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NIGHT LIFE

Upbeat Reggae Star Instills a Positive Note in His Music : Jimmy Cliff, headlining Saturday night in Ventura, is a happy guy who believes songs 'can change people.'

September 09, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Colonel Sanders came across even half as nice as Jimmy Cliff, those chickens would be roosting on his outstretched arm--even the arm holding the cleaver. Cliff is so relentlessly upbeat, he could persuade a cat to marry a vacuum cleaner. Compared with Cliff, Mr. Rogers seems like Don Rickles in traction. If a smile is, in fact, Cliff's umbrella, he wouldn't get wet if it rained.

Jimmy Cliff, who will headline the venerable Ventura Theatre Saturday night, is among the world's reigning reggae superstars. Along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh--both of whom are no longer living--Cliff was among reggae's founding members. When Bob Marley and then Peter Tosh signed an exclusive deal with that big reggae concert in the sky, that left Cliff in the coveted Living Legend slot.

Cliff, who once helped Bob Marley get his first album produced, is known for putting reggae in the hearts and minds of the hopeful by starring in the 1973 cult classic film, "The Harder They Come." Since then, Cliff has toured continuously and has released over a score of albums, winning a Grammy in 1985. His latest release is "Breakout." This isn't music to hang yourself by at all. Characteristically, this is upbeat material. Some of the song titles include "I'm A Winner," "Oneness," "Peace" and "Shout For Freedom."

Some of Cliff's more memorable songs are "Beautiful People" and "Wonderful People," neither one beloved by angry bald people who dance like Lurch. Cliff's success on that sunny side of the street has been accomplished without a lot of airplay. But Cliff has been around forever and keeps playing and making records, plus that Living Legend stuff doesn't hurt, either.

The Big Issues and the usual suspects--Peace, Love, Understanding, Unity, Freedom--are what Cliff's music is all about; that, and a good beat, mon. Cliff discussed all this and more recently from a Salt Lake City hotel room.

"Breakout" was about your zillionth album. How is it different from the others?

It's different in the sense that there are a lot of integrated rhythms on it. There's more African rhythms and fewer Western rhythms. You know, some of it was recorded in Brazil and some in Africa. The album is doing really well internationally, and I'm pleased with it.

You always seem to be on tour. What's your secret to life on the road?

I love traveling. I love to perform. I'm on the road at least half the year.

How do you account for your continuing popularity without the benefit of substantial radio airplay?

I think it's because of this thing called reggae, which I helped to create. The other two major figures--Bob Marley and Peter Tosh--aren't around anymore. So, I think a lot of people come to the shows to see a reggae legend.

Who goes to a Jimmy Cliff show?

Well, we get the usual Jimmy Cliff fans that are between 30 and 40 years old. But now, about half the audience are the children of those people. There's a lot of 16-to-25-year-olds now. We just came back from Australia and Japan, where we played before up to 9,000 fans. We used to go to Africa every year and play the stadiums, but not this year. There are Jimmy Cliff fans in many countries.

Your songs are relentlessly upbeat. Why are you such a happy guy?

Reggae was born in horrible conditions, and people were not in a happy situation. So, I think you must have a positive attitude. Negative things exist, but so do positive things. Living is a positive thing and I have a positive attitude.

Can music change the world?

Music cannot, by itself, change the world, but it has had an effect on people through the ages. Music has the ability to get into everyone's life, and can change people who can change the world.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer?

I was 6 or 7 years old in what we called junior grades. I realized that singing was what I could do best. I used to sing in school concerts, stuff like that. People seemed to like the way I sang. But even before singing, I was acting, and people liked my style.

Why are people still talking about your film "The Harder They Come" 20 years later?

It's the realness of that movie that has given it so much longevity. It's still a powerful movie. People always ask me about the movie, so the sequel, "Part II," should be out next year. I've been writing the script for three years. The treatment is ready now, and we should start shooting early next year.

How do you think American rap music relates to reggae?

I think rap music is coming out of the same conditions that reggae came from--not a positive situation. Rap music is not reggae music, but both came from the same conditions.

Is there anything you haven't done yet, anyone you haven't played with?

Well, I don't have any desire to play with anyone, but there's certain other places I'd like to play. I've never been to China or Russia. After this tour, I'll start on the movie. I have another album already completed. It's called "Positive Energy," and I expect it to be on a major label.

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