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Interview: Daweh Congo

Interview: Daweh Congo

Interview: Daweh Congo

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"The sooner we learn to be able to live together in harmony, it's going to be the better for world affairs"


On Sunday 25th September Camden's folkloric Dingwalls club was rammed. The tiny Dingwalls stage was rammed too as Prince Alla shared a bill with old producer Tappa Zukie backed by the fullsome arrangements of the Well Bless band. In an exemplary display of cross-capital solidarity London's reggae community turned out in force for the occasion - including industry giants such as Bunny Lee, Niney, Dr Alimantado, Little Roy, Mikey Brooks, Dennis Alcapone, Afrikan Simba, Nereus Joseph, Prince Malachi, and many more. Jah Youth had strung up their sound and Asher G played a niche roots selection before the show. But just as important a draw was the first marquee live appearance in London by the smoky roots chanter Daweh Congo. Angus Taylor caught up with him at the soundcheck to discuss his works...

Daweh Congo

Is this your first time playing London?

Yes although I did a cameo one time. I don't remember where it was. I went there and the people said they didn't bring any rhythms, but I had one rhythm because at the time I was doing a song. I was doing a song called Fi Years (sings) "Fi years an years, we been trying for years an years" and the crowd went wild and then they said "We want more!" and the was no rhythm track! So what I did was, someone shouted in the audience "Love is real!". That was from my first album Militancy from 1996. So I just did that a cappella (sings) "Woman of my dreams, the love I have for you's real, so very real" and the people liked it. I hope they like this one! That was back in 1999, in the summer I think it was. But I was really here to do an album for JetStar in 1999 - Guidance. I came back in 2003 and did an album Health and Strength. Now I'm here to do a full-fledged performance and I'm liking it!

Your last album release was Ghetto Skyline. Tell me about how you decided to work with Swedish producer Jonah Gold.

I actually was booked for a show in Sweden. It was Uppsala music festival, the promoter was Yared Tekeste, an Ethiopian from there. He took me two tracks that Jonah Gold had given him and said "Could you have Daweh listen to these two?" So I listened to them and I was ready when I went there for the performance in 2004 in the summer. So after the performance I went to Stockholm with Jonah Gold and recorded those two. I went back to Jamaica and he sent me loads of tracks, and I just did like 10 more tracks and sent them to him.

What was it about his productions that made you decide you wanted to do an album with him?

Well, his rhythms were really nice. His rhythms are nice and I found out later on that his mixes, he's a good engineer, the voice came through clearly. And, it's a boyhood thing, I've always had a fondness for Europe, or a curiosity about it. I thought it would be nice to do an album with a European production team for a change.

It's a boyhood thing, I've always had a fondness for Europe, or a curiosity about it

Where do you think that curiosity about Europe comes from?

Well, it comes from my whole reading, appetite for reading. I'm an avid reader. I like to read. Although I haven't done a lot of that lately. (laughs)

You're known as quite a lyricist, a deep lyricist. Where do you think that came from?

It came from when I was at school and I was thinking about a career and blah blah, and I thought I could really become a writer. I'd write journalism because I saw, in my mind, journalists were kind of humane. A journalist would go to the frontline, where there was a war going on, just to see that human rights were being preserved. I was thinking "Wow, that's really noble" you know?

But instead fate took you music instead...

What happened, my first job after leaving school was with a journalist who was working on a book called Building and Construction in Jamaica [Tom Graham, 1989] from the 1950s to the 1980s. I was his proof reader, so I went through and corrected grammatical errors and stuff. He used to work with the Gleaner company of Jamaica and he was actually the Building Page Editor. So I had a stint there and he taught me how to type and stuff. He died after the book was written, after the book was completed he died. I tried to get into the army and then I thought "Look, I'm going to be a writer, be a singer" - but a writer first. When I was at school and I was doing my essays the teacher used to read them out to the class as an example of what he or she was looking for. It happened more than once and I thought "Oh my! Well, I can write!"

When I was at school and I was doing my essays the teacher used to read them out to the class as an example of what he or she was looking for

What's your writing process like? Do you write lyrics down? How do you approach what you do?

