Portraits of Greats: Cleveland Watkiss

Cleveland Watkiss is on stage. He’s standing with a mic in his hand. Beside him is a mic stand with an effects unit attached to it with which he will loop and effect his voice. There’s another mic clipped in the stand. He’s dressed in black.

Balanced. Relaxed. Focussed.

Cleveland is about to sing. Tonight he is in Colwyn Bay, in an occassional room upstairs above a bar. It’s the first Music beats and Flow session. He’s here at the invite of the Colwyn Bay based arts activist Ali Carter who is producing the event. There are about 40 people in the audience, which, for Colwyn Bay, on a Sunday, at an alternative music event is, as all us locals agree, amazing. The room is silent. All eyes are on Cleveland Watkiss. There is a sense of grace around him in this moment. Attentive. Listening. Alert. He’s poised on the breath before the song and no one, not even Cleveland himself, knows what it’s going to sound like. This is freedom. Extemporaneous performance in it’s purest sense. The actualisation of time through shared human experience: improvisation as the highest form of art.

A few moments before, Cleveland said – Martin, you wanna come do something? And now, I’m up here on the stage standing alongside him, the latest in a decades long and illustrious line of people whose voices have blended with Cleveland’s; I’m here with Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Who, Wynton Marsarlis, Robbie Williams, Bjork, Courtney Pine, Lisa Stansfield and now, at the end of the long, long line, me, mic in hand, being treated with same collaborative spirit and gentle generosity as all those other stars that have passed this place next to him. I’m inside the music now. Looking across at one of the UK’s greatest vocalists. Waiting for him to sing. Trusting that the words will come to me. Trusting he will be my guide.

Cleveland begins to sing a rhythmic melody.


                                                                Doon Doon

                      Deh                           Doo

Doon Doon             Doon Doon

I hear Africa. Sun. Earth. Mothers and Children. Laughter. Water.

From somewhere inside myself I hear the words Teach Me.

I hear them in my head, in my mouth, in the mic, in the music, in the room.


                                                              Doon Doon

                     Deh      teach me          Doo      teach me to Speak

Doon Doon         Doon Doon

Improvisation is the highest form of art

CW: I got that from Daniel Barenboim. He’s a famous conductor and pianist – from Israel, I think – I saw a video of a lecture, or maybe it was on the radio, and Julian Joseph was there, and he asked a question about Jazz improvisation. And Daniel Barenboim replied “improvisation is the highest form of art.” And of course it is. To come up with something in the moment, you’re composing in the moment, and to come up with something that connects with people, that has all the elements of great music; it has rhythm, it has harmony, it has a message, it’s got powerful content, and you’re coming up with that in the moment, that requires great skill. Whether you’re a rapper, or you play saxophone, or you’re a speaker, it’s irrespective. If you really think about improvisation in it’s purest form. It’s actually what we do second to second. It informs everything we do. It’s what we do right now. If we had a beat going and I’m just talking like I’m talking then it’s all rhythm, it’s all vibration it’s all sound, it’s all creativity, it’s all music. I’ve sent you a video. It’s a Daniel Barenboim lecture. Check out the answer to the first question. His answer is so profound. He goes straight to the core of the matter when he starts about music and it’s effect, and society and the way music is deprogrammed in schools. I think the kids that got that answer where so lucky to get that answer.

                                                          speak my heart speak                                                          Deh

Inside myself I hear your heart beat                                    Doon Doon

                       Deh                                   Doo

Doon Doon             Doon Doon                    teach me to feel it

                                                                                                                                                                          I will listen

The Music was always the Orator, the Sage, the Griot

When I was about 14 I was in a record shop and I saw this record with a tribal African and a spear on it, and they were playing it in the shop, and I bought this record. And that’s how I learnt about my history: from Winston Rodney and Burning Spear. So yet again music is the educator for a lot of us in understanding what is going on in our time. The music was always the orator, the sage, the Griot. For me politics is life. I can’t separate music and politics. For me its one and the same thing. When I listened to Winston Rodney singing as a 14 year old kid, to me that’s everything; music is life, is politics, its what’s going down. When I’m singing a love song, to me it’s still politics. That’s why I say again that’s it’s all politics.

We’re going through a crazy period again in the UK with this Govt. With Theresa May coming out the other day saying that if you consider yourself a citizen of the world your nowhere, it just sounds fascist, man. You know I think, where have we really moved?

Whatever they’re doing right now in the houses of commons it all affects all of us. Were all part of it. Whether we want to believe it or not we’re all in this society. Everything that they do, everything they say, everything we do, everything we say – it’s all politics. It all effects all of us. I don’t necessarily think of it in too negative a way, it’s like, as a society, we’re still learning to be human.

I can’t be free unless everybody else is free

How can I talk about freedom if other people are in chains?

                                                         my heart felt me                                                        Deh

teach me to myself                                               Doon Doon

                     Deh                              Doo            makes me more than I am

Doon Doon           Doon Doon

I feel that Jamaica’s neck is still under the noose of the Empire. But out of that is coming all this great art, and fashion as well. It’s amazing how powerful and influential that little island is. Take Marcus Garvey. What he was talking about is still unprecedented. He was talking about Black people in the West being self sufficient in every form. And a lot of the artists and musicians were big followers of Marcus Garvey. He was really about uplifting Black People. About Black people taking pride amongst all the brutalisation that was going on in the system he was coming out saying this is where you’re from, this is your history, this is who you are, you’re Kings and Queens. Black history doesn’t start with Slavery.

