The Congos and Friends: Fisherman Style

The Congos and Friends
Fisherman Style
Blood and Fire

It's a given among latter-day roots-reggae fans that 1977's Heart of the Congos, the Lee Perry-produced debut of Cedric Myton and Roydel Johnson's vocal duo the Congos, is one of the essential albums of its era. But Heart barely existed in its time: Island Records, which in the late '70s had first pick of Perry's output, passed on the album, and it was issued by small labels (including those owned by Perry, the Congos, and the English Beat) to little notice apart from hardcore reggae aficionados. It took until 1996, when U.K. roots-reissue label Blood and Fire put out a definitive edition, for the album to take its place in the pantheon.

It's taken an extra decade for the Congos to realize that it might be a good idea to "version" (lay new vocals over) the spongy, Upsetters-played backing track of Heart's best song, the hypnotic "Fisherman." This is somewhat odd, considering that "Fisherman" is one of those cuts you wouldn't mind hearing go on a lot longer than it does, and that the entire Jamaican record industry is built on recycled rhythm tracks. (Perry himself was especially mercenary in this regard.)

So call the two-CD Fisherman Style making up for lost time: 22 new reworkings of the tune's rhythm (with subtle production tweaks by German dub maestros Rhythm & Sound) book-ended by the Congos' vocal and Upsetters' instrumental originals. Divided roughly into veterans' and newcomers' discs, the entire thing works splendidly, with even the post-digital likes of Al Pancho, Ricky Chaplin, and Early One sounding like they're netting minnows in the swamp. The old timers have a slight advantage here, particularly Freddie McGregor, whose "Man Should Know" reworks the original tune's melody with lyrics that make explicit the Rastafarianism of the subtly hymnal "Fisherman" lyric. But he doesn't sound like he's hectoring—and in truth, the groove bubbles so seductively he'd probably sound great even if he did.