Original Jazz Warrior and multi award-winning, genre-hopping vocalist Cleveland Watkiss returns to his roots for The Great Jamaican Songbook in the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 29 October.

Making a rocksteady case for the island’s musical legacy, he’ll be taking us on a journey from 40s and 50s mento to ska, reggae, dub and lovers rock: the sounds of Studio One, Coxsone Dodd, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffith, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and more.

Ahead of his visit, Cleveland filled us in on how this passion project came about, and selected three crucial songs from the set that he’ll be performing on the night, from classic reggae to conscious roots, to smooth lovers rock.

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“I was born in Hackney, London, in 1959. My parents are from Jamaica, and it was Jamaican music that inspired me during my teens, growing up listening to it at home, as my father was an amateur DJ. But it was going to be the sound clashes during the early 70s in East London – Shaka, Sufferer, Count Joshua Hi (where I first took hold of a mic) and my all-time favourite sound Fatman Hi (where I won two vocal talent competitions) that became the real spark for me to pursue music as a career. 

“During the early 80s, I was not only able to see many of these great artists live in concert around the UK, I also met them on studio sessions at a very popular recording studio in East London Bethnal Green called Easy St London. It was here where I recorded with JA legends like Jackie Mittoo, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Vin Gordon, Sugar Minott (whose band I did my very first UK tour with as a background singer), and UK Legends Bammie Rose, Carroll Thompson [pictured above, on a session with Cleveland and band], Caron Wheeler, Alan Weekes, Kenrick Rowe, Drummie Zeb of Aswad, and many more…

“Around 2016, I spoke with music maestro, producer and multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson about my long-held desire to do a reggae project that would go back to the golden era of roots music, singing the songs of my vocal idols: Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller, Delroy Wilson, etc. Then he said the magic words:Cleveland, you should sing The Great Jamaican Songbook’. The rest is history – and of course, the future.”

Three chapters from The Great Jamaican Songbook

Delroy Wilson: What Is Man (1973)

You could plot the evolution of reggae from its beginnings in ska and rocksteady by following Delroy Wilson’s brilliant career. He made his first record at 13, and went on to work with many of Jamaica’s great producers, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Lee Perry, Bunny Lee and Keith Hudson. “I first heard What Is Man as a dub in Phebes night club Stoke Newington in the 70s, during a Fatman Hifi late session”, remembers Cleveland.

Burning Spear: Red, Gold and Green (1975)

Beginning in the late 1960s, roots reggae had Rastafarian spirituality, Black Power and the history of the African Diaspora firmly embedded in its lyrics, its production and its instrumentation. Named after the Pan-Africanist Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, the third album by Burning Spear, aka Winston Rodney, was a high water mark of the movement. “Red, Gold and Green is Winston Rodney’s deep cry and expression of oppression and hope”, says Cleveland. “I recall purchasing this album at my local record shop in Hackney, Regal Records on Lower Clapton Road”.

Gregory Isaacs: If I Don't Have You (1981)

Gregory Isaacs recorded a number of roots tracks early in his career, including the magnificent Black A Kill Black, but he is best known as one of the greatest artists of the lovers rock genre. Hugely popular in the UK, this style stepped away from the politics and struggle of roots reggae, fired instead by the slick sounds and romantic themes of Chicago and Philadelphia soul. “I first heard If I Don’t Have You at one of the Notting Hill Carnivals”, recalls Cleveland, “and I still have my original vinyl copy of More Gregory, the album that this beautiful love song is taken from”.

Dead 'n' Wake: the roots of Jamaican music

Discover more about the deep roots of reggae, dub and sound system music with our podcast featuring Opera North Resonance artists NikNak and Khadijah Ibrahiim, and some classic songs, versions and dub plates from the Pressure Sounds catalogue. Khadijah will be opening The Great Jamaican Songbook date in Leeds.

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