Band of the Week: The Congos

Resident sound-nerd thumbs through reams of musty vinyl so you don’t have to. Here are his weekly recommendations…

#14: The Congos

Who: Cedric Myton, Roydel ‘Ashanti’ Johnson, Watty Burnett.

When: 1970’s-1980’s.

Where: Jamaica.

Why: Lee’ Scratch’ Perry is without doubt the quintessential reggae and dub producer, as frequently worshipped by blunt-addled slackers in dingy basements as by sonic professors in The Wire magazine. One of his most critically lauded yet strangely underappreciated projects was his awe-inspiring production job on otherwise unremarkable roots reggae primitivists The Congos’ 1977 record Heart of the Congos. Cedric Myton had begun his singing career in rocksteady pop group The Tartans, while his partner in rhyme Roy Johnson originally leant his gospel-honed voice in Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. Conglomerating as The Congos, and having collaborated with key players such as Sly Dunbar, they enlisted the help of Johnson’s schoolmate Perry to add his green-fingered magic touch to the atmospheres of their first LP.

Heart of the Congos still stands as the possible apex of Lee Perry’s production genius, despite being recorded on archaic four-track equipment that leant towards a sizzling live sound. The be-dreadlocked wizard of dub weaves a mystical spell over the records’ grooves, adding Watty Burnett to the line-up, a regular session vocalist and guitarist at Perry’s Black Ark Studio, who that year would also lend tones to Bob Marley’s masterpiece ‘Exodus’. This new element brought the now-trio a new level of spiritual harmony; Myton’s keeling falsetto, Johnson’s sturdy tenor and Burnett’s sensual baritone faultlessly seaming together to produce an elemental vocal sound that soars above Perry’s madcap experimentalism, which included cymbal crashes drawn out to reverberating breaking point, and samples of cows mooing (which unsurprisingly, as with all Lee’s ridiculous ideas, works brilliantly).

The production is aquatic, submerged in repeating echoes and weighty drum and bass, offsetting the sublime Rastafarian chants and 60’s soul harmonies that stretch for the shore. Perry’s surf of phase-shifted tape noise and heavily treated clanging cowbells that crash like waves ensure that the vocals never overpower the studio weirdness. But there’s an clarity to the melodies despite the fug of ganja-smoke, with soon-to-be-famed backing singers like dear departed Gregory Isaacs adding to the fervent atmosphere with their half-buried moans. Overall, Rastafarian poetics have never seemed so psychedelic; this band created a world of spiritual meaning and soaked it in acid, its mammoth, hazy tones still bringing on a lethargically lysergic feeling. Bizarrely enough, despite the game-changing sounds that proliferate on the LP, Island Records passed on it, and it only became widely available when Blood and Fire reissued it in 1996. Since then its legend has grown exponentially, and The Congos have rightly taken their place in reggae history; merely on the reputation of their debut divine masterwork.

Influences: The Wailers, Burning Spear, Desmond Dekker, John Holt, Slim Smith.

Influenced: Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Gregory Isaacs, Mad Professor, Scientist.

Sample Lyric: ‘Quaju Peg the collie man / Ha the best collie weed in town’.

Which Record: Heart of the Congos (Black Art, 1977)