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Jimmy Cliff on His Musical Roots and Upcoming Songs
Iconic reggae singer Jimmy Cliff provided fans with an evening of music and musings to kick off the March Reggae Talks, coordinated by Professor Carolyn Cooper and hosted by the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. The Neville Hall Lecture Theatre was near capacity, almost belying that the public had received only two days notice of the event.
The arrival of those who flocked to the room was a clear indication of not only the reverence given to Cliff, but acknowledgement that the almost intimate occasion was a rare act to be treasured.
“We have lucked out as a department because we are getting two for the price of one,” declared Dr. Michael Bucknor, head of the Department of Literatures in English. Bucknor was providing the brief welcome at the event. Bucknor explained that at the star of the classic reggae film The Harder They Come and a musician whose lyrics are analysed in their Reggae Poetry Course, Cliff’s talk would benefit both their film and literature students.
Dr. Rachel Moseley Wood provided the introduction to Cliff. She explained that although it would be easy to fall on the cliche that a man of Cliff’s stature required no introduction, the occasion desired it.
“You can’t invite a man like Jimmy Cliff to talk and not introduce him,” Moseley Wood explained.
Cliff then presented a hop-scotch version of his journey into the music.
“I started my career when my mother pushed me out and I said ‘aaaaah’,” Cliff began with a laugh. His sense of humour would underscore his talk as well as the songs he shared with the audience.
“I always knew I belonged somewhere in the arts,” Cliff said, although that place was not initially music. “Acting was what I really loved,” he confessed. Cliff explained that he however soon took to music and began writing his first songs while still at school.
“I wrote a song about I want a fiancé” Cliff said with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what a fiancé was, but it sounded good.”
Of course, The Harder They Come allowed him to marry both passions, but getting there was not an easy or straight path. Cliff spoke of the numerous rejections he received as he bounced from one studio to the next trying to get heard.
“I visited them all and they all turned me down,” he said. “They didn’t like my voice.”
Then, late one evening fortune brought him to the doorstep of Beverly’s Ice Cream Parlour (also the home of Beverley’s Records). Even though it was closing, driven by the idea that he had a song about a woman named Beverley, he convinced the three Kong brothers (Leslie, Cecil and Lloyd) to allow him to audition. His voice won over one brother and that was enough to allow him to voice a few songs, though none of his early ones were successful.
Cliff explained that Chris Blackwell would soon convince him to go to England where he was likely to find greater success.
“I went to England and I wanted to come back on the same flight,” Cliff said. “It was so cold and all that fog!” He laughingly confessed that he initially mistook the chimneys on the apartments for factories.
However, despite his initial trepidation, he stayed and finally achieved the acclaim he sought, and would eventually lead to The Harder They Come.
Having provided shades of his journey into music, Cliff then took a might leap to the present and future. He explained that his present is consumed with reading the script for the sequel to The Harder They Come, a revelation which generated applause.
“Stepping forward into the future, it’s about the music,” Cliff declared, and with that delivered a few pieces of his new material. The song often combined light inflections of humour with social insight.
He opened with a song about the invasive Big Brother nature of technology and social media which has eroded privacy.
“You know when I started out I was always a lover, but then I had this revolutionary side too,” Cliff said, before delivering a song about racism. He then tackled the internet and its effects on the music industry.
“Video killed the radio star, the internet killed them all,” Cliff sang to the delight of the audience.
The Reggae Talk took place at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, on Thursday, March 5, 2015. It was the first of a series that continues throughout March.