Jah Kingdom
Burning Spear
Island Records
January 10, 2014

Track list
  1. Jah Kingdom
  2. Praise Him
  3. Come, Come
  4. World Power
  5. Tumble Down
  6. Call On Jah
  7. Should I
  8. When Jah Call
  9. Thank You
  10. Land Of My Birth
  11. Estimated Prophet
Rating : from 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor)
Vocals : 5 Backing : 5 Production : 4 Sound quality : 5 Sleeve : 4
Roots reggae veteran Winston Rodney, a.k.a. Burning Spear, has a long career, starting with his debut single, recorded at Studio One in 1969. This first single had already a "dread" sound, so to speak, referring to a Rastafari-inspired mystic, spiritual vibe that would - along with hypnotic qualities - remain (albeit in different ways) characteristic of his distinct brand of reggae. His career and oeuvre of course would include the classic 1970s albums, such as "Marcus Garvey" and "Social Living", as well as some strong albums in the 1980s, starting with "Hail H.I.M" (1980). Of his albums since later in the 1980s (that I know), I personally liked the groovy, lively "People Of The World" and the more atmospheric "Resistance" most (more than the album "Fittest of the Fittest", which had some lesser parts in my opinion).

I kept following, partly, the 1990s work of Burning Spear, and of the albums from that decade that I know I liked "Jah Kingdom" (1991), the most. Overall, I think it is a bit better than e.g. "Mek Me Dweet" (1990).

While Burning Spear's distinct type of reggae - partly - remained consistent through the decades, I do however note differences between his earlier, 1970s work, and his later, post-1983 albums. These latter have of course a newer sound, due to technological changes, including a more modern "crisp and clear" sound. Beyond that, I find there were also changes in the type of songs and Rodney's singing. Rodney's vocal style has always been often as much "chanting" as singing, with limited melodies that nonetheless worked and had hypnotic qualities. This "chanting" style however increased in his later work, and sometimes became more "rhythmic", rather than fully melodic, as well. This was put to good effect on many of his later songs and albums - especially when combined with strong music - but sometimes became a tad dull, making (parts of) some later albums less impressive.

Like other albums from around that time, the 1991 album "Jah Kingdom" indeed has Rodney chanting mainly in this relatively rhythmic way, and sometimes with limited melodies, but on this particular album it does work, managing to convince throughout practically the whole album. This shows that Rodney has the talent to keep a "rhythmic flow" vocally, as well as to include enough melodic variation and catchy hooks in his songs. Moreover: on "Jah Kingdom" this is combined with very strong music. This album is recorded with his own, experienced group, the Burning Band, of musicians steadily accompanying Burning Spear both on tour and in the studio for quite some time now. Nelson Miller, the drummer, is for instance without a doubt talented. Added musicians include the gifted saxophonist Dean Fraser. There is strong musicianship on practically every instrument on "Jah Kingdom", adding to a great, groovy vibe throughout. It reminds of his better work, including also - for instance - the engaging, minor-key horns he also used so well in his earlier albums of the 1970s.

The varied, imaginative songs, vocally and instrumentally, make this album, in my opinion, a bit better than other 1990s Burning Spear albums. These other albums I heard, like the more poppy/cross-over "Mek Me Dweet" or the rootical, but less varied "Rasta Business" (1995), have good moments and songs, but in my opinion also some dull or weaker songs and parts. This album, "Jah Kingdom", is however never dull or monotonous. The vocals and music combine well, resulting in a rhythmic, "percussive" feel, and even a nice, lively "rocksteady" kind of groove (such as on the song "When Jah Call"). Overall the album is a bit more rhythmic than melodic: rhythmic in a (modernized) "live-band roots reggae" way. The answering "rhythms" by different instruments, remind even of the African polyrhythmic or cross-rhythm tradition. Like I said, on most songs Rodney proves to be a strong, creative vocalist, while only a few songs have chanted lines or melodies that are perhaps (just a bit) too limited or repetitive - e.g. the title track or "Land of My Birth" - but even these are overall still varied and "groovy"/"rocking" enough. You start dancing or "rocking your body line" to these tunes almost automatically and without knowing. The horns (and other instruments) at times even have a percussive vibe, somehow comparable to how James Brown or Fela Kuti used "staccato" horns and guitar rhythmically. The melodies and sung parts are furthermore often simply catchy.

In my opinion, the most outstanding tunes on this album are "World Power", "Tumble Down", "Call On Jah", "Come, Come" (with great sax parts by Dean Fraser: X amount of niceness!), and the bouncy "When Jah Call". These songs even have some classic qualities. Classic in the sense of enduring: these songs do/did not get old soon for me, and I listen to them quite regularly now for years. Vocals and music are both flawless in these songs, and the lyrics are also strong and - characteristically - "to the point", dealing - consistently for Rodney - with African liberation and Rastafari, at the same time being somewhat philosophical and topical: "World power... a lot of dem a suffer..."

The remaining songs are at least solid, maybe a bit less memorable, but nonetheless fine and groovy, and likewise worth repeated listens. The last song, called "Estimated Prophet" (on the cd, but for some odd reason not mentioned on the sleeve... at least of the copy I have) is actually Burning Spear's cover of a song of that name by California band Grateful Dead, which he contributed earlier to a tribute album to that band. I've heard the Grateful Dead's original, and Burning Spear's cover/version not only does the song justice, but makes it more groovy, mystic, and hypnotic. The strong reggae riddim on the Spear's version of "Estimated Prophet" shows that the Grateful Dead's soft-rock, "hippy-like" original (with, I admit, a catchy chorus) can be improved by turning it into (groovy!) reggae, while Rodney's vocals aptly strengthens the catchy parts of it. The song's lyrics are not Rodney's but by Grateful Dead, so the lyrics are not on Marcus Garvey (which some might think, because of the "prophet" in the title), but on the other songs (written by Rodney), Marcus Garvey is here and there - of course! - mentioned, such as on the catchy "Should I".

Some songs have a hypnotic feel, some sound militant (like "Should I"), while others have an more upbeat, rocksteady-ish feel. This adds to the overall variety. It makes this great album even more engaging throughout.