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The story of a reggae landmark

By David Katz
(Originally published in Beat magazine, Vol. 15, #1 (1996)

In terms of the actual release of the work, it is worth noting that this album has already been pressed at least seven different times on vinyl, and twice more on CD. With the exception of one vinyl re-press and one CD re-press, each pressing is somewhat different from the rest. I want to emphasize that the first pressing is very different from the others in that it has a totally different mix; all subsequent pressings use a second, alternate mix. It should also be noted that most of the different pressings vary in length.

The first pressing with the unique mix appeared in limited number in 1977 on the Jamaican Black Art label. The jacket of this original issue has blue stripes framing the photo on the front, whereas all others have black stripes. It also has a number of typographical errors on the back cover: organ is credited to Winston Riley instead of Winston Wright, and Keith Sterling is listed as Keith Stewart. The disc's actual label, which is cream-colored with black lettering, lists the album as Heart Of The Congo Man by "The Congoes" (the matrix number is LP 4049). For those who have heard only one mix of this album, the difference between this original mix and all later ones is quite startling. Perhaps the easiest thing to spot in the original mix is the absence of the mooing cow on "Children Crying" and "Ark of the Covenant." The piano is also much higher in the mix throughout, and the presentation of vocals and percussion is different from later versions, particularly on "Open Up The Gate," where some prominent bells can be heard. There is not much delay on the vocals or phasing of the keyboards, and a section of "Congoman" sounds like it has a tape fault or rough edit left in the mix. The total running time of the songs (excluding gaps) is just under 46 minutes.

In early 1978, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me at present, Perry pressed the album a second time on his Black Art label, this time with a completely different mix. When I asked Cedric about this, he said "Perry did more than one mix, Perry did that on all the songs. That was just a tradition." Perhaps Perry thought that the original mix could be improved upon, or maybe the original mix-down had been lost. Whatever the case, this mix is clearly different from the first. The piano is far fainter; the vocals, keyboards and guitar are bathed in excessive doses of delay; some songs roll on into extended dub mixes; and manic percussion and cow sounds had been added. The total running time of this second pressing is just over 53 minutes. This pressing would form a kind of blueprint for all subsequent pressings, although most would be shortened, and some would have differences of timbre and pitch (probably just due to being mastered on different machines, but possibly augmented through studio post-production techniques).

Scratch said that the song "Evil Tongues" had been directed at the Congos.

Sometime around the pressing of this second disc, the Congos and Perry had a falling out. When interviewed by David Rodigan on Capital Radio in London a while later, Scratch said that the song "Evil Tongues" (from his great Roast Fish Collie Weed And Cornbread album) had been directed at the Congos. It is hard to know if he wrote the song specifically about the group, or if he was just being flippant with this remark, but he said "The song based upon the Congos, their attitude - dreadlocks - what you call it? Vampires. Sorcerers. People who keep or hold blessed people and nature's work to ransom."

Of course, the Congos were not the first to be denounced by Perry, nor were they the first to be dissatisfied with Scratch's business ethics. Cedric now has nothing but praise for Scratch, and seems to hold no grudge against him. "We owe him a lot, he really did a great work... It's not a matter of friction. At the time, Perry was going into at different dimension, or direction, in other words. Certain things used to come up on him that maybe he can't control; spiritually, he was going in a different direction."

When they parted company with Perry, the Congos quickly issued their own pressing of the album on their newly formed Congo Ashanty label. To ensure that the ball of confusion surrounding the disc would roll with greater momentum, some copies of the Congo Ashanty pressing surfaced in Black Art record sleeves, seeming to be identical to the second Black Art press. Although it uses the same mix as the second Black Art issue, the Congo Ashanty pressing is by far the shortest version of the album even pressed, with a total running time of about 34 minutes. "Fisherman" is the only song left close to its full length; all the others fade out early. Side two gets particularly short shrift, with songs such as "Sodom and Gomorrow" being bumped down to half their previous lengths. Sound quality is also particularly rough on this pressing, so those who have this pressing only may feel they have missed a lot.

A version of the album was also pressed in France in 1979 on the Jah Live label, with most songs longer than the Congo Ashanty and imprint, but still not quite as long as on the second Black Art pressing. The back cover of the French issue featured the lyrics to all the songs, plus the information that "Congoman" is "dedicated to the Black Nation," while "The Wrong Thing" is "dedicated to the Pope of Rome." Although the sleeve's claim that "This album contains the original and never released mixings of Heart of the Congos" was not strictly accurate, it is worth noting that "Solid Foundation" was longer than on previous issues, clocking in at close to the five-minute mark. The pressing also seems to emphasize the treble end of the spectrum, particularly on side two. The disc's total running time is just under 44 minutes. In 1981, a pressing appeared in England on the Go Feet label with a total time of about 41 minutes. Still shorter than the first Jamaican and French editions, but longer than the Congo Ashanty, this pressing has a more even quality of sound.

