He may be a legend of reggae music, but at eighty-one years young, the percussionist has no interest in blindly recreating the past—innovation is simply too strong a part of his musical DNA.
Larry McDonald’s conga playing is a thread that runs through more than half a century of Jamaican music. His recording and touring credits with that island’s icons are deep—from Toots and the Maytals to Count Ossie to Ernest Ranglin—and continue with a dynamic showing on Lee “Scratch” Perry & Subatomic Sound System’s recent Super Ape Returns to Conquer album. McDonald’s résumé is bolstered by a nearly thirty-year stint with the late Gil Scott-Heron and collaborations with the likes of Taj Mahal, Natalie Merchant, Shemekia Copeland, Cat Power, and the metal band Soulfly.
McDonald, who was born in 1937 in Port Maria, Jamaica, recalls singing and acting in stage productions in school as a boy. Becoming a professional percussionist came later—and tragically. “I was in an accident back in Jamaica,” McDonald recalls. “My best friend died, and he was just a quarter of a century into his life. It shook me. It occurred to me that I’m going to have to figure out what I want to do with my life. For my first twenty-four years, I’d done what everybody said I should do: go to school and get a collar-and-tie job, a civil service job. But that wasn’t what I really wanted to do, that was just something I could do. I don’t know exactly when, but it dawned on me that what I wanted to do was play drums, and I wanted to play hand drums, because I didn’t want anything to come between me and the skin.”
McDonald listened to Jamaican conga players like Montego Joe and Jerome Walter, but he picked up ideas everywhere. “There were hand drummers, but there weren’t very many conga players,” he says. “Conga players were mostly around the dance groups, classical dance theater companies and so on. I didn’t have a teacher. The first thing I needed was a drum. Then I spent a year figuring out how to get sounds out of it.”
McDonald’s musical horizons were opened through the airwaves. “I was into music way before I started playing,” he says. “I used to listen to Radio Havana back in the day, when Castro was still in the Sierra Maestra. They had a theme song that they would play every half an hour, and it featured one of the greatest Cuban conga players, Tata Güines. I listened for that every half hour, and besides trying to do some of that, I tried stuff that came in my head. I watched people that stole their stuff, like every good musician does, and took their stuff as a starting point and made something different out of it. I wanted to play everything, whatever it was. I just wanted to be a conga player.”
Percussionists need great ears, and McDonald developed his through listening habits he describes as “omnivorous.” He recalls winding up his aunt’s gramophone and playing vinyl records of Broadway soundtracks and operas by Gilbert and Sullivan. “Then when I went to school,” he adds, “I was straight into bebop, man. I still play sort of bebop congas. [laughs] At least that’s what I think of.
“Bebop taught me that one and one is not necessarily two,” McDonald continues, “it could be eleven. It also taught me that the music could go anywhere at any time, so your mind had to be prepared for that. You always had to be listening. My first experience was playing a jazz session on Sundays, and my first lesson was how to stay out of everybody’s way. I would play whatever, but just get out of the way, you know. I make sure that what I’m doing isn’t upsetting the groove.”
McDonald says the music demanded that level of discipline. “When you go back and listen to those early ska records,” he explains, “that was some serious bebop solos and herky-jerky rhythms, and those guys were players. And to fit with them, you just had to sit there, and don’t get in anybody’s way. Just do not f**k it up. Yeah, because they’ll tell you about that, too.
“You know, guys like Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, the great Ernest Ranglin—I was just honored that these accomplished musicians allowed me to come on their bandstands. I always had to kind of punch above my weight—that’s my M.O. right now, particularly with the instrument. You know, you don’t hear anybody say, ‘I’m going to go out and get me the baddest conga player I can find and put a band together.’ You don’t hear nobody say that— except if he’s a conga player. [laughs] So I had to come to terms with that. You do need a certain amount of recognition to advance your career, but I was in it because I really wanted to play.
