Friday, January 30, 2009

My adventure with Burning Spear in Jamaica

About three years ago I was sitting in my office doing what I do-ordering CDs etc.- when an employee's voice came over my intercom: “Paul there is a Sonia Rodney from Burning Spear on the line.” Luckily I knew that Burning Spear was actually a man named Winston Rodney, and I said “send her through.” On the other end of the line was what I might have called a caricature of a positive, upful Jamaican Woman addressing me as though we had known each other our whole lives. “Paul, oh my, it’s Sonia, Spear’s wife…you want any CDs?” I was flabbergasted. I knew immediately, I was, indeed speaking to the wife of one of my heroes. Winston Rodney, also known as Burning Spear is, in my opinion, the greatest living Reggae singer. He comes from the same generation as Marley, Tosh, Bunny, Scratch, you name it. He is part of the group of Reggae stars who, to me and many people of my generation, represent the essence of what this life-affirming genre of music has meant. Spear is the guy. Over the course of countless albums and thousands of life-changing concerts he has stayed true to the cause-musically, lyrically, spiritually, visually, Spear is the true Rastaman with a once-in-a-lifetime voice, an ineffable sense of rhythm and melody and an intellect informed by both the modern and the eternal. If you love and believe in Reggae, Spear is the beacon of truth.

So I start talking to Sonia. We connected immediately. I wanted nothing from her but to listen and help-she wanted nothing but to further her husband’s career. I told her I thought her husband’s work was amongst the most important in the history of modern music-similar to Dylan, Fela, The Beatles etc. and that she had a legacy to protect and promote that was both artistically and commercially unimpeachable. She told me they owned the rights to almost all of Burning Spear’s modern music and were trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m not sure why, but she mistook me for someone with power. We had hosted Burning Spear for a memorable instore performance back on Alameda Ave., but I barely got to speak to him then and assumed I was long forgotten. She did, however stumble upon a true and loyal fan. I had gotten turned on to Spear at the beginning of his career and had followed him with a private fervor that matched my love of any musician. I immediately purchased a little bit of everything she had and started trying to advise her about the modern music distribution network as I understood it. I encouraged her to keep control of her copyrights and don’t let the modern industry remove the soul and profit from her husband’s legacy. Obviously, she was way ahead of me-she knew what she had, yet was still interested in everything I said. I told her about a group of independent record stores that Twist and Shout is a member of called CIMS (Coalition of Independent Music Stores and that we had started our own distribution network that might offer her a short-term solution for the distribution of Burning Spear’s music. I gave her the appropriate contacts and she went on her way. I was three feet off the ground for the next couple of weeks-“I spoke to Burning Spear’s wife and she was awesome!

After a month or so I forgot about the encounter, but then was surprised when CIMS announced a distribution deal with Burning Spear. I was floored. After years of following an artist I had, in some small way, contributed to the evolution of his career. Wow!

Fast forward to October of 2008. The world is in turmoil. Business is unbelievably bad, and it seems that all is darkness. Out of the blue an email comes from Sonia Rodney. “Paul, you want to come to Jamaica?” I respond in a typically suspicious way; “Well sure, what are the details?” “You come, you’ll be Spear’s guest.” It went back and forth this way for some time, before I fully grasped what she was saying. She was inviting a few people who had helped her along the way to Jamaica in January, and Jill and myself were among the lucky. I continued to protest that I was broke and really couldn’t afford it, but she kept insisting, “everything paid for.” The next day, sure enough she sends plane confirmations. Also, she sends reservations for a place called The Caves. We looked up The Caves on the internet and it appeared to be one of the most unique and beautiful all-inclusive resorts in the world. I really couldn’t believe this was happening, but I filed it away and went forward with the Christmas of our discontent. It was a rough season for everyone in this country and in spite of the mild weather it seemed colder than any season in memory.

As the time approached, the enormity of the gift was starting to become clear to us. There was no agenda, no sales presentation, no nothing, just “come down and enjoy The Caves with your loved ones." Finally the day arrives and we take off for Jamaica. This has been a dream of mine since the early 70’s. I’ve loved Reggae music and have been fascinated with this small Island country with the big sound.

After a couple of long flights we landed in Montego Bay and were met by Spear’s personal driver, a ray of sunshine named Donald Pantry. Danny as we called him took us an hour away to the West end of the island and we entered The Caves. I can’t express adequately how beautiful and tranquil a place The Caves is. It is a series of beautifully appointed yet rustic cabins that sit on cliff above a bunch of caves created by the constant lapping of the crystal blue Caribbean waves. Within minutes we are in our shorts, drinking a rum drink and soaking up the incredible vibes.

That night around dinner time I hear a voice floating over the breeze. It is a loud joyous laughing voice and it could be nobody but Sonia Rodney. Finally we get to meet our benefactor. We see her approaching our small group and behind her there is the man himself-Burning Spear. Sonia embraces us warmly. She is a beautiful charismatic woman-bigger than life with dreads literally down to the ground. She is full of hugs and stories and interest in the music business. She is an amalgam of homespun Rasta warmth and New York chattiness. We learn she grew up in New York City and as a teenager caught the eye of Mr. Rodney who nurtured a loving relationship over many years, taking her children as his own and growing an admirable family that he has held as his emotional and business center. Sonia took over the business of Burning Spear in the early 80’s, turning a liability - “He would come home from tour more tired and more broke every year” - into a smartly run business that keeps the music and the message front and center. She was savvy and smart and conveyed her love with every laugh that seemed to come from a place deep down in her soul.

