THE ART OF SEEING by Michael Milton
James Smith—trumpeter for 2 time Grammy Award winning reggae band BURNING SPEAR — is alive and well in Brooklyn!
I heard James Smith play trumpet with Timatha Kasten’s TKO R & B Band at the Row Hotel on 8th Avenue and West 44th in Manhattan on a recent Thursday. Hand to heaven, the man can blow a horn. I spoke briefly with him on his break and found out, among many other things, that he has been hanging his hat in Ft. Greene for the past 15 years.
James is a smooth cat. Let’s face it. Rhythm and blues, reggae and jazz musicians are all smooth cats. Cool. Hip. They sway hypnotically in low lights, eyes closed, fingers snapping loosely at their sides, keeping the offbeat. James is direct from ‘central casting;’ long dreads, half lidded eyes, an easy swagger–sexy in an authentically surprised ‘Who me?’ kind of way. And did I mention? The man can blow the horn!
James played for years with Winston Rodney’s internationally famous reggae band BURNING SPEAR, nominated 5 times for the Grammy Award and winning twice, first in 2000 for ‘Calling Rastafari’ and again in 2009 for ‘Jah Is Real’ in the ‘Best Reggae Band’ category. Rodney is considered—along with Bob Marley—the father of reggae.
“My first concert with them was on February 9, 1989,” he says, “in San Diego.” James pulls the exact date right out of thin air. “Good years. I filled up TWO passports traveling with that band!”
“My most memorable concert experience to date?” And after the briefest pause, he answers, “Well, that would have to be the first night we played at Wembly Stadium in London. 90,000 people out there to hear us. 90,000 fans can make a LOT of noise. Man.” He laughs softly. “Now that was somethin’ else!”
I Shot The Sheriff. Mother and Child Reunion. I Can See Clearly Now. Ob la di, Ob la da. My Boy Lollipop. I grew up with these catchy, bob-my-head-to-the-beat songs never knowing they were all reggae influenced. ‘Reggae’ is actually more a catch-all for a collection of many influences; calypso, African, jazz, rhythm and blues, ska, and mento (Jamaican village music).
James and I touched briefly on the history of reggae lyrics being noted for a tradition of political criticism and religion. Back in the 1990’s, Buju Banton’s hit BOOM BYE BYE with its homophobic lyrics was much criticized as perhaps having triggered a rise in homophobic violence in the Caribbean.
James sighs, “That’s terrible. That was not my experience at all. BURNING SPEAR lyrics were only about good; peace and love, freedom, spirituality, doing, you know, good things out in the world.” After a moment, James adds, “My Mom passed back in 1976 and my Dad in 1986. So they weren’t here for my BURNING SPEAR years. But I know they saw me play. I believe in the Bible and I believe that music is our great Uniter.”
Not surprisingly, James plays with a band every Sunday at the Temple of Restoration off of Atlantic Ave. near Barclays Center.
And when James isn’t out playing, he’s busy composing and arranging.
“What can I say, man, I love it!”