“I just wanted to get my hands on a drum and learn how to get sounds out of it,” McDonald continues, “and learn how to put them together. After that, I thought, You really need to go back and learn some stuff about what you’re trying to do to go forward. You know, being self-taught has its virtues and its drawbacks. Every so often
I tell myself I really should learn to read, but when you don’t read you have to go for a different kind of adjustment than the cat who’s got his eye on the paper. I’m just sitting with nothing but what I’m hearing, and I’ve got to adjust for everything, or they’ll call somebody else for the session.”
The young percussionist took a gig at the Runaway Bay Inn, and as he began to see more bands in person, he realized, “I didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know. What I was trying to say on one drum was being played by a conga player, a bongo player, a timbale player, a tambourine player, and a maracas player. I was listening to the total sum of all the parts, and trying to suggest the identifying trait of all of the different things. I tried to synthesize them into a way of playing. I don’t recommend that you play somebody’s licks how they play them, but you can find what’s in it that makes it like that, grab on to that.” McDonald was influenced as much by drumset players, like his countryman Karl McLeod, as he was by percussionists.
In 1973, McDonald took a gig in Hilton Head, South Carolina, that led to a four-year stint with Taj Mahal following the blues great’s reggae-influenced Mo’ Roots album. Gigs with famed Cameroonian sax player Manu Dibango and with Latin percussionist Ray Barretto and the Fania All-Stars soon followed. Then a connection with famed producer Malcolm Cecil led to McDonald joining up with soul singer Gil Scott-Heron, a musical relationship that lasted nearly three decades.
“The music was exemplary,” McDonald says. “Gil’s stuff was some of the best that I’ve ever been involved with. It wasn’t like reggae, but reggae was what took me to the man. I had done an album at TONTO Studio, which was owned by Malcolm Cecil, who happened to be Gil’s engineer and producer. So Malcolm, armed with the knowledge of doing his first reggae album, told Gil, ‘Look, you need to do a reggae album.’ Malcolm was a musician, so he said, ‘I know where to go to get it to be a reggae album.’That’s when he called me, and I called my friend Ken Lazarus to put the proper reggae guitar on it. Then they asked me to go on the road behind the album. For the next twenty-eight years, that was my main gig.”
For most of that time, Heron didn’t use a drumset player, giving McDonald more rhythmic responsibility. “We were at the Blue Angel in Philly one night, and it was supposed to be two percussionists and a drummer,” McDonald recalls. “The drummer didn’t show, so we played without a drummer. The engineer was playing back the set during a break, listening to it, and he said, ‘I think this is how we’re going to do it for a while with the instrumentation. A while turned out to be years. I was playing timbales with my billfold on the small timbale for a backbeat. It was ironic that I ended up playing with sticks, which I didn’t want to do in the first place, but that’s what it called for.”
In the early 1990s, McDonald studied briefly with C. K. Ladzekpo, director of the African Music and Dance Ensemble at UC Berkeley. “I took stuff from that music and put it in my bag too,” he says. “Somebody asked me, when I play with those musicians, going through all the various tempos, ‘Well, how do you count it if you never went to school?’ I say, ‘I play the pulse.’ I find the point that everybody has to pass—every so often it always comes back there. I find that, then I find out how long it takes from that point to come back around. I feel my pulse and then work from that. I’m not even going to try to be counting that. I did the best I could with it as an unschooled musician.”
In 2009 McDonald began recording his first solo project. The uplifting and adventurous result, Drumquestra, is built completely with percussion and vocals, and it features many of Jamaica’s most gifted drummers, spanning generations. Sly Dunbar, Karl McLeod, Royo Smith, Delroy Williams, Karl Messado, and “Sticky” Thompson are joined by versatile New York drummer Swiss Chris [John Legend], London-based player Rod Youngs, and Brazilian percussionist Marivaldo Dos Santos, as well as vocalists Dollarman, Toots Hibbert, Mutabaruka, and Shaza. Also featured on one song are Stephen Marley drummer Squidly Cole and his father, singer StrangeJah Cole.
