Jimmy Cliff, Aswad: Crystal Palace Bowl, London

THE ANNUAL Nelson Mandela festival was held in perfect sunlight in the secluded grassy amphitheatre at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately one reason why it was so agreeable was that not too many people were there: a bill that combined reggae and African music (even when it featured the great Hugh Masakela) still doesn’t draw a huge crowd.

Jimmy Cliff’s performance almost broke the concert’s benevolent summer mood when he stopped his set to make a public apology for touring South Africa in 1980. A wave of discomfort passed through the audience as he delivered a fragmented, rambling but impassioned plea for forgiveness. There were a few calls of “hypocrite” and “bring on Gil Scott-Heron” (they didn’t), but as soon as Cliff launched into ‘The Harder They Come’ the audience were on their feet again, dancing in unison.

Those old songs were a reminder that Jimmy Cliff was once a voice of protest and the first international reggae star. In the mid Seventies he was completely overshadowed by Bob Marley, and his career declined with a series of washed out pop reggae tunes, while his decision to become a Moslem put him at odds with reggae Rastafarianism.

But, as this performance proved, Jimmy Cliff still has one of the clearest voices in popular music, and he has abandoned his bland crossover style for a repertoire that slides between roots reggae, African chants and melodic lovers’ rock-style ballads. Nothing quite equalled the power of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ — partly because nothing was so familiar — but there is still a future for Jimmy Cliff.

This benefit concert has sad undercurrents, partly because of the plight of Mandela, himself, but also because it brought back memories of Bob Marley’s last British performance, on this same stage, in 1980. No one has arrived to claim his place, but British Reggae is on the upswing, and Aswad provided a fitting end to such a multi-cultural event.

© Mary HarronThe Guardian, 30 July 1984

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