Throughout our hour long get–acquainted session Spear himself held back. He flashed the charismatic smile and kind of waved, but he was more comfortable talking to Danny and the people who worked at The Caves. As we wound down our conversation we all hugged and Spear came over and talked a little, encouraging us to enjoy The Caves and thanking us for being involved in his music. Then they were gone. We all (there were 7 of us) looked at each other and scratched our heads. It really seemed like they just wanted us to have a little vacation on them. We went about having a magical and relaxing time-eating the delicious Jamaican food, drinking the rum, sampling the local horticulture, etc. Jill told me on the second day that this was the most relaxed she had seen me in years, and it was true. We were actually able to forget about the horrendous economic conditions back home for a brief few days and enjoy. Throughout, I spent a lot of time listening to Burning Spear’s music and staring at the ocean. A very healing practice indeed. Spear’s music rivals any for a consistent, positive and morally righteous tone. It is not pop music, but a large and serious body of work that can be appreciated on many different levels. Just the short exposure to the man and the background of his music infused the trip with a magical air, yet I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed that I didn’t get any face time with Spear.

On our last full day we were sitting on the veranda of our cabin talking lazily about
nothing in particular when I see Winston Rodney walking toward us. What happened next seemed like a dream. Burning Spear walked up to our sitting area and sat down. He looked over at our bowl of ganj picked up a paper and rolled himself a neat little spliff and started to talk. It was a free-flowing hour of wide-ranging discussion. He quickly realized we were somewhat knowledgeable about the history of Jamaican music and his important part in that history and thus dispensed with any formality. He talked expansively about his early days and experiences with music men Jack Ruby and Chris Blackwell (who owns The Caves by the way). Unlike many of his contemporaries he had nothing but positive things to say about Mr. Blackwell, understanding the pivotal role Blackwell played in his career and in the development of Reggae music. He seemed to look at all of his history with a gently beneficent eye. There was no trace of bitterness or anger in anything he said. He spoke of his relationships with other musicians of his era. Hearing a tale of Marley growing his own “He was cultivatin’ mon” or the serious-minded Tosh or the architect of sound Scratch Perry or the early days at Studio One was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather a living history from one of the guys who made it happen. He knew these guys as peers and friends, not as legends or myths. They were his pals.

As the conversation moved lazily to his philosophy of life, Spear became more serious, leaning forward and fixing us with his gaze. He spoke of his motivations being history, teaching and art- not money. He was so clear about that. Money could not be the motivation for anything in his life. His art was propelled by the desire to leave a good example for future generations. He is a teacher, not a businessman. I think it is fair to say we were transfixed. During this part of the conversation he started talking about health. He is 64 and the only thing that tells you that is the grey in his beard. He is in remarkable physical shape. He runs and lifts weights almost every day. He always has a soccer ball in the car with him just in case. He says when he was younger he was an “exercise freak.” It shows. He has the body and demeanor of a man half his age. He made it clear that he rarely smoked any more, but at the same time he made some comments about the ganj that proved he was once a true herbsman. Like many great artists he had a manner and speech that was totally his own.

As our time together came to a close he pulled out his camera bag and withdrew a movie camera. “With you gentlemen’s permission, I would like to take a picture.” He wanted our picture? We joined our wives who had been convulsed with uproarious laughter with Sonia and we all stood in the Jamaican sunset and let Burning Spear take our pictures. The whole thing was so natural we barely remembered to take pictures of him. As quickly as it started it was over. They were gone, getting ready to go to their house in the same town Spear grew up in, and we were left with a wonderful feeling.

I have been lucky enough to meet quite a few of my heroes, and even had lengthy conversations with many of them, but this was the most special of all. Meeting a man like Burning Spear and having him live up to my incredibly high expectations was the greatest. I have always tried to separate the artist from the art and not place my own needs and desires on the artist. There was no need to make this separation with Winston Rodney. He has set the highest standard of musical excellence, and lyrical righteousness and he has lived a life that matches his artistic vision. I can say honestly, he was everything I hoped he’d be and so much more.

We left the idyllic setting of Jamaica and returned to 10 degree weather and equally chilly economic realities at home. Unlike other trips which are over the moment I step on the plane to go home, this one has provided a reservoir of healing spirit that I have been able to access as I need it. Thank you Spear! Thank You Sonia! Thank You Jamaica!


Michael said...

Fantastic Paul! What a wonderful experience. Gonna put on my Burning Spear library and listen all weekend.

Elaine said...

Great blog Paul! It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.
Elaine, your southern "girl"

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a great adventure
would have loved to be a fly on the wall

Omar said...

What an amazing story, I truly envy you with even single breath in my body.
My father took me to spear concert when I was 10 years old, and it was a life changing experience. I have the utmost respect, admiration,and love for this legend. My son is now 8 and I can't wait to do the same with him.