Chatting with Jimmy Cliff is not like a normal conversation. It’s like talking to a poet whose choice of words is organically and naturally the most eloquent. He gives the impression that he’s not even trying. That’s how he talks. And that gift of words, which the celebrated reggae legend and actor has used to acclaim, makes even the most innocuous chat something pretty.
Take his description of his native Jamaica, which is still his home base, as “my inspiration. I still get that from Jamaica. The energy is right, there. It’s a little piece of Atlantis that sank.”
Come on. Who talks like that? Jimmy Cliff does.
As he makes his way to SunFest on Sunday (3 p.m.) by way of Miami, his base when stateside, he’s enjoying a renewed interest from fans old and new since the 2012 release of the Grammy-nominated “Rebirth,” which made Rolling Stone’s list of the year’s best albums. But he says he is, as ever, the same man, “singing the songs I have sung. Acting was my first love, but singing is something I value. So I wanted to be one of the great singers.”
Although he started writing in his teens, Cliff came to international acclaim in 1972’s “The Harder They Come.” He played a penniless reggae musician turned criminal Ivanhoe, creating not only a classic about poverty, ambition and crime, but introduced audiences to reggae music with songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers To Cross” and the title track.
Cliff believes that its appeal transcends culture and geography because it’s about all of us.
“Reggae touches the human people on this planet. It’s political, spiritual — one of the best ways of relating to human beings. When I first came to the U.S., it was mostly Caucasians that found it. One of the reasons that I like to be in Florida is that more (people descended) from Africa would find it too. It connects to people all over the world, to the continent.”
There’s something more universal than the message, of course.
“It’s got that beat where you don’t have to be a great dancer,” he says, and even over the phone you can tell he’s smiling. “You know that dance where you don’t have to move a lot and still feel you look good.”
We know the one. That dance and the swaying rhythms that inspire it are universal, and Cliff is constantly finding musicians who claim him as an influence, including former Rancid singer Tim Armstrong, who produced his most recent album, and Dave Matthews, with whom he’s toured.
“It’s good that I can do that,” he says. “I think I’m an inspiration just from living my life. I am a person who is just very sensitive, feeling everything. Some good, some bad. People grew up listening to my music, and it’s good to see that so many have drawn imagination from that. It’s encouraging for me.”
In turn, Cliff says he likes to draw inspiration from other artists and genres to “stay current,” even when breathing new life into a classic, like The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” from “Rebirth.” (Or his version of the Partridge Family’s “C’mon, Get Happy” in the recent Jamaican Volkswagen ad.)
He says that he is drawn to songs that are from different genres “that feel right.”
After decades of touring, Cliff says he still enjoys it, although he’s careful “to take care of myself.” He’s pleased to find that reggae has translated to places far removed from the ocean, “like Chicago.”
And no matter where he goes, he just hopes to leave the place feeling better than when he left.
“I look at life as a journey,” he says. “Each (chapter) has stops and starts. Some are interesting, some are not. But you can learn something, take something as you go along.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: The Flagler Drive waterfront, downtown West Palm Beach
The big acts: Train, Smashing Pumpkins, Boz Scaggs, Jimmy Cliff (3 p.m. Sunday, May 5), Cheap Trick, Barenaked Ladies, Ed Sheeran, Gary Clark Jr., Phillip Phillips and more.
Tickets: $22 to $37 for daily admission.
More info: SunFest.com and at 800-SUNFEST (786-3378).
THE POST IS YOUR SUNFEST SOURCE
Nobody is more familiar with Sunfest than Leslie Gray Streeter, who is entering her 11th year of covering SunFest for The Palm Beach Post and pbpulse.com. Her favorite acts among the hundreds she’s seen over the years: James Brown, Jason Mraz, Mavis Staples and the unforgettable night that Eric Clapton came on stage to play guitar with Sheryl Crow on “Higher Ground.”
If you want to know what’s happening at SunFest this year, follow Leslie’s blogs on pbpulse.com and her Tweets (@lesliestreeter), beginning Wednesday night and throughout the weekend.
And keep turning to the Palm Beach Post all this week for Sunfest coverage:
TUESDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s look at the offbeat band Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes. And in The Scene: 5 non-musical things to do at SunFest.
WEDNESDAY ACCENT: What’s new in SunFest food? Liz Balmaseda reports.
THURSDAY ACCENT: Leslie interviews the Boca man behind SunFest’s psychedelic party, Life In Color.
FRIDAY’S TGIF: Our big weekend SunFest issue, with day-to-day schedules, a site map and Leslie’s interview with Slightly Stoopid.
SATURDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s interview with Sunfest performer and “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips.
Plus: Daily schedules in The Scene from Wednesday-Sunday.