Larry McDonald is the most revered conguero Jamaica has ever produced. In a career that stretches back to the early ’60s, he has lent his percussive magic to songs by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jackie DeShannon, Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Skatalites, and Gil-Scott Heron. But after a lifetime as a first-call sideman, McDonald felt a nagging itch that he knew eventually had to be scratched.
“I’ve always wanted to make a solo album,” says the 73-year-old master on the horn from his New York apartment, his voice as deep and resonant as the bass tones of his tumba. “But not many people will give a conga drummer the money to do it. Finally a guy at my label, MCPR, who knew me from my years of working with Gil-Scott Heron, signed me and told me I could make the album I wanted to make. I told him I wanted to sum up everything I’d done to this point, to make my musical autobiography, if you will.”
The result is Drumquestra, which succeeds in summarizing his rich career as well as the musical history of Jamaican drumming, from traditional ceremonial chants to jazz, ska, reggae, and dancehall. On the album, McDonald shows off his expertise on dozens of percussion instruments but coaxes the CD’s most unique sound from a rock.
“When you go down into the Green Grotto caves in Runaway Bay, near the town I grew up in, you’ll find a giant rock,” he says. “When you hit [that rock], it sounds like a gong. A friend showed me that stone a long time ago, before the caves were a tourist attraction. I told him if I ever got the opportunity to make a record, I was going to put that sound on it. The first four bars on the song ’Mento In 3’ is the unvarnished sound of my hands on the rock. We recorded it on my Mac down in the cave. I also played the stalactites and stalagmites, all in the dark. They wouldn’t let us take a light into the cave because it would disturb the bats.”
The rocks have a brittle, delicate sound, with hints of thumb piano, talking drum, and the human voice. They complement the overall ambience of Drumquestra, which is remarkably bright and melodic, even though most of its melodies are implied by percussion. “The first day in the studio, we had eight drummers,” McDonald remembers. “Three men from The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari, Royo Smith on bass drum, Karl Messado on repeater [also known as keteh, the smallest drum in a Nyahbingi ensemble, a precursor of reggae], and Delroy Williams on funde [the mid-range Nyahbingi drum]. We also had Sly Dunbar, Carl McCleod – probably the best jazz drummer to come out of Jamaica, with a press roll like Art Blakey’s – Bongo Herman, Marjorie Whylie, lead drummer of the Jamaican National Dance Company, and me. The album was basically built around the rhythms we played that day.”
With the help of producer Sidney Mills, longtime keyboardist and musical director for Steel Pulse, McDonald assembled an all-star cast of supporting vocalists, with an eye toward keeping the album focused on the interplay between drumming and voice. Collaborators included Toots Hibbert, Ras Tesfa, dub poet Mutabaruka, Bob Andy, ska and rocksteady legend Stranger Cole, his son Squidley, and dancehall singer Dollarman.
“I explained the tempos, attitude, and melodies, then left people alone and let them do it. The sessions wrapped up a lot of large circles and cycles in my life. The poem Mutabaruka does is one of the poems he recited the first time I backed him up at the Music, Poetry, And Dance Theater, in ’72. I met Stranger Cole [a major ska star in the early ’60s] at a concert in Canada a few years back and heard his voice in my head on ’Crime Or Music.’ He did it in one take. Toots nailed the vocals on ’Set The Children Free’ in one take too.”
Mills recorded the vocal tracks in Jamaica while McDonald was on tour. They got together to assemble the music in New York at Platinum Sound And Audiology Studios, with McDonald adding bells, gankogui, tambourine, bongos, cymbals, triangle, and other percussive sweetening. The result is a dense, rootsy, polyrhythmic stew, mixed so that every drum occupies its own unique sonic space.
Larry McDonald has an impressive résumé for a man who never thought he’d be a musician. “I always loved music but had no thoughts of playing,” he recalls. “When I grew up, you didn’t finish school and tell your parents you were going to be a musician. The desire to play didn’t come to me until later. One day I was out driving with my best friend. We’d just finished changing seats when a banana truck came out of nowhere and hit us. My friend died, and I knew it could have been me.
“I spent the next few months sitting on the veranda alone. I was 25 and the question I asked myself was, ’What do I want to do?’ I remembered playing a jonkonnu rhythm with wooden spoons on the wall of the kitchen in the house I grew up in. I loved that sound and I realized I wanted to play drums.”
McDonald grew up in Little Bay, a town on the north coast of Jamaica, near Port Maria, a bustling banana shipping port. “Two rivers emptied into the bay to make a fine harbor,” McDonald explains. “As the bay filled with silt, rather than dredge, they moved the port eight miles up the coast and the economy collapsed. My family was middle class, but just barely.
“My mother and father had me without the blessings of clergy, so I lived with a lady I called momma. She also raised my mother, but she was not my grandmother.” McDonald won a scholarship to Happy Grove High, a boarding school, where he was president of the music club. He turned his music teacher on to George Shearing. “I was already digging bebop: Bird, Monk, Dizzy, and Sonny Stitt. She wasn’t hip to music. I hoped George Shearing would open her ears to something. I also liked mento [a Jamaican folk music similar to calypso] and folk music. There was no music coming out of Kingston yet.”
Living in Jamaica’s north country, McDonald was exposed to traditional drumming. Because of the town’s geographic isolation, local jonkonnu, kumina, burru, and Rastafarian drummers had maintained their African roots. “The sound of the jonkonnu drums really moved me. There’s a bass drum and a rattler drum, which is carried on your waist and played with sticks – it has a snare on the bottom head. They also play fifes and a scraper, like they use in merengue bands.
