Heart of the Congos was a seminal reggae album, highly influential but relatively neglected in the UK. Originally released in 1977, it is a classic ‘lost’ album of reggae, unavailable for almost twenty years. Notable for the distinctive production of Lee Perry, his trademark sound and dub production values are present throughout. Since its reappearance in the 1990s on CD, Heart of the Congos has continued to enjoy a cult status as a landmark album. Is this reputation justified?
The strength of the album lies in three factors: Lee Perry’s considerable influence over the instrumentation and the sound; the quality of the songs; and the unusual vocal style of the Congos themselves. They were essentially a vocal duo, their songs driven along by the voices of Cedric Myton (falsetto) and ‘Ashanti’ Roy Johnson (tenor), with backing from Perry’s Upsetters lineup of the time, in a who’s who of reggae musicians: Gregory Isaacs, the Meditations, members of the Heptones, Watty Burnett, Boris Gardner, Ernest Ranglin and Sly Dunbar. Given all this, it is puzzling that the album has been a footnote rather than a headline in the various histories of reggae. Partly it could be that the brand of reggae on offer didn’t correspond with the commercial priorities of the time, but the main reason seems to lie in contractual issues arising from Lee Perry’s dispute with Island Records. The album thus became unavailable until it reappeared in the mid 1990s.
The themes of the songs are dramatic, conjuring up strong biblical and apocalyptic images associated with Rastafarian religion. The vocal sound is complemented by a deep electric bass, dub-leaning production, and crystal- clear vocals mixed toward the front. Recorded at Perry’s Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica, the original album had ten tracks. It begins with the milestone song Fisherman, its religious theme hung upon a standout Perry production. This is followed by the drums and chants of Congoman, and the distant muddy Perry production of Open Up the Gate, reminiscent of Perry’s productions with Junior Murvin (Police and Thieves) from the same period. Children Crying is classic vocal harmony from Myton and Johnson, augmented by what sounds suspiciously like a loose cow in the studio. The Congos’ religious themes are upfront again in Sodom and Gomorrow, while The Wrong Thing is melodic reggae with typical Perry phasing and percussion in the background. Ark of the Covenant, alluding both to the spiritual themes of the music and to the studio, keeps up the pressure as the album nears its end.
The remastered and reengineered double CD version of Heart of the Congos adds two extra tracks to the original album, one of which – Nicodemus – develops, at over seven minutes long, into an instrumental version with drums up front in a dub style, completing the album even more convincingly than in its original configuration. The second CD provides another five tracks of dub and alternative versions of the original songs. If the dubs of Fisherman and Ark of the Covenant (originally 7” b-sides) are programmed to follow their vocal tracks you have the best insight into what the Congos were about, together with some of Lee Perry’s best ever productions.
As for what happened next, several further albums were recorded by Myton under the Congos’ name. Subsequent personnel and backing musicians variously included Myton’s daughter, Isheba, and the legendary Rico. Not all albums managed to get releases in the UK, and the Congos never had the commercial success of their better known reggae brethren. As a vocalist, Myton has been long respected, and had the opportunity (which he declined) to join the Beat – the key British ska and reggae band of the late 1970s and 1980s – around the time of their transition into Fine Young Cannibals.
Meanwhile, Heart of the Congos can still be enjoyed as an example of when deep roots music meets an idiosyncratic but brilliant producer: it hasn’t happened quite the same since then.