Congo Ashanti Roy Interview
Roydel Shanty Johnson (pka Congo Ashanti Roy) was born in 1943 in Kendal, Hanover Parish, Jamaica. He attended Kendal School along with the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, whose mothers were also good friends. At the age of sixteen he moved to Kingston to live with an aunt. Thereafter he began hanging around recording studios, where he was taught guitar by the virtuoso Ernest Ranglin.
He became a committed Rastafarian in 1966, in the immediate wake of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica. Being a family man, Johnson always provided for his 8 children: Marie, Christopher, Miriam, Tamara, Negus, Coretta, Garette and Queeny. In 1977 he met up with Perry again. After hearing Johnson play the immortal ‘Row Fisherman Row’, Perry invited him to his Black Ark studio to record the song. Johnson arrived with Cedric Myton, enabling his tenor to complement Myton’s falsetto and Watty Burnett’s baritone (the latter being a Perry prompted addition to the line up). When the Congos split, Johnson began recording as Congo Ashanti Roy, and worked with Adrian Sherwood on his ‘Singer and Players’ project and Prince Far I (who produced his debut solo album, Sign of the Star in 1980). In the same year, Johnson contributed to Far I’s ‘Showcase inna suitcase’ album. A second Sherwood produced album entitled ‘Level Vibes’ followed in 1984.
SIMPLE SENSATIONS SECURE SHANTY’S SPIRIT
In 2003, Johnson moved into production and set up his own Lion’s Den recording studio in Portmore, Jamaica, together with his own Koto Koto Music label. In 2006 the Congos announced plans to re-unite and tour the world. Since then they have toured the world non-stop, securing headline status at the world famous Glastonbury festival in England in 2013. In 2009 The Congos met Belgian drummer Bregt ‘Braithe’ De Boever and made plans for an album on ‘The Lost Ark Music’ label. Thereafter ‘We Nah Give Up’ was released on limited edition vinyl. In 2012 Roydel Johnson returned to Belgium to record a new solo album with Pura Vida entitled ‘Hard Road’.
In the course of the Congos 2013 European tour, Johnson took time to reflect on life for the benefit of readers of Reggae Vibes.
Would you like to start by getting anything ‘off your chest?
Well all I have to say is that I Congo ‘Ashanti’ Roy is from the original group the Congos and am very happy to be on tour in Europe again, having just finished a great show in Ireland – and that’s it. I love the people of Ireland and Europe.
Where does the name ‘Congo Ashanti’ come from?
Well the Jamaican people have always called me Congo Ashanti Roy – the ‘Ashanti’ part comes from Ghana, Africa and I picked that as my tribal name.
What has been your greatest achievement in music?
Oh! I would have to say ‘Heart of the Congos’ (i.e. the classic roots reggae album produced by Lee’Scratch’Perry at his Black Ark studio in 1977). Also there is the’Image of Africa’album with Cedric from 1979, which was produced by CBS in France, along with the ‘Congo Ashanti’ album which was also produced by CBS France in the same year.
What has been your greatest disappointment in music?
Well I couldn’t say we ever had a disappointment that was ‘great’. Unfortunately we did split up for a while as you know and I stayed back in Jamaica then and I built my home there. The rest of the Congos – Cedric and Watty – went to live in America. We didn’t have no quarrel or no dispute. It was only that I decided to stay in Jamaica and the rest of the guys decided to hit America. So we broke off for a little bit. But now we’re back together for about 8 years and we’re doing great – touring and recording.
Who has had the greatest musical influence on you?
In reggae, I would have to say Bob Marley. There is also Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, the Mighty Diamonds and of course the Abyssinians – those are great guys. Of course ‘Black Uhuru’ are there in the package too! I like all those groups very much.
Any musical projects going on you’d like to tell us about?
