Jimmy Cliff has always been an anomaly in reggae circles -- a Muslim rather than a Rastafarian, a Jamaican emigre rather than resident, an experimenter rather than trend-follower -- and he has often been underestimated as a result. Thursday night in his Wolf Trap debut, Cliff showcased an original repertoire and a voice as impressive as any in the genre. When Cliff sang a powerful gospel-soul version of his much-covered "Many Rivers to Cross," he nailed even the highest notes strong and true. If Bob Marley was Jamaica's Sam Cooke and Toots Hibbert is the island's Otis Redding, then Cliff is its Al Green.
Cliff was originally billed as the show's headliner, but he went on first to make room for the elaborate show of his world beat colleague Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Cliff had the crowd on its feet dancing for most of the opening set as his good -- but not great -- backing septet churned up reggae's classic inverted dance beat for songs like "Treat the Youths Right" (which he dedicated as a plea to corrupt, drug-using "leaders") and "Reggae Down Babylon." The show opened with Cliff's pan-African hymn, "Bongo Man," in a haunting arrangement that featured only the voices and African drums.
Fela -- a pop superstar and major opposition political force at home in Nigeria -- served as lead singer, pianist and restlessly pacing conductor of his 31-member Afrobeat ensemble, which included six percussionists, eight horns, five female vocalists and five female dancers. The first song -- a tribute to Thomas Sankara, the late president of Burkina Faso -- lasted 25 minutes as Fela built the sound from a lean, re-Africanized James Brown funk groove into a massive mountain of sound that included swinging big-band horn charts, rippling Yoruba polyrhythms, agitated call-and-response vocals, political monologues and his own jazz piano solos.