Q&A: Jimmy Cliff: Many Bridges to Cross

The reggae star talks hippos, choirgirls, and spiritual classrooms.

For more than four decades, Jimmy Cliff has been one of Jamaica's premier troubadours, with ubiquitous reggae singles like "Many Rivers to Cross" and "You Can Get It if You Really Want," as well as his starring role in the Kingston film classic, The Harder They Come. At 62, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will drop his new album, Existence, this fall.

"It's a concept album about our existence on this planet, economically, spiritually, politically, all areas that affect us as human beings on this planet at this time," Cliff says.

In advance of his July 21 show at the Woodland Park Zoo, Cliff spoke to us about the Jamaican countryside, religious classrooms, and his first girlfriend.

SW: Have you been writing any music lately?

Cliff: Yes, yesterday I was writing. I was working on an idea that comes to me as a song called "Bridges." Bridges between the gaps. Oh, we need bridges right now all over the world between all the gaps that we have.

Any bridges in particular?

They are family bridges. They are cultural bridges. They are political bridges, social bridges. I think the material to bring these bridges with is really love. That's what's missing today.

Are you still a practicing Muslim?

Well, you know the religious thing was a door, or a classroom, that I went through. And I've graduated from those classrooms now. I grew up and saw my family as Christians and I was disillusioned with that. Then I started looking, I saw Rastafari, which was a more natural way of looking at life. Then I saw Islam, then I saw Buddhism, then I saw Judaism.

I was watching The Harder They Come last night. Did you ever pick up a girl you met in the church choir the way your character, Ivan Martin, does in the movie?

[Laughs] That's a good question. Nobody's ever asked me that question before. Yes, I did actually...My first girlfriend was a girl in the church.

How do you feel about the recent extradition of drug kingpin Christopher Coke, which has drawn criticism because of the deaths of more than 70 Jamaicans in the process? Was it worth it?

To just go in and bombard and kill all these people like that, I think it was the wrong way to go about it.

Who gave you your first guitar?

Actually, the first thing I had as a guitar, was really before I left the country, it was made from bamboo. They just kind of lifted the skin of the bamboo and cut the bridge out of the bamboo and put it there, and that was like the first time I had any knowledge of playing the guitar.

You're coming to Seattle and playing at the Zoo. What's your favorite animal?

Well, definitely, I have to say the lion, because it's so symbolic of Africa. But I also love the hippopotamus. The hippopotamus is also very symbolic with Africa and it goes way back to the ancient Egyptian times. She's there in the water and she looks so peaceful, until she opens the mouth.


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