Like many genres of music, Reggae has become a shadow of what it once was. What happens in modern music is; things get absorbed into the larger global community, and the regional, ethnic and artistic beauty gets squeezed out of styles of music as the form becomes what everyone can universally recognize as “pop.” Once upon a time though, Reggae was a force of musical, social and spiritual strength for many and it was also a totally unique style and culture. It reached its popular and artistic zenith in the late 60’s through the late 70’s and some of the greatest recordings of the era came from producer Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio. Perry, an eccentric genius with extremely singular views on sound (think Phil Spector in a cloud of ganja smoke), created albums that are sonically dense and powerful. His ability to manage layers of drum sounds that dance around a mind-crushing, rock-steady bass line is unmistakable. Perry helped guide the careers and helped sculpt the sound of many important figures in Reggae - no more so than Bob Marley - but I believe he found his ultimate foil and created his supreme masterpiece when The Congos entered Black Ark in 1976 to create what might be the greatest of all Reggae albums. Yes, I know that is quite a claim. But Heart Of The Congos has simply got it all and unfolds with such a singular aural palette that it remains without peer.
Begin with the vocals. In the tradition of The Mighty Diamonds, Culture or The Heptones, The Congos are a vocal group (Cedric Myton and Roy ‘Ashanti’ Johnson) with a distinct edge. Cedric Myton has the most glorious, hypnotic, mesmerizing falsetto voice this side of Aaron Neville. His voice soars above the music staying a true representation of the simple yet profound Rasta lyrics. His vocal blend with Johnson seems so effortless and has such a soothing effect it actually works as an advertisement for Rasta beliefs. Listening to songs like “Solid Foundation” or the indescribable Lee Perry tour-de-force “Ark Of The Covenant” makes one yearn for the moral clarity and “ital” lifestyle hinted at. Perhaps the most defining quality about the album is Lee Perry’s groundbreaking production style. Piling tracks upon each other to create a “wall of sound” effect, he takes great care to keep the vocals perfectly floating above the mix; pure and clean, everything in the production reinforces the beauty of the voices and the lyrics. How rare - an album in harmony with itself. Perry also brought a who’s who of Reggae greats to back the singers: from guitar genius Ernest Ranglin to vocalists Earl Morgan, The Meditations and Gregory Isaacs to Sly Dunbar on bass, it is a Reggae all-star team from the golden era.
The overall effect is spellbinding from start to finish. It took over a year to create this album, originally released in 1977, and the craft shows in every cut. Perry’s methods occasionally caused hiss, echo and reverb to become their own force, but like Exile On Main Street, Blonde on Blonde or Sgt. Pepper’s the mix is in some ways the star of the show. Through the blending of The Congos’ raw vocal talent and lyrical purity with Perry’s mad genius and a once-in-a-lifetime conglomeration of players, Heart Of The Congos creates one of the essential albums to own, Reggae or otherwise. Many of the songs are definitive representations of what Reggae should be. “La la bam-bam” is a joyous exercise in melodic and lyric simplicity, “At The Feast” draws back the curtain to the Rasta lifestyle and states with clarity and poetry the mindset promised. The album builds its own momentum, each track acting as supplication for the ears, a bass-heavy balm for the modern world, because like most great music, these songs seem to tap into a primal state of mankind’s evolution. It is the soundtrack to an evolutionary step forward, or backward, or upward.
In a few short years, The Congos would split up, Marley would die, Tosh would be executed, and in many ways the momentum started to seep out of the music like a wisp of smoke from the chalice. There are many great Reggae albums from the classic era, but very few have the magical ambience and superlative musical qualities that pour forth from every second of Heart Of The Congos.
- Paul Epstein