Bosses of Reggae

The Journal (Newcastle, England), October 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

Bosses of Reggae


Byline: By Matt McKenzie

They helped give reggae to the world as a pair of its first superstars. Matt McKenzie speaks to giants of modern music, Jimmy Cliff and Lee Scratch Perry.

It is remarkable that Jamaica, that vibrant, often violent, island in the sun, should punch so much above its weight. For a country with a population of just 2.5m, it was the birthplace of an entire musical movement that sweeps from the Caribbean and around the world to this day.

For Jimmy Cliff, who alongside Bob Marley did more than anyone to take this music to a global audience, it is perfectly straightforward.

"I think the Jamaicans are quite spiritual," he explained. "But I have my own assessment of Jamaica and why we are so spiritual and why we have such an impact on the world for such a small county. It's our history; I think Jamaica is part of Atlantis, when you look geographically at the area, at all the little pieces of islands there.

"The energy from Atlantis was powerful and people still think it exists under the sea ( and that's part of the Jamaican psyche."

It's a new one on me and, whether or not reggae is the music of Atlantis, it seems to me this is an entrancing art form that certainly takes you to another world ( although it strikes me it's as entrenched in the social history of the island as much as in any lost world.

Jimmy is on the phone from France where he's finishing a tour before returning to Britain (he lived here in the 70s) and coming to the North-East to headline the formidable Boss Sounds Festival line-up on November 19, with fellow reggae founding fathers, Prince Buster and Lee 'Scratch' Perry.

"I'm really looking forward to coming up there, the audiences were really warm and receptive, as opposed to playing in London, where they seem a bit more reserved.

"I brought these people into the fold of reggae, as at the time my music was new. And it's as unique as rock 'n' roll, or jazz or anything like that. And it remains a unique music that keeps expanding, it touches on all aspects of life."

Marley came later, becoming a 20th Century icon after his tragically early death, but first there was Jimmy Cliff, whose breathtaking vocals uplifted and thrilled on songs like Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Many Rivers To Cross and You Can Get It If You Really Want.

As the genre evolved from the speedy Ska, through the laid-back Rocksteady, to the roots reggae of the 70s, then to dub and dancehall, Jimmy Cliff seemed somehow above the fray.

During the 60s, when Desmond Dekker was as famous but entrenched in a Jamaican sound, Cliff infused soaring soul and gospel into his music and took it to the world, writing songs like Vietnam, which Bob Dylan called the best protest song he'd ever heard.

He writes and sings, to coin a phrase, ecstatic music. Listen to Time Will Tell or That's The Way Life Goes or Sufferin' In The Land and you'll see what I mean.

In 1973, he took his stardom to its logical conclusion, becoming a film star as a wannabe singer who falls into drug-dealing hard times in The Harder They Come. …

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