Larry McDonald: “The Skatalites are Jamaica’s only [real] legacy band.” (The Interview)

by Jun 23, 2022Articles, Interview

Larry McDonald

When: June 18, 2022
Where: Los Angeles CA
Reporter: Stephen Cooper
Footage: Stephen Cooper – Edited by [email protected]
Copyright:  2022 – Stephen Cooper
Any use of any photos or artwork contained herein -without prior authorization- is strictly prohibited.


On June 18, my friend, legendary percussionist Larry McDonald, passed through my hometown—Los Angeles—with Jamaica’s premier, and according to Larry, only true “legacy band,” the Skatalites. When Larry told me he put me on his guest list, I was, of course, honored beyond belief—and overjoyed.

It was thrilling to see Larry once again; it’s a privilege and an honor every time for a reggae journalist to be able to interact with such an accomplished musician. As I’ve written before about Larry: With more than fifty years of hand-drumming experience—congas primarily—for superstar performers in reggae, jazz, blues, and beyond (including Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Taj Mahal, Gil Scott-Heron, and more), McDonald’s accumulated knowledge, experience, and worldly wisdom are unparalleled.

The masterful, electric performance Larry and the rest of the Skatalites gave—at Los Globos on Sunset Boulevard—will rank at the top of the best shows Los Angeles’s reggae/ska scene has been treated to this year. Once the show was over, I interviewed Larry for roughly twenty minutes before he and the rest of the band had to head to their hotel; soon, they’ll be gearing up to tour in Costa Rica, Germany, France, The Netherlands, and Spain.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. At the end of the transcript, you will find a link to the entire audio recording of the interview—accompanied by exclusive pictures of Larry—on YouTube. Finally, please note, the video footage I took of the Skatalites performing (with Larry) at Los Globos will be published in a few weeks at Reggae-Vibes. Enjoy!

I’m coming. I’m just answering a couple of questions.

Ken Stewart (keyboardist for the Skatalites): Don’t worry about it!

Okay.

Cool.

Ken Stewart: No one’s in a hurry.

Cool, cool, cool.
Yeah.

So, Larry, first of all, do you need anything? Do you need—I have some herb? You seem like you have some herb yourself, but I’m gonna give you some before you go.
No, actually I need some, I ran out.

I got something for you, Larry. This is from the valley, so, you know…. [displaying spliffs]. These are organic, Larry—
Okay.

I only bring the legends the good stuff. So, Larry, now that we are officially recording, I have to say how damn good it is to see you in the flesh, my brother. It’s a joy. It’s a pure joy every time to see you perform. It’s a giant honor for me, as a reggae journalist. Every time. To speak with you. One of the best, most legendary hand-drummers that this world—and forget the world, this universe, has ever seen. And as I told you earlier: The coolest conga-playing cat around, in my opinion.
(Blushing. Shaking head. Laughing.)

So now, Larry, that being said officially on the record, let me also say something which I said to you before we started to record, which was: This show tonight with the Skatalites—that I just saw you perform at—was just amazing. I mean the crowd was thrilled. I was thrilled to be here as your guest. And I just thank you so much for inviting me, because it was an amazing—amazing performance. And, this is a bit of a loaded question, Larry—
Uh-oh. Here we go.

(Laughing) But since I know you just celebrated your 85th birthday—and blessed earthstrong, my friend—and this happened exactly one week ago today, on June 11, I want to ask: How does it feel to be here, at age 85, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, still able to thrill and send a crowd home happy—the way you just did?
Well, to like put it in perspective, I remember when the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go wanted to book reggae [acts]. And they would call me and ask me if—“Burning Spear. Do you want us to book Burning Spear? Do you think we should get”—(laughing). I said, (laughing) you’re damn right you better get Burning Spear, you know?

Yeah!
So—this is like in the early days. Now, to be sitting here, having a show, with the Skatalites—which, even though it’s a younger set of guys—for me, it’s like a homecoming. Because of the music. Because we’re playing the music that we grew up on—

Those songs have existed since the start.
Yeah. Okay, my perspective on the Skatalites, before we go on, alright?

Yeah.
The Skatalites is Jamaica’s only “legacy band.” Legacy band in terms of, like—the Duke Ellington band is still playing. The Count Basie band is still touring. So it’s not a matter of who’s here [playing], but the music. This is the only Jamaican band that I know that the repertoire is being played, you know, interpreted, albeit by modern players and with a different voice, but, basically, the songs are the same.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I could tell that tonight.
So, it’s Jamaica’s only legacy band. For me.

And it must feel—it feels good for you to be playing those songs that you grew up on and that—
Yeah, it’s kinda like coming home. Now I’m getting a chance to play the stuff that’s been going around in my head for the past, oh, 50-60 years.

