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A Higher Calling : Religion Plays an Integral Role in Both Life and Music of Burning Spear, Who Performs Tonight at the Galaxy


Reggae musician Burning Spear wears his hair in dreadlocks and talks about "Rasta Far I" not out of duty or fashion, but as a deeply felt expression of the spiritual connection between reggae music and the Rastafarian faith.

The elder statesman of reggae, who performs tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, has been known to work himself into a near-hypnotic trance in concert. He often focuses on mantra-like repetitions of a given theme or message, sung with a smoky, sagacious voice. When he sings about "Rasta," he's singing about enlightenment.

"Rasta is to know," Spear said in a recent phone interview, his Jamaican patois all but impenetrable. "Rasta is to answer, which is the final step. A lot of people say 'Rasta' today, not knowing that Rasta is a concept, and Rasta is also a religion, you understand. The concept is so deep that many times, people try to get involved with it and just cannot deal with it. Out of that concept brings forth a lot of constructiveness."

Spear began recording in 1969 but came to prominence in 1975 with the release of his first major label album, "Marcus Garvey" on Mango Records. A contemporary of Bob Marley, Spear's music was even more spiritually dense than that of reggae's undisputed king, and it struck a political stance that rivaled the revolutionary preoccupations of Peter Tosh.

While the more radical elements of Spear's lyrics have mellowed over the course of 25 years and 26 albums, he remains committed to the Rastafarian faith, and to the teachings of back-to-Africa movement leader Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Along the way, Spear himself has come to be viewed as something of a teacher and mystic in his own right. But he sees himself more as someone who simply spreads the word of the Rastafarian faith.

"It is not [that] I try to teach my own personal spirituality," he said. "Whatever I do, I do for the universal. It's not like an individual thing, it's not like something from me. What I present to the people is for all of us, you know. I present music for the people.

"Music is my work, writing songs is my work, touring is my work, going into the studio is my work," he said. "People see Jah [God] in the work, people see a lot of comfort within the work, people see a guideline from within the work. People see things they could relate to or things they could hang on to it. They live with it, and it live with them, you know. I speak the word, and many people speak the word."

Making music true to his vision of what it should be hasn't always been easy for Spear.

"People come up to me some time ago [who] would like me to change the course of my music," he said. "They would like me not to use my musicians in the studio. People threw a lot of big offers, big commercial and material offers. I don't remember taking none of those offers, and I'm still alive, and what I'm doing even better than before without taking the offers. I just remain me, as Jah wish."

Spear's latest album, "Rasta Business," addresses the issues of pandering for commercial success and reggae as fashion. But as usual, his songs are more concerned with love and political education and are filled with chanted themes that drive his messages home.

"I've been singing about love a long time now, because my kind of love carries a different flavor," he said. "My lyrics are not so outrageous as some. You have to think about a lot of different things. You get more mature with what you do--more experience, more capable, you know, the older you get. And I am capable enough to do a lot of good things around the music."

* Burning Spear, Isouljahs and Mouth Music perform tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $21.50. (714) 957-0600.

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