Perhaps the greatest living Reggae Star, Jimmy Cliff was instrumental in introducing reggae to an international audience. Not only famous for his memorable music and energetic performances, the Jamaican-born legend is also renowned for his producing and acting skills (starring in the international hit movie The Harder They Come), and work on his own record label. Angus Taylor speaks to him about his incredible career and his upcoming one-off live appearance in Bournemouth.
You started in music as a teenager – did you always plan to be a singer?
I always wanted to work in the entertainment business. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a singer or an actor. As a matter of fact I started out in school as an actor. But I always wanted to be close to the entertainment world.
So if you weren’t a singer would you have taken that path?
Yes. I think I am established in many parts of the world as an actor along with my music. But to tell you truth acting is my first love.
What do you think of the Harder They Come musical?
I have seen it. I was present at its first opening. I quite liked it. I was very surprised. The man playing my part did a great job.
Where you a guest of honour?
Yes, of course I was.
Why do you think audiences still respond to well to the story after all these years?
I think that movie captured the spirit of a point in time in our histroy and in life. That point in time and the character I played are still valid today and probably will be valid throughout all times. There are certain films that capture the essence of the time and that is one of those movies,
There was talk of a sequel.
(Laughs) It is still in the pipeline – yes – we are having hitches along the way – but I’m still confident that it will be done.
You come to the UK to play in Bournemouth on Wednesday 16th April – what can your fans expect?
Well a lot of the fans will be expecting the songs, the music they know, of Jimmy Cliff so of course I will have to do a lot of those songs. But at the same time – what does Jimmy Cliff have to offer that is new? So I will have an opportunity to do some of that.
So will you unveil some brand new songs?
Yes, I intend to because my last album which came out – maybe two years ago?
Yes Black Magic. (2004) I don’t think a lot of people have seen me perform any songs from it. Those songs are still valid for me to perform, and there is some new material that I am currently writing. (Laughs) Maybe I’ll just do those songs accapella!
You’re well known for your faster paced early reggae hits but your roots tunes are very underrated – such as Lets Turn The Table and Under Pressure…
That is true.
I think it is down to timing with certain songs timing and exposure. I think Lets Turn The Table, Under Pressure, a lot of songs like that didn’t get the exposure they needed. Part of it was my transition between record companies, for example.
So it was mainly logistics. Do you think not being a Rasta affected your career during the roots era?
I didn’t wear dreadlocks but the concept of the Rasta... I don’t see how I could be a Jamaican and not embrace a sense of what is the concept of Rasta. Most people would say “oh he doesn’t have dreadlocks so he is not Rasta.” But my universal outlook on life means I couldn’t align myself with any one particular movement or religion so as to limit myself to anywhere or anything like that.
You’ve seen reggae from the very start – do you like where it’s going?
Well it has two branches. It still has the roots branch… you know with a lot of the deejays and some singers too like Tarrus Riley and people like that, or Sizzla as a singjay as we say. So it still has the branch that sings about roots and culture and uplifting positive messages. And then there’s the other branch we call dancehall and that is really about… sex. I don’t condemn that part neither… I think there is a place for everything. I’m happy to see the two sides striving. But I would prefer and hope to see the roots and culture area getting more prominent but maybe were just going through that transition of time.
Are you a fan of Tarrus?
Yes. From a long time, even before he got popular.
Who/what do you listen to these days?
Well I am the type of artist that likes to stay current. So I listen to every form of music that is going on that is current. So let’s say I’m in Peru or Mexico or Brazil. I will walk into a store and pick up things. I don’t really download because it is not easy to easy to get stuff that is not popular. I often want to get things that are rare and not so popular. I especially like to pick up music that has the… folklore, the roots of that area of that country.
That country’s own version of reggae?
Not many acts play in England or the UK these days – or say it’s hard to play – do you find this?
Personally I don’t. I don’t play a lot in England. In the old days I would do a British tour where I go up north, come down, do all over the country. I’ve not done that for a long time. Maybe today it is not economically viable with the big band that I travel with from Jamaica, but to come to the UK to do a few shows – I don’t find it difficult. I have a few shows in the summer, including Glastonbury and other stuff.
Your touring with a nine piece band – will there be a full horn section?
Not a big horn section, we have just two horns – we have trumpet and tenor sax who will also double on alto.
In terms of what UK fans are used to that is a big horn section!
Yes. It’s a band that I’ve played with for quite a few years so I’ve bonded with them well and its good.
Do you see yourself as more than just a reggae singer?
Well first of all I see my self as an artist, a creative artist. And remember when I came on the scene there was nothing called reggae. So I had to help create that and I put in my energy which is my own… a very upbeat part of the thing! And create what is now known as reggae. But I’m a creative artists and I’ve put that into many different genres of music, but because my roots is reggae I will always be categorised as reggae. But if you listen to a song like Many Rivers To Cross can you classify that as reggae?
Do you have a message for your UK fans?
Well I think we are a point in time of humanity where we have to become aware of ourselves and what is going on on our planet. I mean it has become a cliché word of sorts – global warming. But about seven or eight years ago I made an album called Save Our Planet Earth just to show I was aware in those times. So I think there is something we can do about that and show our awareness. Then you have places like Darfur and Tibet that mean we have to become more aware of ourselves spiritually, some would say politically, globally. We are living in a global environment right now.
Thank you for talking to me.
Thank you and goodbye.
Jimmy Cliff appears on April 16th at the brand new Opera House in Bournemouth. For tickets visit www.operahouse.co.uk
Interview by Angus Taylor