with the Black Disciples continued on Man in the Hills (1976) and Dry and Heavy (1977), with Spear himself taking over production duties from Ruby on the latter. Of the tracks from Dry and Heavy included on The Ultimate Collection, one of the standouts is “Throw down Your Arms”, on which Spear situates his militancy in a pacifist context. A more urgent tone can be heard amid the tracks from 1978’s Social Living, on which Spear was joined by members of the British roots group Aswad. That urgency drives the throbbing hypnotic beat of the title track as well as the brooding “Institution”. Of course, Garvey’s message remains central to Spear’s musical vision here, most notably on “Marcus Children Suffer”. Also displaying Spear’s incisive historical sensibility is “Columbus” (from Hail H.I.M. ), which denounces colonialism and attacks its false version of events. Declaring the ur-colonist — who landed in St. Ann’s Bay and “discovered” Jamaica — “a damn blasted liar”, Spear re-writes history from the perspective of the oppressed.
One particular treat on The Ultimate Collection is “Jah No Dead”, a song that had originally appeared on Social Living (as “Marcus Say Jah No Dead”). The Ultimate Collection contains a haunting rendition taken from the 1979 film Rockers, as performed by Spear on a beach accompanied only by the atmospheric sounds of the crashing surf.
Although the primary focus of this generous collection is Burning Spear’s Island Records output between 1975 and 1980, a brief sampling of some of his more recent work is also included. Nevertheless, while numbers from the early ’90s like “Should I” and “Jah Kingdom” reinforce his deserved title as reggae’s elder statesman, Spear’s ’70s work remains the most compelling dimension of this release.