A group of California musicians tap into the heart and sound of The Congos’ Jamaica.
It’s Christmastime in Jamaica, but the red and white Santa decorations dotting the store windows are overwhelmed by orange and green campaign posters for the upcoming 2011 general election. Right outside the music mecca and capital of Kingston, lies the modest town of Portmore. There, tucked behind a cluster of unpaved streets in the Gregory Park neighborhood is an enormous metal gate with “DI CONGOS H.Q.” painted on it. For the last three decades, roots reggae group The Congos have been steadily building their physical and spiritual home here, and what lies beyond this barrier is much more than a house with a music studio on a walled plot of land shaded by enormous trees. This is a Rasta place. Neighbors call it the lion’s den. Friends drop by hoping to jam or simply share conversation over roast breadfruit or coconut or spliff. Outside, acrid smoke rises lazily from the trash fire (garbage collection is non-existent here), and extravagantly-colored hummingbirds dart frenetically in the warm air; the quiet of this Sunday morning is broken only by the tinny notes of “Fisherman,” the Congos most famous song, squeezed into a ringtone. Roydel Johnson, aka Ashanti Roy, a powerfully-built, dreadlocked man in his mid-sixties, retrieves the phone from some hidden pocket and answers: “Fire Burn!” Roy sits on a rough-hewn bench, directly across from a huge mural painted on the side of his house. It depicts the Last Supper, except Jesus Christ has been replaced by Haile Selassie dressed in full Ethiopian regalia, and there are 13 disciples instead of 12, among them Malcolm X, Paul Bogle, Bob Marley, two women, Roy and his son. There’s a Bible and a watermelon (partially eaten) and a bong, which, here, is called a chalice because herb is sacred and before you smoke it, you should give thanks to Jah. When Lee “Scratch” Perry recorded The Congos on his Black Ark 4-track back in 1977, producing their seminal record, The Heart of the Congos, he may have got that heart on tape, but its spirit is renewed daily between the people in this yard.
In January 2011, Los Angeles-based musicians Cameron Stallones and M. Geddes Gengras came to The Congos’ compound in the hopes of capturing a piece of that spirit. The process began months earlier, when RVNG label boss Matt Werth invited Sun Araw (Stallones’ solo project) to participate in his Frkwys sub-label, which is dedicated to pairing young artists with influential musicians from an older generation. The Congos were proposed, and the band accepted. Stallones, in turn, asked musician and studio engineer Gengras to join in on the project. It was the first time in Jamaica for both of them, but Stallones and Gengras did little in the way of tourism on that trip, breaking only for sleep and leaving the lion’s den only to fuel up at Drummerman’s ital food shack around the corner. Now, a few days before Christmas, they return with the bounty of that epic one-week recording, and a rough cut of the footage filmmakers Tony Lowe and Sam Fleischner shot during those sessions. Back then the question on everyone’s mind had been: What are we making? Now, closing out the year, they’re faced with its existence. The songs on the resulting record, Icon Give Thank, form a challenging, beautiful document of a week of intense work. And now Stallones, Gengras, along with Werth, Lowe and Fleischner reunite with The Congos on this lazy Sunday afternoon to reckon their creation, but first, they’ll have a taste of the Jamaica they missed the first time around.
The Rae Town weekly street dance has been dedicated to oldies since it started back in 1982. Even around midnight, before things really heat up, the Sunday night scene is popping. Dapper grandparents dressed to the nines sway to songs that were young when they were. Mohawked twenty-something ladies strut fearlessly. “Yuh badda den dem?” a man with no prospects asks a 200-pound woman in skin-tight clothes. “Yeah, I’m badda den dem!” Rudeboys on motorcycles preen up and down the street, until the crowd on either side of the road swells into a single mass. Food vendors spread outward from the Capricorn Inn, the dance’s epicenter, serving jerk chicken, fish tea, goat skin soup. They could raise their prices but don’t, and this seems to be part of the Rae Town vibe. This is Kingston’s longest running dance, and it is famously, specifically cool—cool like the Heptones sang “Rasta Cool” in ’76, cool like the Wailers on “Old Grey Whistle Test” in ’73. The DJs revisit soul hits, songs that tend to populate the AM dial stateside. But here, everything is shifted. The main melody line sits in the background, the sweet vocals are in the middle, and right up front, rumbling the body, is the bassline’s sturdy, propulsive bounce.