Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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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 âDrumquestraâ.

Steered by seasoned reggae producer Sidney Mills, âDrumquestraâ - boasting a unique orchestra that unites several generations of Jamaican drummers - triumphantly reflects Mc Donaldâs 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 Larryâs five decades in the game. Which early on saw him playing on seminal Sixties Jamaican recordings from the likes of Lee âScratchâ 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 âB&Sâ the lowdown.

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

âAfter youâve 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 youâd do if you ever get the chance to make your own album. And what I DID want was to give a summation of what Iâd been doing all this time that Iâd 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 Iâve had along the way, like jazz and be-bop, right up to TODAYâs 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 itâll 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.â

Whatâs the story behind the sacramental track âBackyard Businessâ, where you interestingly hook up with a kumina drumming group from Jamaicaâs mystic St. Thomas area?

âBecause 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 weâd 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 oâclock in the morning, we met up with Bongo Shem. You know, these guys are serious, SERIOUS players - and Iâd 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 Sidneyâs cousinâs back yard with two microphones and a Mac, and just played together - and thatâs 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.â

Equally interestingly, a couple of tracks feature organic recordings of you playing rocks in Runaway Bayâs Green Grotto Caves on Jamaicaâs North Coastâ¦

âIâm 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 âRunaway Cavesâ at the time, though today - with it now being so touristified - theyâre called âGreen Grottoâ. And what I discovered back then was that, while walking down to the lake that was 140 feet underground, youâd 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 albumâs Executive Producer - Malik Al Nasir - that thatâs what I wanted to do, I think thatâs actually what sold him on going to Jamaica! He was like âThis sounds pretty insane to me - I have to hear it!â! So, we went down into the caves, recorded it⦠And actually the introductory section at the beginning of âMento in 3â is purely me playing me playing those rocks. Plus we also mixed it in on âWorld Partyâ.â

How did you actually start out playing drums and percussion?

âWhere 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 wouldnât 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 couldnât play! So I took it, and thatâs when I actually started playing - though at first I was playing blind and didnât 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 Iâd 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, Iâd just been listening to the thing as a WHOLE, and not the components that went INTO it!â

So how did you come to develop your own style?

âMy 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 didnât have anyone to TEACH me - until I went to Nassau in The Bahamas and met Danny âBig Blackâ Ray. If youâve seen âRumble In The Jungleâ, heâs the conga-player who was playing in Aliâs camp in the film - plus heâd also done stuff with people like Dizzie Gillespie. So I was like âMan, how do I make it so you know itâs me when you hear me playing?â⦠And he was like âThink 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!â

The single âHead Over Heels - featuring Dollarmanâ is out now. The album âDrumquestraâ follows June 1, both through MCPR Music

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