LEGENDARY ska and reggae star Jimmy Cliff will be stepping out on stage in Bahrain on his 68th birthday determined to carry on making music, entertaining fans and spreading a message of love in his own inimitable style.
The Jamaican singer, multi-instrumentalist and acclaimed actor is the only living musician to hold the Order of Merit, the highest honour that can be granted by his government for achievements in the arts.
Cliff is best known for songs such as Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Many Rivers to Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want, The Harder They Come and his covers of Cat Stevens’ Wild World and Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now.
But what makes him want to carry on performing at an age when many would be happy to settle down for a well-deserved rest, a pair of slippers and a hot chocolate?
“I have too much work yet to do on my mission here on this planet,” Cliff told GulfWeekly just before touching down in the kingdom to open the festival of off-track entertainment at the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Grammy Award winner will be performing on Friday at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir and he cannot wait. “I’m looking forward to performing in Bahrain. Blessed love to all.”
In 1972, Cliff starred as Ivanhoe ‘Ivan’ Martin in the classic reggae movie, The Harder They Come, the story of a struggling musician who eventually turned to a life of crime. The soundtrack album of the film was a huge success that sold well across the world, bringing reggae to an international audience.
The genre remains popular and continues to inspire today’s music-makers spinning into hip hop and rap. “No surprise,” said Cliff. “Jazz, rock ’n’ roll and R&B are still there, so why not reggae in its growing form?
“We see music in all its different forms spread love and bring people together the world over and that’s a fact, not just my opinion. At the same time music can be, and is, used to send negative messages. However, the negative and positive factors are what exist in the universe and our task is to find a balance.”
We’re living in troubled times, none more so than in parts of the Middle East. His music has often highlighted the struggles of people with protest songs and he can clearly empathise with the Syrian refugees … wouldn’t it be nice if it really was a wonderful world with more beautiful people?
“Yes, it would be nice,” he said, “but there is a void of love in most of the world, no more spirituality is there. My message is: show some kindness, love and justice to humanity.”
Cliff was born in Jamaica’s Somerton District. He began writing songs while still at primary school, listening to a neighbour’s sound system. In 1962 his father took him to the capital Kingston to go to technical school, where he ended up sharing his cousin’s one rented room.
Cliff sought out many producers while still going to school, trying to get his songs recorded without success. He also entered talent contests. He recounts going to see famed Jamaican producer Leslie Kong in 1962 to convince him to work with him, releasing Cliff’s first hit, Hurricane Hattie, when he was just 14.
And he was back in the charts in 2012. ‘I got one more shot at the goal/Straight from my soul/I’m in control’, sings Cliff on One More, the lead track from REBIRTH, the Universal Music Enterprises album, produced by punk icon Tim Armstrong, of Rancid and Operation Ivy fame.
“The album is about my rebirth as an artist and as a man, but also about the rebirth of the world,” said the man whose 1970 Vietnam, was dubbed by Bob Dylan as ‘the greatest protest song ever written’ and served as a centerpiece in Paul Simon’s acclaimed 2011 tour, the performer citing it as his original inspiration to record Mother and Child Reunion with Cliff’s band in Jamaica.
It was his first studio album in seven years and while it was named after what Cliff perceived as his own artistic revival, the reggae pioneer has never really been away, working with a who’s-who of other music legends over the years, including the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello and Annie Lennox, his songs covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Cher, New Order and Fiona Apple.
His patented sweet tenor is probably the most recognisable vocal in reggae along with his only fellow Jamaican Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, the late, great Bob Marley.
And triumphant appearances at festivals across the globe are putting him back on the pop music map. And there’s no stopping the master. “I’m working on new music and a movie right now,” he said. “I’m not done at all.”
* Jimmy Cliff is set to perform around 7.30pm on Friday after the second track practice session and the music continues with DJ duo Axwell ^ Ingrosso, best known for tracks including Number One charting single Sun is Shining and Top 10 iTunes tracks Something New, This Time and On My Way. Finally, Avicii will be on stage on the following night. The entertainment is free to F1 weekend ticket holders. Visit www.bahraingp.com for more details.
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