Toppa Top 15: Edward Seaga Selects 15 Jamaican Music Classics

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November 6, 2012

6. Jimmy Cliff, “The Harder They Come” (1973)

It may have been hard for people outside of Jamaica to get their hands on the actual movie that ultimately made reggae famous around the world, but they certainly were able to get their hands on the very first all-reggae soundtrack album for the very first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come.

Written by iconic playwright Trevor D. Rhone and directed by Perry Henzell, The Harder They Come tells the story of Ivanhoe Martin, a young countryman with aspirations of becoming a star in music — but who instead meets the hardcore realities of city life, the corruption of the music industry, and eventually turns to a life of crime, with successful results for a while. The story of Ivanhoe Martin was, in fact, a modern-day adaptation, loosely based on the life of the infamous Jamaican outlaw Vincent Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin (a.k.a. “The Two Gun Killer”) who was regarded by some as a Robin Hood-type, but considered by law enforcement as a public enemy number one after escaping a maximum security prison. Rhygin, also a country boy who moved to Kingston, was gunned down at the young age of 24 in a “final showdown” of sorts with police on October 9, 1948.

The Harder They Come was the film debut of reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff (who landed the lead role of “Ivan”); along with veteran intuitive artist Ras Daniel Hartman, and the undisputed King of Jamaican cinema, film legend Carl Bradshaw. Bradshaw would land key roles in Trevor Rhone’s Smile Orange and One Love, as well as The Lunatic, Third World Cop, and the American film The Mighty Quinn with Denzel Washington.

The soundtrack album, which naturally featured Jimmy Cliff as the main artist, was released by Island Records (in the U.S. through its new division called Mango). The recording was a seminal force in introducing reggae (as well as rocksteady) to the world abroad, and to this day continues to introduce new generations of people to reggae, holding its position as one of the top-selling legendary reggae albums of all time. The song ultimately gave recognition to Toots & The Maytals as well as hit songs that were mere 7″ singles restricted to Jamaica and England, including Desmond Dekker and The Aces’ “007 (Shanty Town),” and The Melodians’ landmark tune “Rivers of Babylon,” later covered by the German–based Caribbean disco-pop group Boney M. It became a spiritual anthem among many of the Rastafarian faith.

The song itself –there were two versions recorded and featured on the album– is one of the most inspiring musical declarations of defiance against the seemingly impossible obstacles of life and the “big fish” of the world, who tend to create these obstacles for the have-nots. The country music legend Willie Nelson even covered “The Harder They Come” acoustically for his experimental reggae album, Countryman, in 2005.

Trevor Rhone, who would later write the 1974 play “Smile Orange” for which he would direct its companion film in 1975—and the 2003 romance flick “One Love” with Ky-Mani Marley and Cherine Anderson—died of a heart attack on 15 September 2009 at the age of 69. Director Perry Henzell, who made a cameo appearance in Willie Nelson’s video for “The Harder They Come,” died of cancer on 30 November 2006. Up until the 1990s, the movie’s availability was extremely scarce, but since then, The Harder They Come has become even more of a classic over the last two decades than ever before. And “just as sure as the sun will shine”, you will find Jimmy Cliff continuing to rouse masses of people to sing along with those famous 11 words “The Harder They Come … the harder they fall, one and all.”

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