Singer Cleveland Watkiss brings his collection of Jamaican songs to Cambridge

Born in London to Jamaican parents, Cleveland Watkiss revisits some of the music he grew up listening to on his latest album, The Great Jamaican Songbook. He is currently filming the album and will come to Cambridge later this month.

Cleveland Watkiss at Picadilly in June 1978. Photo: Kelly Watkiss

Hailed as “Britain’s Best Male Jazz Singer” by the evening standard, Cleveland Watkiss, who also works as a vocal teacher, returned to his roots for his latest album and tour. Addressing the Cambridge Independent from his home “just around the corner from Stansted Airport”, the singer says there just might be a “volume two” of his Great Jamaican Songbook project.

“I think so,” he says, noting that a second volume might help people ask, “Why those songs and not those?” – « but yes, I think that there will probably be another volume or two. We will see.”

You’re never going to please everyone when it comes to song selection, unfortunately… “I think artists have a duty to please themselves first,” suggests Cleveland, 62. “You have to believe in what you are doing and know why you are doing what you are doing for yourself first.

On the album, Cleveland covers tracks from iconic Jamaican reggae artists such as Gregory Isaacs, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown and Burning Spear. “Each song has an association with the period I was in when I heard it,” he explains, adding that for him the “golden period” for this type of music is the 1970s (that said , he listens to a lot of modern Jamaican sounds too).

“I grew up listening to this music and it was my first real inspiration as a young singer and writer, and also being of Caribbean descent – just the immediacy of this music that existed at the time, with the culture also sound system around which I grew up and I still love it today.

On what Cambridge audiences can expect, Cleveland – named MBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honors for services to music – says: “It’s very specific; it’s all the music on the album – and some.

“We have an extended setlist, so there will be additional things that we will play: ska, dub…and other artists that are not on the album as well. So it’s exciting, it’s a celebration of this fantastic period of music and song, and artists who gave so much to the world.

Does Cleveland regularly travel to Jamaica, the country of his ancestors? “I don’t know,” he said. “I went there once – and unfortunately I didn’t go back. It was just circumstances that kept me from coming back, but I intend to.

He continues: “It’s quite bizarre because when I went there – I think it was in 1991 with my parents and some of my family and my brothers and sisters – it was nothing like I had imagined! I was in a whole other world, thinking that my parents being from the culture, born and raised there, I would fit in.

“But you don’t, it’s a whole other world… Just the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you do everything. It’s quite an eye opener and an eye opener to see and to experience this, because you are a stranger.

Cleveland Watkiss.  Photo: Monika Jakubowska
Cleveland Watkiss. Photo: Monika Jakubowska

An influential figure in British music and winner of the 2021 Ivors Composer Award for Innovation, Cleveland Watkiss’ impact is felt across many genres. In jazz, he is known as the co-founder of the popular big band Jazz Warriors, as well as for his work with pianist and composer Julian Joseph and as a respected solo artist, performing regularly at leading venues in the UK and abroad.

As a vocalist and drum and bass MC, he became the voice of Goldie’s Metalheadz label parties, a relationship that would lead to residencies at some of the world’s top dance music events – not to mention his work alongside from American battery innovator Marque “the innamost”. Gilmore and cutting master DJ La Rouge, as a key member of the first live drum and bass band, Project 23.

Cleveland has also collaborated with well-known music industry personalities including Stevie Wonder, Nigel Kennedy, Sly & Robbie, Robbie Williams, Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra, Joe Cocker, The Who, George Martin, Lisa Stansfield, Courtney Pine , Maxi Priest, Soul II Soul and Bjork.

[Read more: US ‘outsider’ Annie Dressner to play adopted hometown of Cambridge, Classical pianist Alexis Ffrench to address Wolfson College, Cambridge]

He finds it difficult to say which of these couples he liked the most. “They were all memorable in different ways,” he says, “I feel so honored and privileged to work with such an array of musicians and artists from all different genres – it’s all been invaluable to me.

“But yeah, I guess being in the studio with Stevie Wonder as he finished composing a song was just… I’m still slapping myself, like it really happened? I remember when the record was on the point out, queuing outside Virgin Megastore, when I found out when the album was coming out, and I remember going into the store, grabbing the album, ripping off the cover and I saw my name here.

“I was like, ‘OK, I can stop slapping myself now, it really happened – here’s the proof!'”

Cleveland Watkiss will appear at Cambridge Junction (J2) next Thursday (September 22). For tickets, visit junction.co.uk. To learn more about Cleveland, visit clevelandwatkiss.co.uk.


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