The Congos: ‘Heart of the Congos’
Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark studios was really only in operation for six or seven key years but in that short spell it generated enough heat to last us all a lifetime. It was the epicentre of ground-breaking vibrations at a time when Jamaican music was still moving and shaking the tectonic plates.
Stories of technical limitations are legion as are tales of its proprietor’s eccentricity but like every pudding, the proof is in the eating and pretty much everything served up between 1973 and 1979 has matured with distinction.
This is arguably Perry’s finest hour at the controls. His entire repertoire of smoke and mirrors trickery is on display. He turns tape hiss into a rhythmic device. The drum and the bass distortions are from another dimension. For something made with rudimentary tools the sound design is staggering.
Echo and reverb throw everything in and out of focus. It’s daring in all sorts of ways. What Dziga Vertov did to the movie camera, Scratch did for the recording console. He turned it upside down and inside out to make it work for him in his own way.
In the eye of this sonic hurricane there are harmonies sung so sweetly they may as well have sprung from the fields of sugar cane out back. He pulled a master stroke in convincing the original duo of Cedric Myton and Roy Johnson to enlist a third singer in Watty Burnett. Their respective falsetto, tenor and baritone voices trace a three-lane highway to higher places in perfect unison. And if that wasn’t a hot enough ticket to Babylon, vocal group The Meditations are enlisted to make the journey even more enchanting.
Where the sweetness and light of the vocals meet the heavy dub riddims is the sweet spot. That’s the new territory. The wild frontier. Lee Perry was working from a different map. On roads less-travelled he was the man for directions.