The Congos

Wednesday, June 21; La Onda

Even though the Congos who are performing at La Onda tonight (!) include only one of the two vocalists who recorded under the name in mid-'70s Jamaica, the magic of their landmark release is so strong and inspiring that disciples of it jump at any chance to wax poetic. The record's nearly 25 years old but sounds timeless. The Heart of the Congos is the record, and it stands so majestic and transcendent that it leaves even the most outspoken loudmouths speechless (at least for a little while) and manages to capture from start to finish absolute beauty, to hold within its grasp some luminescent truth. Even if reggae's not your thang, the record is a pinnacle, one that leaves in the dirt such piddly concerns as genre and taste.

You can hear its genius in the gorgeous falsetto of Cedric Myton and the harmonies of fellow vocalist Roydel "Ashanti" Johnson. It's in every weird sound that appears on the tape, every spooky, half-speed baby cry and tape-fizzle rhythm; it's in the head of producer Lee "Scratch" Perry and, as anyone up on the history of reggae understands, it was in every particle of oxygen that ever traveled through Perry's much-lauded Black Ark Studios in Kingston.

The Heart of the Congos was originally recorded in 1976 and '77 and released later in 1977. That it never broke through with an American audience lapping up Marley, Tosh and Cliff records around that time is a damned shame, because it would have been nice to reward the Congos and Scratch for their work. But that kind of shit happens all the time, and the reggae world's no exception. Records disappear and get lost, and The Heart of the Congos did. But justice usually prevails in such instances, and in 1995, excellent British reggae label Blood & Fire gave the record the star treatment, added a bonus disc of extras and B-sides and packaged it all exquisitely.

With lyrics as simple and understated as the best haiku, Myton and Johnson capture universal truth with a handful of words and a whole field of emotion: "Fire, lightning, thunder a go' burn you no matter where you hide. You can't hide from the wrong you've done," Myton sings in a natural and empathetic falsetto, as Perry and his Upsetters pour forth a smooth-as-opium rhythm of bells and clang-and-clutter percussion and a fluid rasta beat drips from the speakers.

The album chugs along like a perfectly tuned muscle car as the Congos, seated in the back, ride smoothly along. The duo of Myton and Johnson split shortly after the record's release, and both continue to record under some variation of the Congos' name. Of course, the resident genius at the helm of Heart was Lee Perry, and he's not gigging with the Congos at La Onda -- he's in some sort of Scandinavian exile. Nor will Johnson be present, leaving the success of this show in question. But if Myton has retained anything at all of the melting tone deep inside the record, it'll be worth your time and more.

 
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