I like writing stuff down. It makes it easier to preserve it. You might have a thought, a fleeting thought, it sounds really good and you jot it down, right? And you know where you put it. I've made jottings that were resting in the drawer for like five years. Ghetto Skyline, that track is a track that I wrote in 1992! And ended up doing it in 2004! (laughs) 12 years, Ghetto Skyline!

Did a specific incident inspire that song?

Ghetto Skyline came out of my having been raised in the ghetto in Kingston. I remember reading a Time Magazine once and I saw the Los Angeles skyline. Then I thought later on, you know sometimes you've read something somewhere and it just pops back into your mind one time, and I said "Well, Ghetto Skyline..." because the skyline in Los Angeles looks fabulous, you know what I mean? Tall skyscrapers jutting out and stuff, and I thought that ghetto skyline would really look the opposite, there'd be a lot of squalor and stuff. Stacks, shacks maybe. (laughs)

There's a lyrical reference to Berlin in there.

Daweh CongoRight. it's because, as I said back in the Los Angeles skyline there're tall buildings and stuff, so I though "Hey, Berlin must have a skyline too" but I was thinking more in terms of East when there was an East and West Germany. East Berlin, West Berlin. So I was thinking, you know that the western side was more affluent, so since I'm dealing with ghetto skyline and the squalor and the poverty, so I was saying "A fire engine is heading east of Berlin" rather than west.

Obviously your voice has been compared to the voice of Burning Spear in the past. How do you feel about that comparison?

Yeah, well I like it. I quite like it because it is true and Burning Spear is a big influence on my music. Well, first it was Bob Marley because the first time I heard a song on the radio and thought "I really like that song" it was a song from Bob Marley and The Wailers called Natty Dread. I was like "Wow". I was about six or seven years old and I really loved the song. Then there was a song with Ken Boothe (sings) "You sheltered me from harm, kept me warm". I loved that song, it was a pretty song, a very pretty song. Then I heard one day on the radio (sings) "No-one remember old Marcus Garvey" I was like" What is this?" It was really nice. It brought me, in my head I started to see African imagery like masks and stuff just jumping out of the woodwork. Like "Man, this is the Ancients" the song is so ancient I thought about Africa. I was a bit older then, by then I was 14 years old when I heard Burning Spear for the first time.

One day I heard on the radio (sings) "No-one remember old Marcus Garvey" I was like" What is this?"

Have you ever met Burning Spear?

Yes, I met him once. That was magical, man! I went to the studio in Ocho Rios, Irie FM Studios. I was doing my first album at the time. I had seven tracks down already and I used to go back and forth from Kingston to do the recording with Barry O'Hare, the engineer. When I reached the studio he said to me "Spear is here!" I said "What!" I was kind of nervous too I said "Man, I'm going to meet the great professor, Burning Spear man, that's good!" So I was in the lobby and then I got up, I mustered the courage to get up after I'd thought about what I might say to him, so I pushed the door to the studio and there he was sitting in the studio. I said "Rastaman" and he said "Love" and I closed the door and I've savoured the moment ever since! (laughs)

What is your next album project that you're working on?

Well, it's completed. All has to do now is to be mastered and the producer is Jah Youth from Roots Ambassadors, who's promoting the show tonight, and we have 12 riveting tracks. The title though is King of Kings and I'll be doing that one in the show tonight.

You have a long-standing connection with the UK as a supporter of the music.

I love this place, man. I love this place. Jamaica, where I come from, was a former colony of the British and still today is a signatory to the British Commonwealth. I love Britain... I just love people, man. All these wars and these things that have been fought in the past and probably linger on today and maybe will into the future, I just pray that it all ends because when I look around I see people, yes? And your colour makes no difference to me because I've got colour too, and not because you're of a different hue to me it does it make you able to fly, neither does my hue make me able to fly or walk on water or walk in mid-air. We're just human, that's what we are. Human. The sooner we learn to be able to live together in harmony, it's going to be the better for world affairs. God bless.

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