It may have taken him decades to finally release an album as a leader. But the conga master has spent his time well, doing his thing with reggae greats Bob Marley and Peter Tosh—and unexpected artists like Soulfly and Shemekia Copeland.
There are caves not far from the coast in Jamaica that conga player and percussionist Larry McDonald found himself in some forty years ago. Within these Green Grotto caves, he discovered a pair of stones among the formations that produced musical sounds when struck. Amazingly, pitched slaps and open tones could be produced with the hands on these geologic structures. Fascinated, McDonald promised himself he’d use the stones on an album someday. Now, at age seventy-one, that day has arrived, with the release of the percussionist’s debut album as a leader, Drumquestra. Through the years McDonald has developed as a world-class musician, working with an array of important reggae artists while also crossing genres to support numerous other performers.
McDonald’s long and fruitful career as a conga player began humbly enough. Growing up in Jamaica, where he routinely caught music played on Radio Havana, Larry did not initially intend to be a drummer. Indeed, it wasn’t until he was twenty-five that, in the wake of a tragic experience, he was called to the drums. McDonald was forced to confront his life up until that point, and the process of reflection set him on a new path. As part of that process, he says, “I didn’t choose the drums…the drums chose me.” With no more than a love of bebop, McDonald set out on what would become a long career as one of reggae music’s foremost percussionists.
Hand drums, notably congas, were his instruments of choice, “so that nothing came between me and the drum.” With no teacher available, McDonald says, “I took the rhythms I heard and transferred them to the congas, without destroying the heart of what I was hearing.” As he began playing around the island, he wove those rhythms into the bebop and hotel music of the period, aiming to fit into ensembles unobtrusively. “I learned to play by staying out of everybody’s way,” McDonald notes.
The percussionist’s style and concept took a leap in a new direction during a trip to Nassau, in the Bahamas, where he spent time with the noted congero Big Black. In seeing McDonald play, Big Black suggested he “think of the drums as a piano—chords in the left hand and fancy stuff in the right hand.” Such thinking led McDonald to arrange his drums with the larger conga on the left, as opposed to the conventional conga setup, where the larger drum is to the right. This solidified his approach.
Besides drumming his way into the Jamaican hotel-band circuit, McDonald found himself playing and recording with ska and reggae groups. The conga break on “Funky Kingston” by Toots & The Maytals—that’s him! You’ll also find the percussionist on early Bob Marley recordings. A move to the U.S. in 1973, however, removed McDonald from that scene, to some extent. “The old-timers know me, but the younger ones not so much, because there were no album credits back then,” he says. As there really was no reggae in the States at that time, McDonald played with whomever he could. It wasn’t long before he ended up in Taj Mahal’s band, working and touring with the eclectic bluesman from 1974 to 1978. In 1981 he joined jazz poet/ proto-rapper Gil Scott- Heron for an extended period that wrapped up only recently. Along the way there was more studio work, with projects as diverse as tenor sax player David Murray’s big band, Soulfly’s Primitive album, and tracks with blues singer Shemekia Copeland. And of course McDonald was still in touch with reggae, being brought in for percussion duties with such major artists as Toots and Peter Tosh.
With all that experience behind him, McDonald was more than ready when he was offered a deal for his own album. As he recalls, his mindset was, “Okay, I’ll do it if it’s the kind of record I want to do.” His response when the label asked what the record would be like: “Well, there’s this cave in Jamaica….”
Yet the cave recording, which can be heard during “Mento In 3,” is just the beginning. What’s truly beautiful is McDonald’s concept for Drumquestra: an album where the only instruments are drums, mallet percussion, and voices. Listen closely to the opening track, “Head Over Heels.” On this reggae song, the upbeats are played on marimba, not guitar, with bass mallets holding down the low end. Such creativity continues throughout the album, moving through a variety of grooves, moods, and feels and resulting in a unique set that looks forward and backward simultaneously.
To realize his vision, McDonald called in exceptional talents and also went out in the field: Besides the caves, a track with a kumina drumming group, which plays in a style handed down relatively unchanged from the days of slavery, is featured on “Backyard Business.” Yet the bulk of the album was done in the studio, where eight drummers gathered, including kit players Sly Dunbar and Carl McLeod. McDonald says the group went in with a tempo and a feel in mind, and each piece was done in one take. Some tracks sound very rooted in African drumming, while others build off reggae, island, and dance grooves.
Next came the decision of who to add on top. With his background, McDonald soon had Toots, Dollarman, Bob Andy, and dub poet Mutabaruka lined up for key vocal tracks—with some of them asking to be on the album. Washington, D.C., go-go rapper/singer Shaza also adds his talent to several tunes, while the title song of the album features North Indian rhythm vocalization. But even with such diversity in the vocals, McDonald’s overall concept of percussion and voice unifies the project.
We spoke with McDonald the day after he had just heard one of his songs on the air for the first time. He was still wowed from the experience, and his down-to-earth, amicable character showed through. Ever confident that the opportunity to present his ideas would arrive, he found his experience, wisdom, and thoughtfulness coming together in a sincere project. The music here is both fun and deep; Drumquestra—it’s more than a reggae album, and more than a drumming album.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
McDonald plays Tycoon congas (11″, 11-3/4″, 12-1/2″) made of Siam oak and fitted with buffalo heads.