Visiting Jimmy Cliff’s Birthplace After Thirty Years of Adoring His Music

Jimmy Cliff in France, 2012 (Wiki)

There’s no way to write about visiting Jamaica on a cruise ship without coming off like Michael Scott wearing a braid after his trip to Sandals. Nevertheless, my insistence, dreaded by my children, on venturing into the actual real life of these magical places we are occasionally fortunate to visit, is the most rewarding part of our trips together. While our fellow passengers are ziplining and hanging out on the beaches with only each other or go on repulsive shopping expeditions, I force my children to board rickety public busses to find actual places to eat and visit. That was nearly disastrous last year in Haiti. But this past December in Jamaica, we spent time at the Mount Olive school and it was just the loveliest experience.

I have been intensely interested in Jamaican music since my teens, originally via The Clash. One of the earliest punk songs I wrote, Pay the Price, was a ska type thing (terrible song but I was learning…) and the references on Clash records – Toots and the Maytals, Junior Murvin, The Equals – had me and Circles drummer John Packel running to Biddy Mulligans for toasting and reggae nights.

The Chicago mod scene had some genuine ska knowledge in it and I loved that stuff so much, in its original form and as filtered by all the British mod bands of the 60s (Eddy Grant) and of course The Specials and Madness and Bad Manners and The English Beat and the rest.

In high school, I went to Melnick’s Video and rented their copy of The Harder They Come. That movie became a major touchstone for me. After I first saw it, I think it’s possible that I even tried out saying “him” for “he” in tribute to Jamaican patois – as in “policeman thinks him’s going catch me, but him don’t even know me.” On the way to a recent re-viewing of it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I told my companion all about the movie—I vividly remembered a ton of it, but the order was jumbled in my mind. Like I thought the part where Jose betrays Ivan was near the beginning, before Ivan records his hit record and sells it to Hilton for $20.

Anyway, it really is a perfect movie and Jimmy Cliff is not just its master composer but a hell of a natural actor. It’s like Hamlet – these decisions the country kid has to make about how he’s going to matter and whether it’s worth waiting for a possible reward or grabbing it now. I studied that thing frame by frame and I could almost feel it like a young Paul Simonon sitting in Brixton would – this window to a totally fascinating world that seems so different and yet, again like Hamlet, confirms the universality of the emotions experienced by a young man eager to make his mark. A great night.

When my first son was born, I became very attached to his babysitter Pauline. We formed a very special bond. I brought her to everything and the three of us—Pauline, Steve and I—did everything together. She and I would spend hours listening to these tapes she had of greats I didn’t know, like Barrington Levy and Sister Nancy (which my kids informed me was sampled by Kanye), Pauline’s son David sometimes joining to play with baby Steve in Pauline’s apartment in East Orange.

So back to Jamaica in December 2017.

The fellow who drove us around, Delmar, turned out to be a huge music fan and was surprised when I asked to see Jimmy Cliff’s birthplace. He told me white people only ask about Bob Marley and he even plays Bob Marley’s Greatest Hits on repeat on the theory that he gets bigger tips.

Anyway, those were the memories that were floating through my head as my kids and I ate ackee and saltfish and these nice girls braided my daughters’ hair and we all colored together. We met a nice pig, too. Yeah, that’s right. I can see clearly now.

The author’s daughters (front step, right) doing some braiding with students at the Mount Olive Basic School.

 

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership, co-written with Rudy Giuliani.

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