Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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LARRY McDONALD: Talk about roots

Larry McDonald
Larry McDonald Larry McDonald Larry McDonald Larry McDonald BUY NOW

Pete Lewis speaks to Jamaican master percussionist Larry McDonald, who this year crowns a trailblazing 50-year career with - incredibly - his first-ever solo album ‘Drumquestra’.

Steered by seasoned reggae producer Sidney Mills, ‘Drumquestra’ - boasting a unique orchestra that unites several generations of Jamaican drummers - triumphantly reflects Mc Donald’s own diverse percussion explorations; creating a personal and mystical dancefloor excursion that encompasses 16 songs drawing only on percussion, drums and the human voice.

With many of its featured guests also being long-time friends - including dub poet Mutabaruka; plus veteran reggae vocalists Toots Hibbert, Stranger Cole and Bob Andy - its all-encompassing soundscape (which additionally includes contemporary input from dancefloor hypeman Dollarman plus rapper/deejay Shaza) reflects the diversity of Larry’s five decades in the game. Which early on saw him playing on seminal Sixties Jamaican recordings from the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bob Marley and Toots & The Maytals. While - following his move to the USA in late 1973 - later found him working with Seventies pop starlet Jackie De Shannon; plus bona fide black music icons like revolutionary poet Gil Scott-Heron; blues/roots giant Taj Mahal; and Cameroon saxman Manu Dibango.

Blessed with a warmly infectious sense of humour and speaking from his New York home, a deep-voiced and forthcoming Mr. McDonald - whose pioneering work is widely credited with helping spread Afro-Caribbean music around the world - gives ‘B&S’ the lowdown.

What was the thinking behind your long-overdue debut album?

“After you’ve had a career as long as I have, you get to pick up all kinds of influences. Plus you have a lotta time to think about what you’d do if you ever get the chance to make your own album. And what I DID want was to give a summation of what I’d been doing all this time that I’d been sitting behind the drums! I wanted to go from my earliest influences - the drum music I used to hear growing up in Port Maria - and take it through influences I’ve had along the way, like jazz and be-bop, right up to TODAY’s music. So I gave my producer Sidney Mills a very free hand, because I knew him as a kid coming up and knew he was already familiar with the fact that you can bring anything to the table with me and it’ll get serious consideration. And the music is very drum-centric. Like the first day in the studio, all we had were eight drummers - including two drummers from The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari and Sly Dunbar - and the whole album was basically built on all the rhythms that we played that day.”

What’s the story behind the sacramental track ‘Backyard Business’, where you interestingly hook up with a kumina drumming group from Jamaica’s mystic St. Thomas area?

“Because my producer Sidney Mills is from St. Thomas and knew these guys - Bongo Shem & The New Creators - we went down there to hear them. First we stayed outside the yard listening to them play and - because we’d wanted to get some night noise on the record - we just set the microphones up, left them open for a few hours, and collected all those sounds you hear on there like the crickets, the ocean and the river. Then, at nine o’clock in the morning, we met up with Bongo Shem. You know, these guys are serious, SERIOUS players - and I’d always wanted to see what it would be like if I brought what I have to the table and put it with what THEY do, without trying to destroy or distort it. So we all set up in Sidney’s cousin’s back yard with two microphones and a Mac, and just played together - and that’s literally all it WAS! Then we took it all back to The States, put a Brazilian percussionist - Marivaldo Dos Santos - on top of it, and then got this guy from The Ivory Coast - Joe Black - to sing on the track in his own language.”

Equally interestingly, a couple of tracks feature organic recordings of you playing rocks in Runaway Bay’s Green Grotto Caves on Jamaica’s North Coast…

“I’m from that side of the island. And, early in my career, I was actually playing at The Runaway Bay Hotel for the first two years it was in operation. There were these caves there that were called ‘Runaway Caves’ at the time, though today - with it now being so touristified - they’re called ‘Green Grotto’. And what I discovered back then was that, while walking down to the lake that was 140 feet underground, you’d pass these two rocks which, when you hit them, sounded like a gong! So it was in my mind for like pretty close to 40 years that, if I ever did a record of my own, I wanted that sound on it! So, when I told my album’s Executive Producer - Malik Al Nasir - that that’s what I wanted to do, I think that’s actually what sold him on going to Jamaica! He was like ‘This sounds pretty insane to me - I have to hear it!’! So, we went down into the caves, recorded it… And actually the introductory section at the beginning of ‘Mento in 3’ is purely me playing me playing those rocks. Plus we also mixed it in on ‘World Party’.”

How did you actually start out playing drums and percussion?

“Where I grew up it was really country, and I was very much into the Jonkonnu (street parade) music. To tell you the truth, I was really scared of the costumes - but the drums themselves just wouldn’t let me BE! For some reason they just kinda had a HOLD on me. So, to cut a long story short, I ended up moving to Kingston and ran into this guy - who was dating my sister - who had a drum but couldn’t play! So I took it, and that’s when I actually started playing - though at first I was playing blind and didn’t know what I was doing! I mean, the first time I actually saw a Latin band play, I almost wet myself! Because I realised that what I’d been trying to play on ONE drum was being played by a congo player, a bongo player, a timbale player, a maracas player... You know, I’d just been listening to the thing as a WHOLE, and not the components that went INTO it!”

So how did you come to develop your own style?

“My very first public performance was one Christmas morning. I took the drum out to the corner, started playing some Jonkonnu rhythms… And like in NO time the intersection was full of people! That was the first time I actually realised that playing drums could actually DO stuff to people. And from then on, the more I got INTO it, the more of it I WANTED! But, at the same time, I still didn’t have anyone to TEACH me - until I went to Nassau in The Bahamas and met Danny ‘Big Black’ Ray. If you’ve seen ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, he’s the conga-player who was playing in Ali’s camp in the film - plus he’d also done stuff with people like Dizzie Gillespie. So I was like ‘Man, how do I make it so you know it’s me when you hear me playing?’… And he was like ‘Think of it like a piano, where you mostly hold chords with your left hand and do your fancy stuff with your right… Which meant I had to turn the drum around from the way most conga players play. So I started doing that, keeping it basic with my left hand and doing more intricate stuff with my right... And from there I never looked back!”

The single ‘Head Over Heels - featuring Dollarman’ is out now. The album ‘Drumquestra’ follows June 1, both through MCPR Music

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