JRS Records through Festival
Reviewed by Norm Dixon
Jimmy Cliff is without doubt the best loved, most sincere and most political Jamaican reggae artist around. Being the best known survivor of the classic generation of Jamaican roots reggae performers led by legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Cliff has big shoes to fill with every album. With Breakout, he wears those shoes with pride and pizzazz.
Surpassed only by the work of Marley, Cliff can craft music that appeals in equal measure to the head, the heart and the feet. So many of his songs have become reggae anthems — "Many Rivers To Cross", "Vietnam", "The Harder They Come", "Sitting in Limbo" — and have been covered by everybody from Springsteen, UB40 and Stanley Turrentine to Linda Ronstadt.
Every Jimmy Cliff album has its share of philosophy, politics and smoochy love songs. Breakout is no exception. It is a fascinating amalgam of influences from three of the African diaspora's most vital cultural hot spots — Jamaica, the Bahia region in north-west Brazil and Zaire and Congo in central Africa. Cliff's dynamic fusion of elements of all three is musical equivalent of his long-time political mission uniting black struggles for freedom throughout the world.
The glue that holds it all together is Jimmy's sweet and melodic voice and a slick, bright, intoxicating — and perhaps slightly over-produced — sound. Grounded in roots reggae, Cliff is not afraid to veer towards the pop side of Caribbean music, nor wallow in schmaltz, if he thinks it appropriate. What's most frustrating for the tradition hardliners is that he gets away with it every time!
The two opening tracks are homages to optimism — "I'm a Winner" and "Breakout" — and are pure pop geared to the dance floor, with a heavy bass and a nod in the direction of rap lyrics. They are maddeningly addictive tunes that replay in
your head for days.
"Peace" is a Golden Syrup-sweet soul ballad with great politics, written soon after the LA riots: "How is there going to be peace / When there is no justice / ... Someone is taking more than their share / of the bounties of this land and that's not fair / So [few] people got more than they need / While there's so many hungry mouths in the world to feed."
The theme continues through "Oneness", a ska-inflected call to unity and action for a better world and the sharing of the earth's resources.
"War A Africa" is a stripped down roots masterpiece of African percussion, chanting and call and response vocals featuring the amazing Brazilian Sao Benito Choir. Jimmy condemns the world's eagerness to seize Africa's resources. Africa will yet prevail, he predicts: "Sticks and stones, these are our weapons / We want our lives, our land, our gold, no more war / We're tired of crying, dying, tired of war / ... It's not racial, it's not separation / it's not tribal, It's liberation / President Bush and John Major, Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl / ... this won't stop the Black Liberator / President de Klerk we want our land."
"Stepping Out of Limbo" — a Latin/reggae reworking of his classic "Sitting in Limbo" — rejects the melancholy passiveness of the original: "We've been sitting for too long / ... We're singing a new song / We gonna keep on putting up resistance / And we know our faith will lead us on / Strong and revolutionary and we will not be contrary."
"Be Ready" is a rock-steady call to revolution, "Jimmy Jimmy" an endearing boastful ode to the affection Cliff feels for Africa and Africans for Jimmy, and "True Story" is an Afrocentric history lesson.
But easily the top track, and likely to be next Jimmy Cliff reggae anthem, is "Shout For Freedom". It is a glorious collaboration with Zaire's legendary O.K. Jazz band recorded in the Congo sometime in 1988.
Caribbean reggae meets African soukous with its sparkling guitar, attacking big brass arrangements, and fast and hard rumba beat. The song, like the entire album, is an insistent call to rebellion and defiance while paying tribute to the indomitable strength, dignity and integrity of the oppressed: "We can't be like they want us to be / Because we know that we are born free / Free to rule our destiny, free to bear our responsibility / They can imprison our bodies but not our minds / So we'll overcome every little struggles we find / What you got inside must come out / Don't be afraid to stand and shout for freedom."