HEART OF THE CONGOS is together with Bob Marley and the Wailers’ NATTY DREAD, Burning Spear’s MARCUS GARVEY, and the Mighty Diamonds’ THE RIGHT TIME, a defining statement of Jamaican vocal group artistry in the 70’s.
© Liner notes Heart Of The Congos reissue released by Blood And Fire, 1996
The liner notes seen above are part of the first real (compact-disc) reissue of Heart Of The Congos. Although the statement is rather firm, it is completely true. It is a fantastic album, produced by production genius Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Nowadays Lee “Scratch” Perry isn’t primarily associated with genius, but rather to outer-world eccentricity. However, as Heart Of The Congos clearly shows, he was a very prolific producer. And, contrary to his normal modus operandi, for this album he evaded his shortcomings. Perry respected The Congos and their sound and worked for The Congos (instead of the other way around), something that even Perry’s fans were highly amazed about.
Recorded between 1976 and 1977, Heart Of The Congos resembles everything Perry had in mind with roots reggae. The Congos came to Perry as a duo: Cedric Myton (falset) and Roy Johnson (tenor). Perry added Watty Burnett (bariton) and that created a beautiful combination of voices. And it connected to the traditional Jamaican way of three-harmony singing. Perry’s mission was to give reggae a deeply spiritual feel. With these very convinced Rastafarian singers he succeeded perfectly. Every lyric is rooted in righteousness, resulting in the ultimate roots reggae album.
Perry was helped by a phenomenal group of session musicians and background singers. Besides the great songs and performances, musical and vocal perfection, it’s Perry’s production that elevates the album to extreme highs.
The first release, in 1977, of the LP was a very limited one, only consisting of a couple of hundred copies. When Perry sent the master-tapes to (recordlabel) Island, the label refused to release the album. The reason why is unclear. The story goes that the bad state of the master-tapes was one of the causes.
Since then the history of (re)releases is kind of hazy, causing growing frustration of the artists, producer and public . All in all, the album was barely available. Perry, frustrated that his masterpiece was ignored, stole back the master-tapes.
There is talk about a conspiracy to promote Bob Marley at the cost of lesser known artists.
Blood And Fire reissue 1996
When in 1996 (after nearly 20 years!) the English label Blood And Fire finally released the album, relief was big and the album was met with great enthusiasm. It went on to be one of the best-selling releases of the, reggae oriented, label.
The remaster was compiled with a lot of attention and contains additional songs. The sound is very clear, which is truly amazing, considering the state of the master-tapes 20 years on.
A reissue as it should sound. Absolutely essential!
The original album contained the following songs:
- Open up the Gate
- Children Crying
- La La Bam-Bam
- Can’t Come In
- Sodom and Gomorrow
- The Wrong Thing
- Ark of the Covenant
- Solid Foundation
Black Ark Studio
The Black Ark was the recording studio of reggae and dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. It was built in 1973 and was located at the back of the house where he and his family lived. It was Jamaica’s hotspot (from 1975 to 1979) where the most innovating sounds and recording techniques were applied.
The studio was simple and anything but state-of-the-art. It had a 4-track recorder, despite 16-tracks being the norm at the time. But, he did make productions where many listened (and still listen) to with amazement and awe. Perry was known for his eccentric and superstitious behaviour during recording sessions. He blessed his equipment regularly or blew ganja (marihuana) smoke over the tape while recording, buried (unprotected) tapes in his yard and used candles and incense that corroded his equipment. It is said he sprinkled liquids like urine, blood and whiskey over the tapes to enhance its spiritual properties.
Many important Jamaican artists were produced by Perry at the Black Ark Studio: Bob Marley And The Wailers, Junior Murvin, Max Romeo, Mighty Diamonds, The Heptones, Augustus Pablo and The Congos.
The end of Black Ark
In 1979, after years of Perry becoming more and more erratic, he wrote non-readable texts all over the walls, after which he, according to himself, burnt his own studio to the ground. Afterwards Perry often said he wanted to destroy Black Ark because of `impure ghosts´. It’s possible this refers to unwanted people who were often present in the studio. Rumor has it that Perry was blackmailed by local gangsters.
Black Ark is tightly connected to Perry’s legacy. It was in use for just a short period of time, but the impact it had on reggae was immeasurable. One of the last phenomenal albums coming from the studio turned out to be the fantastic Heart Of The Congos. A masterpiece.
Do you know this album? What do you think about it? Let me know!
Lee “Scratch” Perry in Black Ark Studios: merchantstavern.co.uk
The Congos 1977: demonoid.pw
The Congos – Heart Of The Congos: newburycomics.com
The Congos – Heart Of The Congos – reissue: allmusic.com
Black Ark Studio: jamaicaobserver.com