Jimmy Cliff introduced American audiences to reggae with his electrifying acting and singing in the 1972 Jamaican film "The Harder They Come." Yet Cliff has largely been an outsider in Jamaica's reggae scene. His lyrics are non-Rastafarian, his rhythm tracks are more varied, his melodies are more pronounced and his biggest audiences are in Africa and South America. After years of flawed follow-ups to "The Harder They Come," Cliff finally found his own sound on the 1978 "Give Thanx" and the brand-new "Special." The new album highlights Cliff's still-strong tenor soaring above rich layers of vocal harmonies and African percussion.
Cliff's clear, high-pitched voice carries both a sharp rebuke and a yearning idealism, enabling him to attack injustice in one line and turn around to hold out an optimistic vision in the next. On "Keep On Dancin'," he examines the dual nature of pop music: realism or escapism. "You can dance to remember your life," he sings, or "You can dance to forget your strife." Cliff's stubborn political songs on the album won't allow one to forget strife, and his sympathetic love songs help you remember your own loves. His contagious beat keeps you dancing. The record-closing "Where There Is Love" is the best example of Cliff's rich soul singing as his voice rises majestically from the sensual ballad. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM JIMMY CLIFF: Special (Columbia, FC 38099). THE SHOW JIMMY CLIFF AND PETER TOSH, Friday night at 8 at Constitution Hall.