Yes, I’ve got an interesting project now going with some guys in Belgium. They’re a production company – the Lost Ark Music – and their label has just released our new album called ‘Hard Road’ by myself and Pura Vida, after they had released our work called ‘We Nah Give Up’ in double album format. The link happened in 2009 when we met Bregt ‘Braithe’ De Boever and plans were made to do an album on that label. From that, in 2011 ‘We Nah Give Up’ was released on limited edition vinyl – a real roots sound. Then last year I came to Belgium again to record a solo album with Pura Vida and we did a nice little tour. And we’re continuing to work together, with 10 tracks for a new album done already. We plan to give it the name ‘Step By Step’. The fans can find all that music through the internet.
Who is your favourite reggae artist?
Well there’s a lot of them – but Bob Marley and the Burning Spear top the list. I’ve liked Ken Boothe since I was a little youth when I would dance to his music in the rocksteady days. I also love Alton Ellis – he’s a great singer. And also there’s Ernest Ranglin as a guitarist, Boris Gardiner and Winston Wright the keyboard player, Sly Dunbar as my drummer, Robbie Shakespeare as the bass player and Gladstone Anderson is a great piano player. To be truthful, we have a lot of great musicians in Jamaica – so that’s my ‘dream team’.
When travelling with you in Ireland and the UK, I was struck by your reverence toward Mr. Perry. Tell us about the relationship?
Yes, myself and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry go back a long time. We were born in the same district in Kendal, in the parish of Hanover, Jamaica. We went to the same school and we played marbles together and we ram or play together from when we were little boys. I would describe Scratch as an icon – yes, I can say nothing less to describe him, he’s a very great man. I rate him – all that I possess in life came through or because of him. Yes, he break me out in this music business, so I have to give thanks for him.
When the ‘Heart of the Congos’ album was completed, did you realise what you were dealing with?
Well, to be truthful we didn’t expect that the ‘Heart of the Congos’ would be such a great album. We were just working away. We were very young and that was our first album as the Congos. Both ourselves – Cedric, Watty and myself – and Scratch put a lot of work into it. We were just hoping for the best and it came out to be one of the best. We wouldn’t have thought it would be so big. And just this year the Rolling Stone magazine put it in their Top 100 album debut list at No. 82. They said it’s probably the most psychedelic and spiritually potent roots-reggae set ever made.
What was the best part of the Congos reunion for you in 2006?
Yes, there was a reunion in 2006. The best part of it was going on tour across Europe for the French-based management agency Mediacom and Michel (i.e. Michel Jovanovic, Mediacom’s Managing Director). It went very good you know – so the best part has been working with Mediacom.
Well the hardest part of it I would say is the touring – people don’t see it, but the work on tour is very hard. A lot of people across Europe think that when we come on stage it’s easy, that it’s a bed of roses. But it’s not no bed of roses, it’s hard. We have to travel in the tour bus and often we have to sleep in the tour bus. It’s hard and it’s up and down.
You can cope with the people dynamics?
Yes, we try to do that and get along. At this stage it’s all right with us Congos. We may be ‘big’ men with age, but we’re strong and we train regularly and keep ourselves healthy. And we give thanks to the Almighty for that – for keeping our strength in us.
Do you have a favourite politician?
Well, we are Rasta, so we don’t deal with politics you know. But we know politics is in the music – yes, you have a lot of politics in the music. But as followers of Rasta we just take things one at a time – get up, give thanks and praise to the Almighty, say our prayers and take one day at a time – so no favourite politician.
But I heard you exasperate and sigh when news came through of Mandela’s health?
Yes, well with Nelson Mandela we have to give thanks and praises for dealing with apartheid. And like Mandela, you have to forgive people, for the Father teach us to forgive. Sometimes people take things rash and they don’t realise that they are hurting someone. So we always forgive, but we never forget – as with the white rule in South Africa. So when it’s all bed down, the world knows what happened there with black and white, but what is to be must be.
So no favourite politician – is there a least favourite politician?
Well you can scrub that question too – because we don’t have no ‘least favourite’ one neither – well maybe we do! (Laughs heartily!)
