Hot Reggae Rhythms For Dancing Diplomats

Reggae ambassador Jimmy Cliff was a last-minute addition to the Metro World Music event at the Kennedy Center.
Reggae ambassador Jimmy Cliff was a last-minute addition to the Metro World Music event at the Kennedy Center. (By Margot Schulman)
By Sarah Godfrey
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 21, 2007

Only in Washington could Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice steal the spotlight from Grammy-winning dancehall artist Shaggy. When Rice showed up at Tuesday evening's Metro World Music concert -- a Kennedy Center Millennium Stage show featuring Shaggy, reggae icon Jimmy Cliff and former Fugees member Wyclef Jean -- camera phones were directed away from the performance and pointed at the former national security adviser as she sort-of danced to "Luv Me, Luv Me," one of Shaggy's many crossover reggae tracks.

Condi's modest moves-- some slight knee bending, swaying and head-nodding -- weren't the only spectacle that forced the audience to choose between watching the action on stage and the actions of a group of dignitaries in attendance. In addition to the thousands of regular folks who came to the free outdoor concert, several Caribbean heads of state, in town this week for a conference, showed up at the nearly five-hour event -- and the suits sipping wine partied just as hard as the kids at the front of the stage wrapped in Jamaican flags.

Jamaica's Shaggy (who was preceded by legendary and still perky ska godfathers the Ska-talites) paused during his set to give a "big-up to PM!" The shout-out was meant for Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, who, security detail be damned, got as close to the crowd as she could and sang along with Shaggy's "Strength of a Woman" and his 1993 remake of the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina."

The prime minister was similarly enamored of special guest Cliff, an eleventh-hour addition to the lineup. The reggae ambassador performed "You Can Get It if You Really Want" and "Many Rivers to Cross," both from the soundtrack of "The Harder They Come," the 1972 film he starred in that is widely credited with introducing reggae to a worldwide audience. Cliff, who will turn 60 next year, doesn't sound exactly as he did at the start of his career, but the warm patina of his voice brought new texture to his beloved version of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now."

Headliner Jean gave a solid solo set, despite the fact that most of his big numbers are duets. Aside from a couple of covers and some explosive Haitian Kanaval instrumental rhythms, Jean spent a lot of time trying to tackle two-person songs alone. He gave a Fugees retrospective, sans Pras and Lauryn Hill ("Fu-Gee-La," "Ready or Not"), performed "Someone Please Call 911" without Mary J. Blige and even took a stab at "Hips Don't Lie" without Colombian singer Shakira.

"Just 'cause Shakira ain't here, don't mean I won't do that song -- I wrote that song!" 'Clef said. Still, the Haitian-born singer-rapper conceded that he needed some help and attempted to recruit an assistant from the crowd.

His most able partner turned out to be Haiti's president, Rene Preval, who danced so well that Jean pronounced him "the only president that can rock!"

Sure, Shakira is great, but anyone can team up with a gyrating pop star. How many artists can boast of having the democratically elected leader of a Caribbean country as a hype man?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company