For anyone whose limited exposure to the music of Jamaica and West Africa has fostered the impression that reggae is one-dimensional, such a person needs to get his or her ass in line early Monday afternoon at the Granada and be prepared for Burning Spear's inspiring zeal.
If you ask people what they know about reggae, most will name Bob Marley and a few might even be able to recall Peter Tosh's "Legalize It." Sadly, for many, reggae has become marginalized, at best as quaintly exotic and at worst as stoner's music, ridiculously linked to ganja and woefully absent of the music's inherent religious implications.
At 58, Burning Spear (born Winston Rodney) is considered one of the true legends of reggae, a pioneer whose politics and inventive dub stylings have left him few peers. If known only for his '70s magnum opus Marcus Garvey, Burning Spear would nonetheless hold a lofty place in the annals of reggae.
Burning Spear performs at the Granada Theater on Monday, April 24, with Woodbelly.
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"Burning Spear's incredible commitment to roots and his persistence of message set him apart from others in reggae," says Kwame Dawes, Marley biographer and author of Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry. "His lengthy dub excursions have found a pop audience, and his music resonates with followers of jam bands like the Grateful Dead." Indeed, Spear's version of the Dead chestnut "Estimated Prophet" is considered a career highlight.
Critically acclaimed efforts such as Dry and Heavy and Social Living express a heady and determined activism, a concern for the plight of Jamaica's indigenous population and for oppressed people everywhere. And his concerts often turn into near-religious experiences with the music serving as a hypnotic backdrop for Rodney's articulation of universal concerns.
"It's all about chanting and repetition," Dawes says. "With one or two chords, Burning Spear creates jazz-inflected dub that cannot be limited to two or three minutes."
Preconceptions can therefore be left at home as an icon of reggae shows there's more to his message than bleary-eyed novelty.