Any view on Zimbabwe today?
Well President Mugabe is trying his thing there now – I don’t know. I think he likes reggae music! My bredren Sizzla Kalonji went down there and Mugabe gave him some present of land. But Mugabe did pass a negative assertion some time ago about all that Jamaican men do is drink and smoke marijuana – it was in the newspapers, and I heard it with my own ears on the news. But I think he apologised for what he said, but the Government in Jamaica responded that he shouldn’t say things like that. Because not everybody in Jamaica drinks and smokes. For example, I don’t drink or smoke marijuana. So what he said wasn’t too nice.
But you’re not a critic of his politics?
No. Well he was one of the men who confronted apartheid in South Africa – and in Zimbabwe, where they got independence a long time ago. I can still give him a little ratings. I still hold him in some esteem. And Bob and the Wailers played in Zimbabwe at the independence ceremony in 1980 – and Mugabe learned from Bob too you know.
Any view on homophobia?
What? Explain it to me (interviewer explains term). I don’t really mix up in those type of stuff you know. I don’t say nothing about those kind of things. I’m a kind of different man from those mediations. I meditate only on those things that Rastafari taught me to meditate on. So for me, ‘a man is just a man and a woman is just a woman’ (Laughs heartily).
You worked at Guantanamo Bay with the US Peace Corps?
Yes, I worked there – with the Americans – for six and a half years. I was a young man in those days and it was an opportunity for we to go foreign. It was my first trip to a foreign country – Guantanamo Bay is in Cuba, and it’s very close to Jamaica. I was there working on the naval base. The Americans treated me very good and I learned a lot from them too – how to behave and not be a bad boy! If I wasn’t there I would maybe be someone different.
Any thoughts on its subsequent use?
Yes, well I saw where it’s used to hold prisoners – in my day we didn’t have no prisoners there, it was just building, as the Americans were building a naval base there.
Outside music, any interests?
Outside music I’m a Rastaman, so we do Nyahbinghi. That is our kind of spiritual service. Outside of reggae music, I’m a Nyahbinghi Rastaman – where we keep the Sabbath and we sometimes chant for 7 days and 7 nights and we burn fire and give thanks and praises to the Almighty, Jah Rastafari, Selassie I. And I like sport very much – from football to cricket – and karate is my thing too!
Do you have any regrets in life?
Not much! No, not much regrets – I still have to give Jah thanks and praise for life you know. I keep myself healthy, I train physically 5 days a week and I rest for 2 days.
Would you change anything?
Well, I can’t change nothing. I’m 70 years of age now – born on April 12th in 1943. So really I give thanks for life. As I told you, I’m strong still – I’d change nothing.
You still live in Jamaica. Forever?
Yes, in Portmore near Kingston’s suburbs. I have my home there now and will stay.
Well, my ambition is really spiritual – feelings for the Nyahbinghi order – giving thanks and praise every day for life. And I’ve got my own studio and home – where we (the Congos) meditate and make music. I want to keep making music – better and better every day.
Are you happy?
Yes, I am happy. I am now with my long-time bredren in this here room – bredren, the Congos’ drummer, Winston Jones and fellow-vocalist Kenroy Ffyffe. I’ve always been happy – I make myself happy. Prayers do it, praying makes me feel happy. You get up in the morning and you say thanks for the day. I wake up to see a new day and a new sunlight – give thanks to the Almighty for that – that vibes make you feel happy.
How do you look so young at 70 years of age?
Early to bed! When I’m not touring I go to my bed at 7 o’clock in the afternoon Jamaican time. I watch the news at 7 o’clock from my bed and I don’t come out of my house until the following day. So it’s bedtime at 7 o’clock and I rise at 4 o’clock and then I go to the hill to do about 3 miles of hill walking, to exercise, keep strong and stay in shape. And I eat good food too. I like to give thanks for everything, including this interview.