I think from a historical and documented sense, it’s unspoken in a lot of ways, how influential the Caribbean has been on Jazz. When the music left Africa the first stop was the Caribbean before it got to New Orleans, but stuff wasn’t recorded then because it wasn’t that age. But we know that a whole lot of stuff was going on, like they weren’t allowed their drums.

There’s a certain energy

in that little island

that ricocheted across the planet

Duke Ellington’s Orchestra was made up essentially of Caribbeans. They called it the Jungle Sound. mid-twenties bands. That real kind of brassy, rip roaring, throaty sounds that a lot of those musicians had (he sings a raw wah heavy trumpet lick). Ellington speaks a lot about that connection and gives a lot of props to that connection.

The foundations of the roots of Hip Hop come from Jamaica. Kool Herc was a Jamaican and he took the idea of the Sound System to New York. They skate over that a bit. The whole idea of the street party, of the sound clash, that came from Jamaica, you know the mic man, the toaster, the rapper; Iroy, Uroy.

Is it to do with the crossing? Remember, the first stop was there. An important element of what was birthed was the synthesis of Africa meets West. We in the UK have a different take on it because of our background. People coming from the Afro-Caribbean community are bringing a whole different mix to the sound.


                                                                                              Doon Doon

                            Deh                                                         Doo                             Deh

Doon Doon my heart felt me Doon Doon               teach me to myself

my heartfelt me makes me more than myself              Doon Doon

                     Deh                      Doo                           I hear myself through you

Doon Doon         Doon Doon   my voice speaks true             you teach me to speak

Cleveland Watkiss and Martin Daws at Music, Beats and Flow Oct 2016

Cleveland Watkiss Album “Diaspora Songs” is released 26/10/16

fiurther info www.clevelandwatkiss.net




Rules for Explaining the N-Word to White Children

I’ve just parked the car. Mike’s in the passenger seat next to me. G’s in the back. We’re talking about how one of Mike’s peers has been getting into some trouble selling weed and I’m interested to know his take on it. He comes up clean and I believe him when he says he’s not interested. Then G chips in that he’s not a usual teenager. I take the cue and sing – he’s not your average tee-eenager, in a very poor pastiche of Jeru the Damaja’s “Average Nigga”. No suprise, no-one gets the joke.

  • That just doesn’t go into a song, Dad.
  • It doesn’t sound right.

  • Well, actually, what I was singing, I copied from a song. (Feeling a bit nervous now, I press on) It goes – I’m not your average ni-igga / No, I’m not your average nigga. It’s by a rapper called Jeru the Damaja. I just changed the words round.

Silence. Then, inevitably, G asks

  • What’s a nigger?

  • It’s a rude word used by racists to describe a Black person.

  • So… what’s the name of the rapper?

  • Jeru the Damaja

  • So, Jeru the Damaja, he’s a racist?

  • No. He’s Black.

  • So Black people can’t be racist?

  • Ahh. Hmm. That’s an interesting point, but let’s get this nigger thing straight first. Nigger is a word invented by White people to put Black people down. It’s a word that was made up by racists to describe Black people in a bad way. But some African American people, Black people in America, have taken it on and started using it to describe themselves. Sort of like we might use fella, or, when I was a kid, people use to call each other geezer.

  • So, Black people in America are being racist to each other?

  • Err. (sigh) I don’t know. Maybe. But the point is, they can use the word if they want, because it’s descriptive of them, but we can’t use it, because people might think we’re being racist. It’s really tightly controlled. White people are terrified of using it in case people think they’re being racist. White people won’t even say it to speak about it. They call it the N-Word.

Silence. I go on.

  • Some Black people think that the way other Black people use the word is wrong. That it’s always a bad word. Full stop. I heard the rapper Chuck D say that he thought Black people should stop using it. But then other Black people think it’s alright. There was a film out a few years ago, directed by a White man, set in the past, over two hundred years ago, and it had loads of White people calling Black people niggers. One of the actors, a really famous Black man called Samuel L. Jackson, did an interview promoting the film with a White interviewer and the interviewer questioned him about how the film uses the N-Word so much, and Samuel L. Jackson jumps on it straight away and starts demanding the interviewer use the word nigger instead of saying the N-Word. The White dude’s mortified. Samuel L’s shouting at him – Say the word! Say the word or the interview’s over! Ha. I have to laugh, (shaking head) but it’s… uncomfortable.

  • So do you use it?

  • Jesus no! If I need to mention it I call it the N-Word.

  • But you’ve just said Nigger to us.

  • What? Only in this conversation cuz you asked me what it was. Look. We’re family and we can be open with each other because we understand the context. But, If it comes up in a conversation and you need to talk about it, call it the N-Word. That’s what you should do. And, if you hear a White person using it to describe a Black person, then understand that they’re being racist. And you should tell them you don’t like it.

Mike’s been listening all this time.

  • You’re not your average geezer, Dad.

  • Ha. No. I’m not your average Gee-eezer / I’m not your average Geezer.

boy racer theme

He would always regret doing it, but also secretly admire himself for being so crazy. I mean, if he’d controlled himself a few seconds more he might have been able to predict the consequences – 30 mph is a lot quicker than it seems, especially when it comes to a sudden

he hit the brakes as hard as he could wrenching the car jolting whiplashed to a stop and BANG hollow heavy glass flying everywhere and the cars like mutant robot bulls died fucking.

He rehearsed his story.

‘The kid, did you see him? He ran out into the road’.

Leave a comment below or post your 99 word fiction on the boy racer theme.