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Burning Spear

Freeman
Burning Music Productions

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It was 30 years ago this year that Winston Rodney finally and completely disappeared from view, a mild-mannered Jamaican with a few Studio One-recorded singles under his belt, and re-emerged from the streets of St. Ann's in Jamaica as Burning Spear. Adopting the moniker of Jomo Kenyatta, the father of the nation of Kenya, Burning Spear immediately set about devising a style of music to match his new rebelliously pan-Africanist and mystical identity. Since the release of Burning Spear in 1973, Burning Spear (the man) has perfected a music that combined the spirituality of Nyabinghi drumming and other rural Rastafarian musical elements with the urban, Kingston sounds of reggae, thereby helping define "roots" reggae. His music, exemplified on records like the 1975 masterpiece Marcus Garvey and 1978's Garvey's Children (re-released as Social Living), is among the most spiritually satisfying and deeply, authentically experimental that the roots style ever produced.

But once this innovator got that droning, repetitive, deep sound down, he kind of called it a day. Freeman is a record comparable to any Burning Spear album since the dawn of the '80s. That's not a bad thing -- songs like "Trust," "Hey Dready" and the title track would be crowning achievements to most reggae groups' catalogs. Spear's band is impeccable, and the production -- following his formula of harmonized chanting, repeating organic loops, and Rasta-inspired mantra-like lyrics -- is first-rate. (Note to reggae history buffs: Freeman was the first record made at the Harry J Studios, newly reopened in 2002.)

Burning Spear has alluded to retirement recently (in an interview with the Jamaican Observer), and this might be the legend's final studio set. If so, he can rest proud: Freeman is a solid set of songs that proves roots reggae's vitality in the face of guns-and-girls dancehall and cruise-ship Marley desecration. There're even two old-school Spear classics ("Hey Dready" and "Freeman") righteous and ready for dubwise reworking. But if you're looking for the true religion of Marcus Garvey or Social Living, check out the still-remarkable 55-year-old Spear live. It may be your last chance.

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