Bob Marley was and still is regarded as the most iconoclastic and respected figure in all of reggae music. He helped bring about the “third world consciousnesses” that spoke on behalf of the impoverished and exploited people in the world, namely in his native land of Jamaica. Although the island nation was free from the shackles of its British colonial rulers during most of Marley’s recording career, Jamaica was still gripped by violence and corruption in what Fela Kuti once described as “colonial mentality.” On every album that he made with the Wailers, Marley showed solidarity with his fellow countrymen and managed to allow reggae to evolve each time. But Burnin’, released in 1973, remains the most genuine definition of the roots reggae sound. It is the fourth effort with the Wailers and the last one with the legendary original lineup featuring Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, both who went on to have a good deal of success in their solo careers as well as become prominent dignitaries of reggae in their own rites.
Burnin’ starts out with “Get Up, Stand Up,” a staple song of Marley’s career and reggae music speaks out for the oppressed black population in Jamaica just as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” or Willie Hightower’s version of “If I Had a Hammer” were anthems for the Civil Rights Movement in America. “Get Up, Stand Up” is a truly fine and motivating song with the Wailers’ signature bubbly bridges providing the backbone of the sound.
Some of the songs managed to be cut from the same cloth lyrically as some of those on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, with messages that promoted notions of how people can make life a little bit easier for everyone if humans had just put forth a little more kindness and compassion towards one another. Others had the Rastafarian preachings of righteousness like in “Hallelujah Time” and the love and unity communiqué of “One Foundation.”
Living in the ghettos of Jamaica had grown frustrating to the people and musicians of the country. Corrupt policing was rampant and Marley spoke out against such institutions with a defiant homage to self defense with “I Shot the Sheriff,” which became the most celebrated song on the album as well as the one that made Marley a renowned world figure. It was only a year later when Eric Clapton would have a chart topping hit with his rendition of the song, where as for Marley it would come to shine brightly two years later on the Wailers’ passionate, Live! During the sixties the Wailers expressed the vital need to extinguish the violence in the seminal rocksteady tune of “Simmer Down.” In 1973 however, they took a whole different stance with “Burnin’ and Lootin'” where Marley takes aim at fellow reggae icon Jimmy Cliff’s spiritual hopefulness of his song “Many River to Cross” as Marley himself questions the bureaucratic institutions of the world as he asks “How many rivers do we have to cross/Before we can talk to the boss?“
There were also three songs from the Wailers’ salad days in the early sixties that were re-recorded for the album. The Jamacian doo-wop of “Put it On” makes for a delectable groove as does the metaphorical tidings of “Small Axe.” Any one disciple of the dub ethic most certainly knows “Duppy Conqueror” as Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh are singing behind Marley in unison harmonies that swoosh around him with trickling bird chirps.
Bob Marley would go on to become a defender for the world’s poor, whether they were the folks living in the Kingston slums of Trenchtown, or the people who were at the time legally classified as second class citizens in the dehumanizing conditions of the South African apartheid system, as well as the international demographic of those who lived at the hands of the mostly European colonial rulers who had invaded their land. He would go on to make other crucial reggae albums such as Natty Dread, Exodus, and Rastaman Vibration. A politically-motivated assassination attempt on his life in 1976 forced him into exile for year, but he managed to tour the world and play in the newly independent Zimbabwe before dying of cancer at the age of 36 in 1981. Bob Marley may be gone, but will never be forgotten.
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