At some point, the album appeared again in Jamaica on the Sunfire label, basically identical to the second Black Art pressing. When I asked Cedric about this edition, he said "I don't know nothing about that. There was a lot of piracy involved, mainly by Pauline (Morrison, Scratch's Jamaican wife). We'll catch them all one day."

It has been said that Cedric and Roy had some differences themselves in the early '80s with supposed allegations of obeah dealings being flung at each other. Whatever the case, Roy left the group to pursue a solo career as Congo Ashanty Roy, and the Congos eventually ceased to be active. When I asked Cedric about Roy's departure, all he would say was "That was the time that Roy have to go. These things do happen in life sometimes, like when the wine get ripe." Throughout the '80s, not much was heard of the Congos in general, although many of us hoped that the group might consider a reformation. As the '90s rolled around, VP records in the US issued Heart Of The Congos on CD. Although it uses the same standard second mix, it was mastered at a faster tempo than than previous editions. It clocks in at around 43 and a half minutes. Heart Of The Congos has also surfaced on a CD on the Spalax label in France, identical to the Jah Live vinyl pressing, something Cedric said he was not aware of.

Blood and Fire have gone back to the master tapes to present a Heart of the Congos that is longer, cleaner and brighter than it has ever sounded before.

Whether or not you've already managed to obtain a copy of this album, there is now some good news for us all. After making arrangements with Cedric and Roy earlier this year, Blood and Fire have gone back to the master tapes to present a repackaged Heart of the Congos that is longer, cleaner and brighter than it has ever sounded before. The songs have been restored to the full potential lengths as heard on the second Black Art pressing, and "Solid Foundation" here appears longer than on any previous album pressing, just under six minutes. They have also spent considerable time and effort cleaning up the sound. To hear the Blood and Fire pressing is to hear the album with new ears. As Cedric puts it, "This one that Blood and Fire have is the real deal."

Along with this full-length enhanced version of the disc (over 55 minutes long), Blood and Fire have added the rare 12" Upsetter Disco Cork mix of "Nicodemus," (a chilling composition from "Jah Sedrick" also taken from an original master tape), plus the often-sought but long-scarce Biblical epic "At The Feast" (an extra 11 minutes of music). All this is available on CD and double-gatefold LP, but vinyl junkies, take note: The CD release includes a bonus CD of rare Perry-produced material, namely the Island 12" versions of "Congo Man" and its dub, "Congo Man Chant" (again taken from master tapes), plus 7" dub cuts of "Fisherman" and "Ark of the Covenant," and the Disco Cork extended version of "Solid Foundation" thrown in for good measure (a total bonus of 26 minutes).

The best thing about the bonus CD is that it highlights Scratch's exceptional skills of remixing. Scratch can always show other sides of songs we may think we know inside out. Scratch's ability to transform vocal lines into mantric stabs of wordless sound is stunning on these versions, particularly on "Congoman Chant" and on the dub portion of "Solid Foundation."

As usual, the packaging is lavish, thanks to the conceptual artistry of Mat Cook at Intro, which particularly pleased Cedric. "There's a lot of work that has gone into that, spiritual work. Things that I wasn't even thinking of, Blood and Fire come right up, at the surface. Some artwork that Blood and Fire dig up really untouchable." The biographical and technical research put into the project was also extensive, further illuminated by quotes from Cedric to put the making of the music in its proper context. In short, this is what we have come to expect from Blood and Fire: rare, quality material, sanctioned by the artists who receive their share of the profits, lovingly presented in creative packaging.

The positive footnote with which I will end is that Cedric says he has reformed the Congos, with himself, Watty Burnett and his old spar Lindburgh Lewis (who also was a member of the Tartans). "We've done about three shows, most of them is charity. The first one was just I and Watty, for the MTV Unplugged, about four months ago, with the 809 Band." I asked Cedric how he would feel about Roy also rejoining the band. Again, his reply was brief: "If Roy have to come, if it's so, it will be so. I can't make any fight, if it have to be so, it will be so."

On a more certain note, Cedric also said he is about to release some new material, some of it recorded with the original Wailers band. "A new album that is finished, produced by me and my wife, recorded in Jamaica and New York, at Tuff Gong and Blue Mountain. We have the original Wailers doing about three tracks on this album, both Family Man, and I think that was the last of Carlton Barrett. We're going to put out a single, 'Seeking A Favor', off of that album. The album is I Believe In Music." Hence, beside the Blood and Fire re-press of the Congos' classic debut, we now have new material to look forward to as well. The return of Cedric Myton and the Congos marks a happy day for roots music - long may they reign.

Thanks to Steve Barrow and Bob Harding of Blood and Fire, Ray Hurford, Micke Tsiparis, and Glen Lockley of Distant Drums for assistance and information.

August 2006