Jimmy Cliff is one of the key figures in reggae, along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. He's performing in New Zealand on March 31st – the day before his 70th birthday. He spoke to Wallace Chapman ahead of his visit.
Jimmy Cliff's music is a roll call of hits including ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, 'Many Rivers to Cross', and ‘Reggae Night’; and the seminal soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come, in which he played the lead.
Jimmy was honoured with the Jamaican Order of Merit, the highest honour granted by the Jamaican government, for achievements in the arts and in 2010 was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
He's coming to New Zealand this week for the Bay of Islands Music Festival, which also features Tami Neilson, Teeks, Katchafire, Swamp Thing and many more.
Jimmy Cliff, how you doing?
Hi Wallace. How you doing, I'm doing great.
It's wonderful to have you on Jimmy, I'm a big fan of yours and I don't know if you know, but New Zealand is a huge fan of reggae.
Yes, I am quite aware, yes, yes, indeed.
Tell us how you came into music, I understand you were raised in a poor family of nine children. Was music all around you, when you started out?
Yeah it was, definitely music all around. All kinds of music from ... there was music for everything. There was music for working, there was music for funerals, there was music for burials, there was music for everything. There was music of dinner, there was music after dinner. Because that was how we entertained ourselves. And so yeah, there was always music, and I was leading the music thing. I loved it more than everyone else.
Your dad wanted you to be educated. To be, say a doctor or something. And he gave you a choice between higher school lessons and a radio. What did you choose?
Yeah, he asked me between the radio and school what I wanted. I chose the radio because back in those days, to have a radio, you could hear music from all over the world. You could hear music from America, you could hear music from Cuba, from Latin America. Wow. And to have a radio in the country, that was a huge thing. So, I chose that. However, he still sent me to college and I did still go to college.
Tell me about how you inspired Paul Simon’s ‘Mother and Child Reunion’.
Paul Simon wrote the song. He told me he and Bob Dylan sat up all night listening to a Jimmy Cliff album and he said, he wants the same studio, same musicians, everybody that played it, and so we went out to Jamaican and recorded it. So yeah he got a touch of Jimmy Cliff.
What sort of relationship, if any, did you have to Bob Marley?
Well, from the day that I auditioned Bob, and chose the first three songs, took him to the studio, he recorded them. He never looked back. And that was the start and the story of Bob Marley. Many people didn't know that.
We always had a relationship from that time on. When [I heard he had died] I was shocked. I was in San Francisco, when he crossed over, and I was shocked. And I asked the audience for a minute of silence for him. And all of that because ... we had huge respect for each other, that's it.
Tell me about Desmond Dekker’s involvement.
He was a welder … I auditioned Desmond Dekker. Who was another giant – doesn't get his due respect in the business. And [him and Bob Marley] used to work at the same place. Desmond went back and told Bob, "I got my song recorded through this person Jimmy Cliff.” And he sent Bob Marley down to me. And I auditioned Bob and showed him three songs. And that was it.
There's a wonderful memory you’ve talked about, from when you're really young. You said, “I remember the first dreadlocked Rasta man I met as a child. Everybody except my father shunned him, but I was attracted to how he spoke about Africa in a deep raspy voice.” That sounded very interesting, can you tell us a bit more about that story?
His name was Brother Rain. Being the first Rasta man and – the Rasta movement was new in Jamaica, people shunned him, but my father never did. Because my father was a great humanitarian. He loved people. I picked up some of that from him. Brother Rain taught me a lot about Africa … I used to follow him to the bush and he'd cook, and then, we’d sit and eat and we talked, talked about Africa. Yeah.
Were you influenced by Rastafarian culture at all, Jimmy?
The thing is, in Jamaica, all of us were looking for our roots. Which is Africa. And Jamaica, being a British colony, we were not taught anything but negative things about Africa. So here comes one movement, and it shows Rasta man telling something positive about Africa. Of course, you're going to be highly inspired. I was highly inspired, no doubt about that.
What are your thoughts on where Jamaica is heading now?
The difference with Jamaica today is that economically, politically, socially, it's … kind of trying to find its way. Because, after independence from Britain, there was no money given for reparation to repair the trauma that had been done via slavery, to build schools and hospitals, and all those kind of things. Nothing like that was done. So, as a result of that, today you have a lot of violence … and no one was taught anything. So, the Rasta movement really kind of soothed and bridged the gap between all of those things.
I've noticed that when you’re in New Zealand for the show on March 31st, the very next day will be your 70th birthday. Do you have any special plans?
Well, like I say, Jamaica is a country of natural beauty, natural nature, and I love that about Jamaica. And so, I'm coming to another country with a lot of natural beauty, natural nature. So yes, I'm going to enjoy that. I hope I have the time to just, wander off into the country and soak up a lot of the natural beauty, natural nature of New Zealand.
Thinking about your legacy – helping take reggae to the world. Reggae’s really developed over the years. Starting in Jamaica, of course, but many countries have their own style. Here in New Zealand we have bands like Herbs and Kora, and roots reggae like Katchafire. You must be really proud to be one of the first to bring reggae into the international arena.
Indeed, indeed, I'm proud to see them, proud to hear it. In any part of the world I go there's people playing their brand of reggae. Indeed, I'm very proud to be one of the main contributors of a music form that has taken hold of the planet.
What's the secret to reggae, do you think? Because, unlike many other forms music, it's travelled incredibly, hasn't it?
Well, first of all, I think that it's a music form that has touched indigenous people of the world. Then it has touched the socially, politically, conscious people of the world. Then it has touched people who are looking for joy in their life, joy in their spirit, joy in their soul, and it has all of that. So [reggae] expresses all of that, not only lyrically but musically in the instrumentation. This is real music.
Now we are at the stage of music where I’m kind of in two minds. The technology’s come into the music and, sometimes I want to say, where is the technology taking the music? It’s not real music, no. And the only thing that is real is the voice on top of everything that’s going on. And that's why the music doesn't last as long today. You play it and six months down the line and you play it again, it doesn't taste the same. So, I think [reggae is] a real music sort of thing.
Is there a song do you think, that might represent you best?
Me, personally I couldn't pick one because I am always going after to the latest sound that I have.
I think all artists are like that. They’re going after the latest sound. I actually have some new songs that I've written and they're not out yet … there are some songs in there that I love very much, but from the past music there isn’t one that I could pick as my favourite.
And you are still very much making music aren't you, Jimmy? What's your secret, what keeps you going?
What keeps me going is the fact that I am still not satisfied with all that I’ve achieved. Because I set my goals high for instance, I still would like to headline stadiums, all over the world. And the only place I can headline stadiums is in Africa and I’ve done it in Brazil too. But I would like to do that all over the world. I'd still like to make huge, big hits, all over the world. Maybe some people might say, "Okay, dream on baby, dream on," but I put out my dreams, I brush them off, and I take a look in their eyes and say, "For me, all things are possible."