Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.
Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.
The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.
(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)
Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.
Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…
This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.
Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.
“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.
We come with our culture to enlighten the world…