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Reggae's future worries pioneer

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Burning Spear is fired up about the direction of reggae.

The 61-year-old Jamaican, born Winston Rodney, is a pioneer of the genre. He was a contemporary of Bob Marley, recorded for the famed Studio One label and influenced the entire island with his political and spiritual music.

He is still writing and recording as he always has, but is disturbed about where reggae is heading. Young performers are changing its vibe from an organic music of the people to something more artificial, he says.

"The music has changed," Rodney says. "There's a different flavour, taste and type of arrangement. There's less musicians playing their instruments; it's a programming thing now. The kids are singing off key. The music needs direction."

The dreadlocked Rastafarian believes the government should be doing more to support and nurture the music so strongly associated with the country of 2.8 million people. Rodney would like to see the minister of culture and heritage establish a national recording studio to teach people the history of the music and allow them to record in the traditional way with live musicians.

"I think it needs protection, a voice to protect the music and musicians," Rodney says over the phone from his Long Island home, where he spends half the year. "We need more traditional reggae -- the youth of today are not looking in that direction and not going with that. We need a stronger voice. I think a lot of people in Jamaica don't know the strength of this music and what the music has done for people all over the world."

He's doing his part.

Since his first recordings in 1966 to his latest Grammy-winning release, last year's Jah is Real, Rodney has been spreading his personal and political message all over the world. He and his eight-piece band make their first visit to Winnipeg tonight when he performs a mainstage set at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

"I'm still going better than a Duracell battery," he says with a laugh.

Rodney got his start in 1966 when Marley, who was from the same home town of St. Ann's Bay, told the budding musician and his partner Rupert Willington to try their luck in Kingston at Studio One where many of the island's most notable reggae musicians, including Marley and the Wailers, got their start.

Rodney took the advice and the pair was signed to the label as Burning Spear. Over the next decade Burning Spear -- who expanded to a trio with the addition of Delroy Hinds -- recorded for Studio One before hooking up with producer Jack Ruby, who helped the group achieve their greatest success up to that point with the 1975 album, Marcus Garvey. The record made the group stars in their home country and established their political and spiritual credentials.

He never got a chance to record with Marley before his friend died in 1981, something Rodney believes would have happened naturally had the legend lived.

"I know if Bob was around at this point we would have done something together," he says. "Bob and I were good buddies. We used to smoke and eat lunch by the studio. We'd talk and reason. Bob was a good man, a people person. There was a lot of inspiration coming off Bob."

Like Marley, Rodney considers himself an artist of the people, for the people.

"If the artist isn't seeing himself that way then you're doing something wrong," he says. "My outspoken beliefs have been embraced, but I don't consider myself an activist. Maybe people consider me as that, but it's not anything outrageous or bad I can't live with."

These days Rodney is continuing to spread his own inspiring words, which he records whenever the mood strikes. He is getting ready to release a 40th anniversary DVD with old footage and interviews.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2009 C3

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