In reviewing reggae concerts, critics will sometimes describe a singer's vocals in phrases like "the rich timbres of his thick Jamaican patois," which is just a roundabout way of saying, "Huh?"
It's a beautiful accent Jamaicans have, particularly those from the remote interior parishes, but subtitles would indeed be helpful sometimes. It is with some trepidation, then, that one approaches a phone interview with a roots reggae artist, which in extreme cases can run somewhat like this:
"Can you tell me about your new album?"
"Mek quaum blipsteks?"
"Mek quaum blipsteks , unnstan?"
"Boy, that sure is some fine patois you have there."
"MEK QUAUM BLIPSTEKS, MON!"
Burning Spear, a.k.a. Winston Rodney, has a new album due out shortly called "Mek We Dweet." While a little fuzzy on defining that--"means 'mek we dweet,' " offered Rodney--the third-most-famous son of Jamaica's St. Ann Parish (the first two being Depression-era black leader Marcus Garvey and the late Bob Marley) was otherwise quite clear in discussing his music and its place in the world during a phone interview from a Seattle hotel room last week.
If trees could sing, they might sound somewhat like Rodney, whose deeply grained, biblical-quality voice can seem as if he's speaking for all of nature when he's on a roll. He's only slightly less emphatic in conversation. To the devout Rastafarian, his work isn't a career but a calling.
"After Jah call upon I--it is true Jah wish why I am doing this work--I started the work as Jah said. I didn't know that this thing would grow and I didn't know that this work would be recognized universally by people, and people would get themselves into it and become part of it. It is the right work and is the work of the people," he said.
Rodney is currently spreading that work on a Reggae Sunsplash tour that hits Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Saturday with Freddie McGregor, Marcia Griffiths, Shinehead, U-Roy and others. According to Rodney, the live show is where it all comes together.
"Music is creation. In reggae the lyric, the music itself, arrangement, that vibe, such melody--everything within the music moves the people, understand? Then the whole of it is seeing the man live in concert. You know that you're going to get everything from the man, all the vibes and that force and that inspiration just keep comin' out, coming right out going toward the people, so the people being uplift ."
Since the late '60s Rodney has been one of the deepest of roots reggae artists. On albums such as "Marcus Garvey," "Man in the Hills" and "Resistance," he has mixed pulsing rhythms and rough-hewn horn lines with incantational vocals extolling the natural world and decrying mankind's often sorry place in it.
Rodney feels that music, more than politics, has been a motivational force in many of the changes taking place in the world today:
"Music is so strong and truthful, and looking towards the right direction. Some people always cry out that our music seems to be too political. All that's political is the music speaks the truth, the music see and know what's going on. And when the music start to move itself and move amongst people, it start opening the eyes of people so they can see what's ahead of them. Too political? It is not so. Something has to be around to be a help for people, so they can understand themselves more clearly, and communicate with each other.
"We also speak out about the danger for ourselves and our children. We don't need no more danger, we don't need no more difficulties, we don't need no more misunderstanding, and we don't need no more violence. We need the people to see each other, and know of each other, feel each other, touch each other, share with each other, and change hearts with each other.
"These are the things we in reggae music speak about. And reggae music try to keep as close as possible to these things. They are the guidelines that keep us straight, keep us in balance. Now is a time when people have to be properly balanced, mon, and the thing to help to keep people properly balanced is listening to good conscious reggae music. It educate people with the proper understanding."
The "Mek We Dweet" album works along those lines, he said. Perhaps its most effective song is "Elephants," where Rodney's multi-timbral voice movingly intones, "I saw the elephants today, and they were defending each other / Why can't East, West, North and South Africa all stand up as one, side by side each other?"
" 'Elephants' came about when I was traveling in West Africa," he said, "It was my first time ever seeing elephants. They were at the river, and when we tried to go close to them, they were all backing up on each other, defending each other. If mankind could really see that and exercise it, you'd see how close people would get, by just looking at the elephant. Now is the time when you have to live like the elephant to live in Africa--get closer."
Though there are minor updates in the arrangements, instrumentation and the production on "Mek We Dweet," the album is not far removed from Rodney's 20-year-old records. That's fine with him.
"There is on the album a track called 'My Roots': 'My roots I never forget, I always remember the road I travel.' Man should remember your roots, your history, your culture, your living tree. Some people see life as many steps up, and try to forget where they are coming from, you understand? A little step in life on a commercial or a material level is a good step, but a big step does not mean a strong step--you tend to lose your roots--and if you don't be careful, you can fall."
It is his feeling that the future hinges on people connecting with their past.
"Dig into the roots of culture and it will grow. It's like a grass that is growing and it cannot stop, and music is like the fertilizer for that. One love to all people. Spear will always burn."
"Reggae Sunsplash," featuring Burning Spear, Freddie McGregor, Marcia Griffiths, Shinehead, U-Roy, Shelly Thunder, 809 Band and Tommy Cowan M.C., begins at 5 p.m. Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $18 to $21. Information: (714) 740-2000.