The Congos' unique reggae sound featured Cedric Myton's high falsetto and Roy "Ashanti" Johnson's rich tenor; both men had gentle voices and sang songs whose lyrics were deeply imbedded in their Rastafarian beliefs. They are known mainly for one record, Heart of the Congos, originally released in 1977 and reissued in 1996. The group broke up in 1980 and both men have since pursued other musical careers.
Cedric Myton grew up in St. Catherine, Jamaica, where he was raised by his grandmother. When he was about 16, he moved to Kingston, where he lived with his parents in Cockburn Pen. He learned welding, but disliked it because he often burned his hands while working. He had always liked to sing, so in 1964 he quit that job and joined with a friend, Devon Russell, to form a group called the Tartans. They recorded a single titled "People Gonna Dance All Night," and it did very well. They wanted to record it at the well-known Studio One, but had a dispute with the owner about how they should perform the song, so they left and recorded it with Federal. After recording another song with Treasure Isle, the pair broke up.
In the meantime, Myton had become a Rastafarian. He formed the Royal Rasses with Prince Lincoln Thompson and two other men, who were nicknamed "Johnny Cool" and "Cat." They recorded an album, Humanity, for an independent label. Thompson then left the group and went solo; because he was the main songwriter, this resulted in the group's demise.
Johnson was born in Hanover, Jamaica, and grew up singing spirituals at home. As a young man, he joined the group Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. He also attended school with Roy Perry, who many years later would produce the group's most important record, Heart of the Congos.
The two men met by chance in 1977 and formed the Congos along with Watty Burnett. Johnson played the guitar, and Burnett, a baritone, provided extra vocal harmony. Their first album, Heart of the Congos, released in 1977, was later described by All Music Guide as "one of the best roots records of all time." However, at the time, the record was turned down by the Island label, and received only limited release in Jamaica when it was produced by the Black Ark label. Almost two decades passed before the recording began to receive the recognition it deserved. In 1996 Blood and Fire reissued the album. In Reggaetrain.com, a reviewer quoted reggae historian Steve Barrow, who thought the album was as good as "seminal reggae recordings such as Bob Marley and the Wailers' Natty Dread, Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey, and the Mighty Diamonds' Right Time." On Othermusic.com, a review of Heart of the Congos noted, "Cedric's soaring falsetto could send chills up your spine, while Ashanti Roy kept it grounded." The reviewer also wrote that the group's "power comes from their strong self-empowering lyrics bringing Rasta beliefs into a social context through simple words and engaging metaphors." In the New York Times, Ann Powers wrote that the album's "unearthly harmonies and graceful, drifting grooves served a message of moral righteousness leading to godly rapture, distilling the blend of haze and heavenly fire that is the emotional essence of Rastafarianism."
In the Austin-American Statesman, Joe Gross noted, "When you find near-perfection on your very first album, it's kind of hard to move past." The group evidently did find it hard to keep their energy going, because they would last only a few more years before breaking up. In 1978 the Congos released Congo Ashanti, and followed this with Image of Africa. After this third album, in 1980 Johnson left the group, due to a dispute over royalties from a song titled "Don't Blame It on I."
Myton then toured with Burnett and another man, Lindbergh "Prep" Lewis, in a group also called the Congos. Johnson embarked on a solo career, taking the name Congo Ashanti Roy.
In 2001 tragedy struck Myton's family when his son, Izekiel, was killed by police in Atlanta, Georgia. The police reported that there had been a shootout between Izekiel and an off-duty officer, yet according to Myton's wife, Yvonne, in Reggae-vibes.com, no gun was found on Izekiel. The dispute apparently started as an argument over a cell phone, which erupted between Izekiel and an officer who was working as a security guard at a mall. After a scuffle, Izekiel pushed the guard to the ground and ran, and the guard then shot and killed him. He was 21. The tragedy deeply affected Myton, who was touring in Europe at the time.
After this loss, Myton, who had been living in the United States, returned to Jamaica and Studio One to record some new songs. It was the first time he had entered the studio since a dispute with its owner, Jackie Mittoo, back in the 1960s, but this time he was welcomed by the studio's new head, Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. At the same time, he reunited with Johnson, and the two hoped to work together in the future. This planned reunion did not pan out, as the two were unable to reconcile their longstanding differences.
In 2003, Johnson founded his own recording studio, Lion's Den, in St. Catherine. The studio recorded a mix of both old and new acts, and had eight singles that were almost ready to be released by 2004. He and Myton continued to talk about getting together again, but it was uncertain whether this would actually happen. Myton, like Johnson, believes his music and its Rastafarian message is still relevant; he told a reporter from the Jamaica Observer, "The world has not changed since I started out in this business. The same message is still relevant because it is the same people who went to River Jordan and turned back."
Heart of the Congos, Black Ark, 1977; reissued, Blood and Fire, 1996.
Congo Ashanti, Black Ark, 1978.
Image of Africa, Black Ark, 1979.
For the Record …
Members include Roy Johnson (born in 1947 in Hanover, Jamaica), singer; Cedric Myton (born in 1947 in St. Catherine, Jamaica), singer.
Group formed in Jamaica, 1977; released Heart of the Congos, 1977; Congo Ashanti, 1978; Image of Africa, 1979.
Addresses: Office—Cedric Myton, Congo Productions, Fishkill, NY 12524. Agent—AO Management, P.O. Box 231547, Sacramento, CA 95823.
Austin-American Statesman, December 14, 2000, p. 6.
"Ashanti Roy Aims to Reunite Congos," Jamaica Observer, http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/ (February 20, 2006).
"Cedric Myton," Jamaica Observer, http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/ (February 20, 2006).
"The Congos," Othermusic.com, http://www.othermusic.com/2004february18update.html
"The Congos," Reggaetrain.com, http://www.reggaetrain.com/biocongos.asp (February 20, 2006).
"Heart of the Congos," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 20, 2006).
"Sad News from the Congos Camp," Reggae-vibes, http://www.reggae-vibes.com/news111201.htm (February 20, 2006).
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