The story of a reggae landmark

By David Katz (Originally published in Beat magazine, Vol. 15, #1 (1996)

Heart Of The CongosSince its initial release in Jamaica in 1977, the Congos' debut album Heart Of The Congos has never diminished in popularity.

The impact of its initial pre-release pressing was such that it would eventually surface in many different forms in several different nations. This myriad of different pressings has led to much confusion surrounding the different presentations of the album. Along with an examination of the album's content, this article seeks to alleviate some of the confusion by tracing the various pressings of the disc and to highlight the differences and similarities of each. I hope this will clarify exactly what has been issued and make plain precisely what is currently available.

Several elements combined to make this an exceptional album still favoured today by roots music fans around the globe. First, there are the songwriting talents of Cedric Myton and Roy Johnson, the founding members of the group. Cedric particularly imparts a visionary quality to his words, painting a musical canvas of everything to the life of the "Fisherman" and the "Congoman" to the "Solid Foundation" of Rastafari versus the hypocritical "Wrong Thing" of destructive Christianity. Roy manages to make use of religious allegory in a way that is never stale or ordinary, be it in his vision of "Sodom and Gomorrow," the 30 pieces of silver that "sold Jah Rasta" on "La La Bam Bam" or the deliciously obscure "Noah Sugar Pan" eulogized on "Ark Of The Covenant."

When I spoke to Cedric recently by telephone, he told me that he met Roy through contact with people like the producer Leggo Beast and the top ranking DJ Big Youth. The duo's vocal partnership formed the perfect vehicle for their interesting lyrics. Cedric's falsetto raises the songs to higher heights, and his seasoned delivery reminds us that his singing career stretches from the days of rock steady (when he was a member of the Tartans) to the roots era (when he contributed to some of the Royal Rasses' most memorable works). Roy, who had been active with Nyahbinghi groups like Ras Michael's Sons of Negus and the Rightful Brothers (formed by a repeater drum player called Brother Joe) has a strong tenor that provides a fitting contrast to Cedric's upper tones.

On the album, a fuller vocal chorus was provided by the great harmonizing of the Meditations, with additional input from Gregory Isaacs and Full Experience vocal trio member Candy McKenzie. Also present was the baritone anchor of future full-time Congos member Watty Burnett (AKA "King Burnett"), of whom Cedric says "It's only 'Fisherman' he did work on. After that album we consider Watty Burnett, and we work with him on the second album, Congo Ashanti ." Cedric also pointed out that his wife Yvonne co-wrote some of the songs on the album: "I really should endorse my wife for some of the works that we put together. At that time, her name not even mentioned, but on Heart of the Congos , she did some of the work... She's a writer; both of us work together."

"There was a great feeling between all of the musicians."

Then there are the players of instruments. At the core, Mikey Boo and Sly provide the beat, peppered by plenty of percussion from Scully; melodic yet surprisingly intense bass lines from Boris Gardner; atmospheric organ from the late great Winston Wright; macka piano from "Fat Keith" Sterling; sparse rhythm guitar from Robert "Billy" Johnson; and typically expressive lead guitar from true veteran axe man Ernest Ranglin. Other noted session men appear on some tracks, including the multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Chung and his brother, Mikey "Mao" Chung. The crew members on this musical ship were among the top players of the day, providing a textured backing for the Congos' vocal dynamism and lyrical spirituality. Cedric recalls there was "a great feeling itself, between all the musicians. It was a great experience for me myself, for even after doing the lead vocals, I go back and do background vocals too... It's just a whole vibration."

The final necessary element in the creation of the work was the man who could pull all the other elements together, to get the music into a form where it would make an impact on the outside world. This man, of course, was none other than the Black Ark skipper himself, Lee "Scratch" Perry. When the album was recorded, Scratch was approaching what many believe to be his artistic apex. Refining his easily identifiable and unequalled Black Ark vibe, Scratch was delving further into the realm of sound with then unknown applications of Echoplex and phasing, dropping sounds and rhythms in and out of the mix, and adding spontaneous bursts of his own Africa inspired percussion.

The location of the Congos under Scratch's guidance at the Ark produced not only what is arguably the best music of their career, but also a disc that is possibly the most interesting Scratch-produced album of a vocal group. As Blood and Fire head honcho Steve Barrow notes, "Heart Of The Congos is, together with Bob Marley and the Wallers' Natty Dread , Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey , and the Mighty Diamonds' Right Time , a definitive statement of Jamaican vocal group artistry. It is exemplary roots music of the highest order. It is also the most perfectly realized album to come from Lee Perry's Black Ark."

"Heart Of The Congos is the most perfectly realized album to come from Lee Perry's Black Ark."

Cedric says he first met Scratch in the late '60s, sometime after the demise of the Tartans. "I know Scratch from longer time, even before he hook up with Bob (Marley), and all of that, from the Downbeat days. We used to work at the Studio One studio, pay our money and make songs, me and Devon Russell, working on our own material. Those songs never been released... (Perry) used to be one of Coxsone's men, he used to be around Coxsone those days. We meet all over still, for Jamaica is a small place. When you're in the music business, you only have so many places to go." After forming the Congos, Cedric says he and Roy planned to do an album. "Then I really check Perry, and we all go in and check Perry together."

"You know, Perry have a little thing about him, musically, as a musical scientist. Upsetter, he really is a very powerful musician, he have a feel for producing. He was still nice, but he was stern when he was doing his work. If it would take him the whole day, he's going to finish the work."

I asked Cedric about some particulars regarding the recording of the songs, beginning with the first song, which had to be recorded twice. "That was 'Fisherman'. The first day... I think we could get a better vibe. We catch ourselves, talk about it, and we kids out some musicians, but that was an experience in itself. It was about what was happening in my life at that time, like you see [the lyrics]: 'Three kids on the floor,' there was three kids sleeping on the floor at that time, 'and another one' was on the way 'to make four'. So it was my own insert, a personal thing. And at that time, we were living in the 'seaport town', the old harbour. It's like a picture painting." Cedric remembers how the next song, "Congoman", uses a different bass. "That bass was played by Winston Wright. When we was in the studio, I'm not quite sure of Boris [Gardiner] was there, but Scratch say 'Winston, I prefer you to play this bass.' He put a lot of influence in the work. I think we did six songs that day, that song steal the show."

One of the most moving songs for me is "Solid Foundation", so I asked Cedric about the inspiration for it. "'Solid Foundation' was the first song that was ever written in that period. Getting back into the groove, for after Tartans and after certain period I take a break. It's a spiritual song, telling about His Majesty, 'living in a solid foundation, for no matter what the people of the world might say, I and I holding on to Jah, solid as a rock.' It's the foundation of our faith."

"I am a Rastaman, so I deal with strictly the Rasta Culture, strictly the African culture."

I also asked Cedric about the images of Africa that are so prevalent throughout this album and the work of the Congos in general. "I am a culture just deals with cultural music. And I am a Rastaman, so I deal with strictly the culture, strictly the Rasta culture, strictly the African culture. I portray that it in my music as a major key, spiritually, musically, physically, culturally. My whole family: my children, my kids, my wife, brethrens, everybody, we just live the culture way."

When I asked Cedric how he feels he can maintain a link to a place he has not physically reached yet, he said "These things is an inward born conception. Our main thing is repatriation, we have to think of going back to Africa, and a centralization movement. Right now, we're in the motion of organizing the centralization of the unification of all the Rasta people, not only in America, but universally, right over the world."

Continue to part two »

August 2006