Reggae isn't really my thing, but I know that Burning Spear -- a.k.a. Winston Rodney -- is an artist who deserves to be heard. This CD contains two early Burning Spear albums, and it's easy to understand why they are both said to be great reggae records.
The opening track, "Man in the Hills," is about a family working together, each member doing what he or she can for the greater good. The overall mood is not one of exhaustion or complaints, but one of harmony and love and joy. As the albums progress, this harmonious hope is layered atop political awareness and pleas for peace among warring groups. There is an overarching sense of black pride, but it is inclusive and tolerant rather than exclusive and racist.
Frankly, as a citizen of Baltimore at a time when women routinely raise their children alone, parents cycle between addiction and incarceration, and young people identify with music that celebrates violence and hatred, Burning Spear's message is shocking. It's shocking to hear about a family working together in the name of love. It's shocking to hear a musician praise responsibility and community. It's shocking to hear a story about a dad who didn't leave the family to pursue his love for drugs or violence or good times. It's shocking to hear music that is hopeful and positive, yet still powerful and revolutionary.
Even if you don't love reggae, this is worth a listen. Yes, it can be monotonous to those of us who don't have a deep passion for reggae, but when I listen on headphones and pay attention to the words and music, each track takes on a life of its own. The performances are flawless, and the band has a great groove. Rodney's voice is smooth but powerful, and he brings a richness to the music that makes it clear why Burning Spear is considered to be one of the most important artists in the history of reggae.
The artwork and liner notes are very good. So many "two albums on one disc" packages include nothing more than the covers and track listings from the original albums, but that's not the case here. The original notes from Man in the Hills are included (notes for Dry and Heavy are absent, making me wonder whether or not any were included on the original release), as are full musician credits for each album. Best of all, there's a three-page essay that talks about the history of Burning Spear, the making of these two albums, and each of the songs. The color scheme, photos, and paper stock all contribute to a package that is almost perfect. The only thing that could have been better was the typeface for the essay, which is hard to read due to the small text and the brown-on-tan palette.
Listen if you like: Bob Marley and the Wailers, and you want to learn more about what reggae is about; music that is optimistic without being spineless; being black, or listening to music about being black.
If it were food, it'd be: a home-cooked meal with your family after a hard day of working together in a beautiful but imperfect world.