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Reggae royalty burnishes credentials; newcomer impresses

Appointment With His Majesty
Appointment With His Majesty
By Burning Spear

Rounder Records: 1997


Taxman
Taxman
By Lucky Dube

Shanachie Records: 1997


These reviews first appeared in the July 26, 1997 edition of the American Reporter.

Reggae's a lot like poetry – when it doesn't work, it's awful, and most of it is pretty godawful. Bob Marley's death from cancer in 1981 still hangs over the reggae world like an open wound that will never heal, and the late-'80s murder of Peter Tosh only exacerbated the problem as reggae descended into the kind of unimaginative soundalike hell that disco brought to American pop music in the late '70s: Yeah, you can dance to it, you just can't remember any of it later.

Which means truly outstanding reggae is to be cherished – and supported – as the rare treasure it is.

Winston Rodney has personally taken the name of what was formerly the band Burning Spear, but as he was frontman for the band continuity is assured.

"Appointment With His Majesty" is imperiously titled but wonderfully bohemian musically. Maybe because his credentials are unassailable – Burning Spear was one of the best-selling reggae bands of the '70s, giving the Wailers and Toots & the Maytals a run for their money – Spear isn't beholden to a strict reggae form. Rock and jazz are influential throughout this album, and one will hear Latin and African strains as well.

The result is that "Appointment" is far more interesting than most reggae, more varied. Twenty years after first hitting the international airwaves, Spear remains committed to pushing the music forward, to insisting that reggae look beyond Jamaica to keep it fresh.

And so in that vein – and no doubt partially inspired by Spear – Lucky Dube (pronounced doo-BAY) comes out of South Africa making some of the best reggae on Earth, despite his own roots in a land thousands of miles away. As with Burning Spear, Dube's reggae is one of spirit, not strictly defined form. The smoothly swinging rhythms of his native South Africa are evident throughout "Taxman," and he also has a broad streak of pop and jazz running through his music.

Also like Spear – and like most reggae – Dube's lyrics are soaked in politics, religion and philosophy. There is a paean to Jah, a reminder of the humanity of the homeless, a pointed dig at the newly partisan politics of South Africa. Dube is a gifted vocalist with a rich tenor voice, making nearly every song a joy to listen to (but c'mon, a cover of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is"? Did the world really need that?).