Even by the highly spiritual standards of ’70s reggae, Heart of the Congos is a record drenched in soul. Like most roots reggae, it tells of incalculable pain – the inhuman slavery which dragged ancestors from their homes, the alienation and displacement of the here and now and the brutalising poverty of the ‘sufferahs’, to say nothing of the prejudice faced by those who found themselves in the ‘wrong’ place.
Yet it’s also saturated with hope and redemption, drawn from the deepest and most heartfelt convictions. There are those who are only able to rationalise faith (or, if you will, belief system) by caricaturing it but to do so underestimates its complexity and potency – for those who feel it most sincerely, it means everything.
And the sincerity heard on Heart of the Congos is as profound as it gets. Each of its 10 songs is woven from three elements: lyrics recasting the Bible in a Rastafarian setting, bringing comfort, intercession and grave warning in equal measure; the dizzying harmonies, with Cedric Myton’s stratospheric tenor anchored by Roy Johnson’s steadfast tenor, and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s magisterial production, which paints the haze of a Jamaican summer where spiritual tranquility is being pursued but threat and privation are never far away. Aptly, this particular trinity forms an indivisible whole.
Fisherman, the opener and best-known song, depicts the toil of those whom the “hungry-belly pickney…millions of them” rely upon for survival, to a rhythm which, like most of the album, is brisk but not needlessly hurried. Congoman, meanwhile, sounds like it has the entire population of Kingston on percussion – polyrhythmic doesn’t even begin to cover it – as they yearn for a return to Africa, a theme developed on the following Open Up The Gate, which may well have the most entrancing intro reggae has ever produced.
The scriptural message is as stern as the melodies are solemn on Can’t Come In (“You’ve got to be clean…the door is locked on you”) and on Sodom and Gomorrow (sic), but they’re not averse to punning – you’ll hear the ‘j’ pronounced with relish in “hallelujah” and the invocation “Jah-Jah- judgement come.” I have to admit that I find a couple of the songs tough to listen to because the emotion is so overwhelming – you’d
expect nothing less from a song called Children Crying, while the fear they feel for the pious and the sanctimonious on The Wrong Thing is palpable.
If all this seems too weighty, the downright beauty of the songs triumphs every time, nowhere more so than on the closing Solid Foundation. The harmonies swoop from the highest to the lowest in the space of a few breaths, while the music is the dubbiest and most languid of the whole album – listen to the few seconds at 3:08 where the drums drop out to let Scratch make the sun rise; power has never sounded so gentle.
Heart of the Congos has lived through several cycles. It was patchily available in the UK through the now lost art of import but John Peel was offering access to it by 1978. Three years later, the Beat licensed it to be issued on their Go-Feet label, shamelessly billing it a ‘gold spinner’ for what was even then the bargain price of £2.99 – it was at this time that I got to know it, for free, thanks to my ever-bountiful local library. Although Fisherman – the only song I’d heard previously – suspiciously seemed a minute or so shorter than the version Peel had been playing, I fell hard and fast for the whole thing and it became the unlikely soundtrack to spring in a Glasgow suburb.
In the late ’90s, it received a similarly sensitive reissue on Mick Hucknall’s Blood and Fire imprint, all of which makes it both baffling and irritating that the Congos’ Spotify profile asserts the album was subjected for years to “crappy reissues.”
But this is irrelevant – you could issue Heart of the Congos in chip wrapper festooned with whelks and the strangeness, compassion and outright glory of its music would be undimmed (PG).