“The music is played on Christmas and Boxing Day [the day after Christmas], traditionally the days the slaves didn’t have to work. The drummers dress in costumes and go from yard to yard, playing for money. I tried to duplicate what they played on my kitchen wall with wooden spoons and have yet to find a drum that can duplicate that sound. On my next album I want to find some jonkonnu drummers and play with them because the tradition is dying out.”
McDonald decided on hand drums “so nothing could come between the music and me.” After his brush with death, he told his family he was going to Kingston to visit his sister, and never returned home. “My sister’s boyfriend had a conga with a goatskin head. I borrowed that drum and he never got it back. I took it to my yard and practiced eight hours a day, from the time the last person left for work or school in the morning until the crankiest person in the yard came home from work and made me stop. I’d eat if I remembered. I didn’t know what I was doing [musically], just trying to get the sound in my head into my hands.
“I played jazz sessions at the Penguin Club on Sunday and kept asking Trenton Spence, the bandleader, for a job. I wore him down and he hired me.” When McDonald discovered Spence was holding back part of his salary, he quit and put together a trio with piano and bass. He got a regular gig that lasted until Cecil Lloyd, who led the famous Calypso Hotel Jazz Band, asked him to join his orchestra. “That’s where I got my musical education,” McDonald says. “I learned how to approach a tune, how to do arrangements and orchestrations. We played for dinner, for the hotel floorshow, and on the beach in the afternoons. We did jazz standards, dinner music, mento, limbo, and rumba. Some of the guys who went on to the Skatalites played in that band.” McDonald’s next gig was with Carlos Malcolm’s Afro-Jamaicans, an early ska band that became popular just as Kingston’s record business started to flourish. McDonald played on early hits like “Bonanza Ska,” a version of the popular U.S. TV theme.
In the mid-’60s, McDonald lived briefly on Nassau in the Bahamas, where he met Danny ’Big Black’ Ray, another conguero. “He took me over to his house and he had three drums – the lower [pitched] one was to the left, the opposite of most conga drummers. He said, ’Think of the drums as a piano. You hold the bass with your left hand and do the fancy stuff with your right.’ It made sense to me. I changed my drum set up and still play that way.”
Back In Jamaica, McDonald joined pianist Cecil Lloyd for a six-day-a-week residency at the Playboy Club. On his days off, he’d play sessions for producers like Lee Perry. “I made backing tracks he used for Bob Marley and Toots, but I never knew who I was playing for. You’d cut tracks for him and they could turn up anywhere, or everywhere. There were no copyright laws in those days. I also worked with the Janet Enright/Leslie Butler group at the Sheraton Kingston jazz lounge.”
In 1973, after taking a stab at leading his own band, McDonald made a bold decision. He packed his congas and moved to the United States. “I wanted to see if I had the chops to make it in the U.S. Two weeks after I arrived, Bill Barnwell hired me for the band of the International Jazz Library in Minneapolis.”
McDonald arrived on the day of the third heaviest snowfall in the history of Minnesota – he had never seen snow before. After a year in Minneapolis, he signed on with jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango. One of his fist gigs with Dibango was a Madison Square Garden concert supporting Ray Baretto and The Fania All Stars. Shortly after Dibango fired him in 1974, McDonald got a call from Peter Tosh to record Bush Doctor in Woodstock, New York for Rolling Stones Records. “The Stones were rehearsing for their Some Girls tour in the next studio,” McDonald says, laughing. “Keith Richards loved the way I rolled his spliffs.”
McDonald played with Tosh while he toured with The Stones, landing in Oakland, California just as the world-beat movement was taking off. He put together the short-lived Ridd’m project before signing on with Gil Scott-Heron in 1981, with whom he performed for the next 20 years.
Between tours he did session work and founded The Rocksteady 7 with Dave Hillyard, and Dub Is A Weapon, an outfit that combines jazz, reggae, and real-time dub effects, alongside longtime Gil Scott-Heron keyboard player, Brian Jackson. “Rocksteady 7 plays traditional ska, light and upbeat,” McDonald says. “Dub Is A Weapon is more experimental, a reggae-based jazz band that does dub effects live on stage. I met Dave Hahn, the guitar player and bandleader, when he was making the first album and we decided to see if we could do it live.”
Recently, McDonald experienced déjà vu after adding a cajon to his percussive arsenal. “I discovered cajon at the home of [Leaving Las Vegas director] Mike Figgis in London. I was staying with him, and while I was there, I started playing his cajon. It was a teardrop-shaped drum with an acrylic body and a plywood head and it completed another big circle for me. The first thing I ever played was the kitchen wall, you remember. The sound of the cajon threw me right back to that time.” Chalk it up as yet another chapter in the autobiography entitled Drumquestra.
1 LP Generation II Bongos
2 12.5" x 30" Tycoon Master Hand-Crafted Series Tumba
3 11.75" x 30" Tycoon Master Hand-Crafted Series Conga
4 11" x 30" Tycoon Master Hand-Crafted Series Quinto
5 Riomar Fiberglass Udu
6 Repeater Drum (homemade)
A Percussion Table: LP Includes guira, cajita, cuica, afuche, Vibraslap, Flex-A-Tone, and Pete Engelhart A-Go-Go bells.