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Burning Spear Makes Point With Conviction

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Reggae musician Winston Rodney took on the name Burning Spear because Jomo Kenyetta, the African freedom fighter and first president of Kenya, had been given it. Yet Rodney eschews the philosophical beliefs of his adopted namesake.

While “burning spear” conjures up images of battle and bloodshed, fighting is not Rodney’s way. His message is liberation of spirit and consciousness. Over the past 27 years, Rodney, who will perform Saturday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, has developed a devoted following for his cause.

“People have been listening to Burning Spear for a long time now, and they know who I am and what I stand for,” he said during a recent phone interview from Columbus, Ohio. “Yes, I do address many of the same ideas from album to album, adding only a little different flavor or coloring. Yes, the message has remained virtually the same because the issues haven’t gone away yet.”

Rodney was born and raised in the parish of St. Ann in Jamaica. In 1969, he recorded his first song, “Poor Deep,” after a chance encounter with reggae great Bob Marley. As Rodney tells it, they bumped into each other while strolling through the hills above their shared hometown.

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“Bob was walking with a donkey and some buckets full of plants, just heading back to his farm, and I told him I was interested in getting involved in the music business,” Rodney recalled. “He could tell I was serious, so he says to me, ‘OK, just drop by Studio One’ [Marley’s recording studio].”

Rodney followed up “Poor Deep” with enough new material to fill his first two albums, “Burning Spear” and “Rocking Time.” A disciple of Rastafarianism and deeply influenced by the works of Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey, who preached self-determination for all African descendants, Rodney’s music routinely touches on themes of black history, culture and freedom.

At the core of his art is the belief that music has restorative powers.

“I believe music is like medicine,” he said. “Like a good tonic, it can open your mind, strengthen and possibly even cure you. Music can work on many levels, and nothing I know of possesses the healing force that exists within music.”

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His just-released “Appointment With His Majesty” (Rounder / Heartbeat) features two songs, “Reggae Physician” and “Music,” that explore that very topic. Other selections find Rodney supporting ecology (“The Future”), freedom of religion (“Glory Be to Jah”) and disarmament (“Come in Peace”).

Of all the new songs, “Come in Peace” has most universal urgency, he said, because of escalating violence on the personal and global level.

“I just see so many different environments where peoples are constantly at war with each other, and it’s not just governments killing other governments,” Rodney said. “In our communities, people are shooting their neighbors. Even families are killing families. I wanted this song to at least make people consider that harmony and peace are still not only possible, but they’re essential to our well-being.”

Even though Rodney has for the most part made a decent living with his thoughtful, spiritually tinged brand of reggae, he endured his share of lean years when his biggest audiences were in Europe and Jamaica. He has never enjoyed the kind of commercial rewards reaped by pop and rock artists, including the recent wave of U.S. ska bands. Nevertheless, he offers only supportive words to their musical journey.

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“I think the young people in these ska bands are showing more interest in going back to see where it came from,” Rodney said. “There’s interest in the roots. They’re listening to the Specials and Madness, and they’re acknowledging a debt to those who came before them. And that’s a healthy thing, isn’t it?

“I just hope they realize what’s involved to make it in the long run, especially business-wise. You can get ripped off and wind up starving if you don’t have someone to stand up for your rights. There’s more to being a musician than just making music.”

Rodney, 52, is unlikely to strike it rich before retiring. But even if he never sells another record, no matter.

“I’m not a rich person financially, but I am in mind and soul,” Rodney said. “I have so much energy and strength, and I can do a lot of things that make me, and I think my fans, quite happy. When everything’s gone, music alone shall live on.”

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* Burning Spear performs Saturday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Crazy Wisdom opens. 8 p.m. $21.50-23.50. (714) 957-0600.


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