The monumental cold wave that gripped much of the country last month saw the Northeast hovering well below zero for days on end. One might wonder how vocalist Burning Spear, who grew up in sun-splashed Jamaica, would be faring in such frigid climes. "Oh, I've gotten used to it, I started coming to America in the 1970s," says the roots reggae icon, who has made his home in Queens since the mid `90s. "So I would say I'm properly seasoned to the weather now. [Laughs]." That seasoning—along with the singer's torrid music—will come in handy when he ventures north to perform at MASS MoCA on February 15.
Born Winston Rodney, Spear was raised in the city of Saint Ann, where he was transfixed by far-off US radio stations' broadcasts of R&B, soul, and jazz; he'd later cite Curtis Mayfield and James Brown as major influences. Burning Spear, a reference to a Kenyan military medal, was originally the name of a duo Rodney had with singer Rupert Willington. It was a friend and fellow Saint Ann native, Bob Marley, who in 1969 suggested the pair audition for Studio One, the label that made Marley's first records with his band, the Wailers. Backed by Studio One's stellar house musicians and with legendary producer Coxsone Dodd at the controls, Rodney and Willington began cutting hit singles and albums, expanding to a trio with the addition of Delroy Hinds. "It was all very exciting then, we were so young," Spear recalls. "You just wanted to sing, and it was like a family thing. You could still identify with the roots and the culture then. It was before the 'business' part began to interfere so much with reggae music."
Thankfully, by its very nature Burning Spear's insurgent music has been able to withstand the neutering efforts of label bean counters. Even on the act's crucial third album, 1975's Marcus Garvey, which was picked up by Island Records and given a comparatively tame remix for the outside market, the radical power of its seething, politically insurgent songs remains undimmed. After the following year's haunting masterpiece Man in the Hills (Island), which features the playing of luminaries Sly and Robbie and Wailers bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, Rodney went solo and adopted the Burning Spear moniker as his own. By the late '70s he'd built a strong following in England, and his appearance in 1979's Rockers is a highlight of that seminal film. Since that era he's continued to record and tour, forming his own label and garnering Grammy nominations along the way. Currently, he's at work on his 23rd studio album, No Destroyer (Burning Music), and a career documentary, I Man.
"Reggae music is the people's music," explains Spear. "The people are the music and the music is the people. For my concerts, the people should prepare themselves to feel the music and be a part of it. A Burning Spear concert is something they will still talk about, years later."
Burning Spear will perform at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, on February 15 at 8pm. Tickets are $18 and $22 in advance and $27 day of show. (413) 662-2111; Massmoca.org.