Cameron Stallones, M. Geddes Gengras and The Congos: Happy Songs

When Stallones and Gengras arrived in January, the vibes were equally good, but musical compatibility was another issue entirely. Stallones’ challenge was to explain how Sun Araw’s strange musical shapes would fit into the Congos sturdy, ancient sound. As Stallones remembers it, “They said, This is very different. [And I said], Yeah, I know! But I don’t know what else to do. I don’t make songs.” It’s easy to see why the Congos were thrown. Sun Araw tracks begin as improvisational sessions, which then get overdubbed, edited and otherwise transformed. Stallones uses audio to brew swampy spiritual spaces; to think of what he does as songwriting is to miss the point. Stallones and Gengras needed to establish some common ground for the Congos to latch onto, something to explain these lush, shattered soundfields they’d sketched out in LA. After that initial strangeness, the solution turned out to be simple: “It’s chants,” Stallones said. “Think of it as chants.” “Chants? Okay.” And then it clicked.

Orienting the Congos toward the spiritual was an effective entrée to Icon Give Thank. Dreamlike melodies build up from snatches of instrumentation. Near-incidental percussion hits insinuate rhythms more interested in creating space than tempo. Inside that shimmering, shuddering sound float ethereal vocal harmonies. The Congos combine their most blithe lyrics to date with gravitas. Rather than construct each track sequentially, the group would work off one riddim in a flash of inspiration, then move to the next, slowly growing each piece by incorporating vocals and instrumental overdubs in an organic, open-ended way; Gengras even earned the honorary title of Engineer for his facility with the Congos’ equipment. On record, there are no dub reggae clichés of echo or bassline, the LA duo learned well enough from Lee Perry’s use of quiet background clatters and out-sounds how to spook the track with vibe. “They’re coming from a tradition that I have a huge amount of respect for and don’t wanna disrespect,” explains Gengras, an affable guy with round glasses and a full bushy beard. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to make a reggae record. That was first and foremost in our minds—that’s the worst thing we could do.” In the end, the collaboration’s greatest show of respect turned out to be its quietest. On both visits, Roy silently ceded his two best rooms—including the master bedroom—to a bunch of strange white kids half his age who he’d never met. This humility set the tone for all interactions in Congos HQ. Harmony accepts no divas.

On the last afternoon of the visit, Roy and Myton gather around a television with Gengras, Lowe, Fleischner and Werth in their two-room recording studio to screen the album’s companion film, Icon Eye. In the film, images of daily life unspool. An early scene lingers around some guys hanging around the yard. “For the past two minutes I’ve just been seeing legs,” complains Miss Williams, the managerial arm of the Congos. She has a point—it’s a sweet, if mundane moment. Mostly you just see legs. The crowded studio falls silent, and a half-beat before that noiselessness turns awkward, director Lowe, who looks like he could be Stallones’ fraternal twin, speaks up in defense, “It’s an experimental film, I was trying to capture the feeling of being here.” Everyone listens, and they discuss. The Rastafarians call this “reasoning,” and throughout the course of this project, there has been a lot of it. This type of face-to-face exchange holds truer weight than written accounts, and keeps folks steeped in the immediacy of the moment. As the film rolls on, the atmosphere softens. Women and children who live in the compound gather in the doorway to watch, and soon it feels exactly like the Congos are screening a private, home video, pointing out tiny details, laughing as a benevolent camera reframes their everyday lives. In the end, their edits to the film are few: all swears in patois and English must go. They sing spiritual songs, no need for outsiders to catch offhand vulgarity. “‘Fuckery’—that word can stay—it’s so ancient!” cedes Myton after some debate. This light cleansing makes sense, especially when so much care has been taken to express things correctly at home. Images of Afrocentric pride cover the Congos compound inside and out, and every wall’s a black pantheon where men with hair like tree roots metamorphose into lions. No line divides the mundane from the spiritual here, and the film successfully conjures the weirdness of this crash-course creation and how sudden harmony, between voices or sounds or ideas, can make you gasp with beauty.

View on one page
POSTED March 13, 2012 7:00PM IN FEATURES Comments (7) TAGS: , , , , , ,




  1. Pingback: mudd up! » archive » THE CONGOS, SUN ARAW, & M GEDDES GENGRAS » mudd up!

  2. Bryan says:

    Goddamn gorgeous photos.

  3. Pingback: Happy Songs at News

  4. artur says:

    quite a good article…would have been even better if you had gone into the politics of why the congos did this colloboration in first place…i would have liked to know if its was more than just the cash…not being cynical but being jamaican and knowing music biz there..if you have the cash you can get practically any musician in jamaica to colloborate with you ..just reality .. and nothing against this project which sounds nice but no use pretending this reality doesnt exist

  5. Pingback: The Congos & Sun Araw: Himmelska ramsor | Throw me away

  6. Pingback: The Congos & Sun Araw: Himmelska ramsor | Throw me away

  7. Pingback: Icon Give Thank | Thoughts on Everything under the Sun or I am a guilty Secularist