For half a century, on record, on stage, and on the silver screen, he’s represented the breadth and depth of Jamaican music as fully as anyone. Gil Sharone chats with the ageless performer, whose recent work finds him collaborating with a group of second- and third-wave riddim ambassadors.
Studying the arc of Jimmy Cliff’s career is a pretty effective method of understanding much about Jamaican music. As a teenager with stars in his eyes, Cliff (née Chambers) quickly honed the skills that would help him become recognized as a leader throughout the evolution of post-independence Jamaican music, from ska to rocksteady to reggae and beyond. And as the star and principal composer and singer in the film The Harder They Come, Cliff aided the world’s non-Jamaican music fans in understanding not only the music of the country’s burgeoning reggae scene but also the social environment that fed the quickly growing subculture.
Last year Cliff released the excellent five-song EP Sacred Fire, helmed by Tim Armstrong of the West Coast punkreggae pioneers Rancid. Armstrong’s wellpublicized involvement has helped return a favor of sorts to Cliff, whose classic tracks like “Many Rivers to Cross,” “The Harder They Come,” and “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” have been inspirational to underground rockers since the dawning days of British alt-rock. This year Cliff builds on the cross-generational success of Sacred Fire with a full-length album, RE.BIRTH, again featuring contributions from a group of musicians who, despite their relative youth, brilliantly capture the classic reggae sounds that Cliff himself hadn’t explored in many years. Since his recent recordings bring Jimmy full circle in a sense, we thought it would be the ideal time to speak with him about the history and mystery of Jamaican music.
Gil Sharone: Not many musicians can say they’ve had a career like yours. In Jamaican music, you’ve spanned every genre, starting with ska and going into rocksteady and reggae. Could you talk about the unique aspects of those styles?
Jimmy Cliff: With ska, which is where we started, the musicians were jazz musicians. But [as Jamaicans] we wanted respect and an identity, and out of that need the creativity came out, and it turned out to be what is known today as a form of ska. That was a very exciting period. The music was upbeat…I really enjoyed that period. Then, when we went into the rocksteady period, the music slowed down, because the social aspect of Jamaica also slowed down. We were coming out of British colonialism, and people started questioning what this independence was all about.
Rocksteady was more or less the same drumbeat, but slower. What changed it was the guitar and the bass pattern. When we came into what became reggae, the guitar rhythm was kind of in between the two. And the bass line changed a little— you had some new, creative bass players. The drummer still played the one-drop, which started in the rocksteady era.
Looking back now, it was such a great thing being a part of all that development. We didn’t even recognize it at the time. And now recording this album with Tim Armstrong, who has inspired so many people all over the world, it’s very gratifying.
Gil: The lyrics to the first track on RE.BIRTH, “Reggae Music,” that’s a history lesson right there. You mention [legendary drummer] Winston Grennan, [rocksteady pioneers] Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe….
Jimmy: Oh, yes. I wanted to get in a few more names of the most important people, but I didn’t have space. [laughs] There are so many of them.
Gil: You’ve played with so many great drummers over the years. Who were some of your favorites?
Jimmy: Mikey “Boo” Richards. Sly Dunbar, of course. Winston Grennan. From the ska era, Drumbago.
Gil: Lloyd Knibb told me he learned from Drumbago.
Jimmy: Yes, Drumbago was not just a great drummer, he was a great teacher. He taught us singers a lot of things too. People would come in with just an idea, and he would formulate that and put it together.
Hugh Malcolm was another important drummer. He had his own style, and he influenced Carly Barrett. He was an originator of the one-drop, which you can hear on many of my records, like the tracks “Time Will Tell,” one of my older songs, and “Struggling Man.”
Gil: Tim Armstrong put together the Engine Room to back you up on Sacred Fire, and they’ve done such a great job. Did you expect that the band was going to have such a classic sound?
Jimmy: Not at all. I knew of Tim via Joe Strummer [of the Clash]. I felt a really good vibe from him when we spoke on the phone, and when we met it was confirmed. But I didn’t expect anything like that from the musicians. That’s what kind of inspired me to do the whole album. I said, “Wow!” I had forgotten about some of those sounds. [laughs]
And it turned out to signify an important aspect of my career. You know, after I made an impact on the international scene with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” I went to Muscle Shoals and did a totally different type of album [1971’s Another Cycle]. And so a lot of people were kind of disappointed—“Why has he left reggae and gone to do all that?”—while a lot of other people were very happy that I come with some fresh music. That chapter of my career was unfinished, and so this really signified the closing of that chapter.
Gil: You recorded pretty much in a live setting, right?
Jimmy: That’s correct, like we used to do it. Everybody gets the progression of the song, the singer goes into his room, and you count it off and you go. That was such a great feeling doing that.
Gil: Do you play drumset at all?
Jimmy: I play a little. I never played on a record. I more play percussions, on my own records and on the records that I produce as well.
Gil: I noticed you play some binghi on the new album. How important is it for drummers not only to learn these rhythms on the drumset but to go back and learn the Nyabinghi patterns?
Jimmy: That is so important, because that is an indigenous trademark of Jamaican music. And I was really and truly surprised that they knew that aspect of the music and got it down. On “The Guns of Brixton,” when the drummer, Scott Abels, dropped in a Burru pattern, like Lloyd Knibb, I was so amazed and pleased to hear that! It’s a great thing.
Gil: What’s a definite no-no for a drummer to do in ska or rocksteady or reggae?
Jimmy: You just have to be sure to keep the beat steady. Don’t let it speed up, and don’t let it drop.
Gil: Drummers often don’t understand that less is more in reggae, or about the power and the discipline of keeping the groove hypnotic and heavy. They want to put fills all over the place and make it flashy.
Jimmy: [laughs] Yeah, you have to keep the trance-type feeling.