McDonald, now living in New York, is again recording and touring with dub master Lee “Scratch” Perry. Larry and Scratch have a history dating back to Perry’s famous Black Ark Studio in Jamaica. “I used to do sessions down there,” says the percussionist. “That’s how a lot of my stuff ended up on reggae classics. Stuff I did ended up on Max Romeo’s album, on Bob Marley’s album, on Bunny Wailer’s album. He got a four-track machine, and back in those days four-track was like totally unbelievable. Stuff he would do…I don’t think he ever read the manual. I think he just opened the box and started messing with it. But the music still holds up.”
DJ Emch directs the Subatomic Sound System, with alto sax player Troy Shaka Simms and McDonald, in Perry’s touring unit. “Emch controls all of the tracks,” McDonald explains. “Anything from any album that Lee has done, he gets it together.” Emch made the recording process easy on Super Ape Returns to Conquer, according to McDonald. “Emch completely strips down the song and works on the electronic stuff,” he says. “When he’s got that down, he calls me and I go in and put all the percussion tracks on at one time. Might take three hours, three-and-a-half. It’s a great working arrangement. I can pretty much do what I like, because I’m not getting in anybody’s way.
“I know these songs because I’ve heard them over the years,” says McDonald. “But at the point when we’re going to record, I don’t know what ideas might come to mind, so I’ll bring a couple drums and a bag of toys: bells, vibraslap, cabasa, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, gankogui, rain stick, stone chimes…. I listen to the parts for changes—for any funny breaks anywhere in the song that I need to look out for. By this time, something will have occurred to me to put on there, and I put that on first. Then maybe I’ll record three more tracks, and then we go on to the next one. We do it like that, one by one by one, all the way down.
“For the main theme, the main part of the tune when ‘Scratch’ be singing, I’ll play one thing, and then when it comes to Troy for a solo, I switch to something else, just to underline what he’s saying. I may or may not go back to the original thing that I used, depending on how the tune develops.”
Some of the percussion on “Chase the Devil” and “Patience Dub” is processed with heavy reverb, but while he’s recording, McDonald doesn’t think about how it will be mixed later. “I’m playing straight up what I’m feeling. There’s hardly any consideration of who’s going to do what with what. That is their headache. Mainly I just try to not be too busy, so that everything I play can be used. I don’t like to leave my stuff on the cutting room floor, so I play with that idea in mind. I’m self-editing from the first beat. It doesn’t come from a place of doubt or hesitation, I’m just trying to figure out, on the fly, the best way I should go. And all of it is in like a split second, by the time my hand comes off the drum from this beat until the time I bring it back down on the next beat. “I play stuff, and then I take it home and learn it. I didn’t have it before I played, but now that it came out and proved to be valid, I have to have that in my arsenal if it’s needed. Sometimes I’ll play a conga on the song, and the next time I’ll do hand percussion or some other drum, just to see if I can sing the tune with something other than congas. My thing now is triangle. I’ll break out the triangle at a certain point— like really crazy up-tempo stuff, double- time triangle.
On “Curly Dub,” McDonald puts a 6/8 feel over the 4/4. “These songs are classics that we’re doing over, so you have to respect the track,” he says. “I have the ultimate respect for tradition, but I don’t let tradition prevent me from doing something new sometimes. I have to try it myself, and see that it does or doesn’t work, rather than somebody telling me.”
During “War Ina Babylon” and “Black Vest,” McDonald breaks into a double-time on repeater drum. “American audiences like the uptempo things,” he says. “Well, with reggae you can’t destroy the vibe of the tune, but when I’m feeling like it’s dragging, I’ll shift to a double-time thing underneath, like subliminally, and keep it right there until the front row gets up from leaning their elbows on the stage, and starts bobbing their heads. That double-time thing is one of the ways that I play ska, and I’ll put it wherever I think it’s needed. You can’t stand in front of me with your elbows on the stage, I’m not going to have any of that. You don’t have to be dancing around, but you’ve at least got to be bobbing your head or something. We’ve got a lot of power as drummers to get people moving.”
Larry McDonald plays Tycoon congas.