Larry McDonald

It’s interesting that you say that to me, Larry, because, like I said to you before we started to record, I was looking at the two past interviews that you and I [have] done. And the last two times I’ll remind you, and also people who will later listen to this interview—or read it—that I was blessed to interview you in 2017 and 2018. And at that time you were on tour performing—not far from here—at the famed “Dub Club” with Subatomic Sound System and, of course, the great, legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry. May he rest in power, and in peace. And you actually said something to me in one of those interviews—the same thing that you are now, [that] after all these years—and it was in a different context. Because we were talking [then] about the trust that Scratch had in you. That now, after all this time, you finally could do (laughing) the shit that you wanted to do—
(Laughing) Yeah.

—without worrying about—
Yeah.

You know, back in the day when you first started with Scratch, of course it was a different thing. And the reason, Larry, that I also wanted to—to bring this up, is, I personally, I thought myself that Scratch would maybe live to see 100. I mean the guy was just—
Yeah.

I was shocked. And I was really saddened by the news of his passing. And one of the first things I thought about was you—and how you were handling the loss—and I was a bit nervous to bring it up, as you know. But when I first interviewed you, I want to remind you that you said to me—this [is] a quote from you: “Basically, to this day producers don’t really know what to do with the percussionist—when it comes to reggae.” And I was curious whether one of the reasons why your bond with Scratch was so tight was, because he did. He was one of those producers that did know what to do with a percussionist?
Yeah, he’d like get you in there—[into his studio]—and somehow communicate by whatever means. You know, like, more or less what he wanted you to play, you know?

He was into those cool, funky sounds, too, though—right?
Yeah, he was like—

You know, he was into it—
Yeah.

—the drum[s] [and the] percussion.
Yeah. Yeah, he wanted all the odd sounds and stuff on [his] shit, you know? (Laughing) Weird sounds, and—he was like pretty much ahead of the game when it came to that.

If you don’t mind me asking, Larry, when that happened, [when Scratch passed], I’m sure that Subatomic Sound System and everyone must have been very upset to hear about that. Have you come to any peace with Scratch’s passing? And is there anything that you want to say about Scratch’s legacy—as a man. And as a producer, and musician. You’ve said a lot me before about [that], but now that he’s gone?
I hope that the government recognizes it, you know? [That] [t]he Jamaican government would really realize who he was in the scheme of things—musical—worldwide. Not only in Jamaica.

Yeah.
You know, think of all the acts that he produced.

And even [his] influence on things like hip hop?
Of course. You know. And I—(pausing in thought). A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.

Wow.
I think, I think—that’s a quote from Jesus. I don’t remember the context, but it was like, you know, here he was performing miracles and the rest of the world [was following him]. And to his brothers and sisters, he’s just a carpenter from Galilee. (Laughing)

Oh man.
You know what I’m saying?

Yeah, you know, and the thing that struck me, and I just want to mention, is that one of the things that you and I had talked about in our past interviews was, that people didn’t realize that, you know, they sometimes would focus on these eccentricities of Scratch and not realize that sometimes the things that he was saying [were] just genius. And when I go back and look at some of the things he said in interviews—even with me—there were things that he said to me that I didn’t realize until I later went home and looked at what he said—
Yeah.

And I was like, oh shit, this guy blew my mind he was so far ahead of the game.
Yeah. But having worked together over the past like ten years of his life—

Yeah.
You know, he was like—l think he’d come to terms with most of the stuff he railed against. He was forgiving, too, you know, he’d forgive people.

Nice. That’s so good to hear.
I mean, he’d be pissed off [sometimes], but he’d—

(Laughing)
—and stay pissed off, but that thing that [kept] him on track, that centers him—

You could tell, he had a warm heart.
Oh yeah.

Larry, in our past interviews, we spoke a good deal about one of my personal favorite albums. And [I’m] talking about your masterpiece solo album “Drumquestra.” And I hate to be that guy, but, both times when I saw you you talked about how you were going to—there was going to be a sequel. And you were gonna maybe work with Sidney Mills, and you were gonna get out another album. And I want to ask: Has that ship sailed? Are we going to see another Larry McDonald solo album?
I’m thinking that you will. But Sidney right now has been busy, and what with Covid and all that stuff, the lockdown, you know, I wasn’t like focusing on it. But it’s not that I forgot about it. I intend to do it.

Good. So friends like me can continue to still push you, and you won’t be upset?
No, man. I just have to do it, because it’s something that I need to do.

Because frankly when I saw you get up on stage tonight—and I wasn’t ready for it—but you sang; what song did you sing tonight? You sang two songs.
Yeah. The first one was a mento that was done as ska by Lord Tanamo. With the Skatalites. And the second one was, “I’m in the Mood for Ska.” Which is [a take on] “I’m in the Mood for Love.”

It was wicked, and I’ll remind you that you told me when I talked to you about your album [“Drumquestra”], “I didn’t know I could sing either”—
(Laughing)

Larry McDonald & Stephen Cooper

—but you clearly do, and you clearly can. And I hope that we’ll get another album from you. You know, following Scratch’s passing, I know that you’ve kept working with Subatomic Sound System. And one of the things you did, I’ll remind you, is you worked with Yaadcore—
Yeah.

—and you and I maybe talked about it. You know, Yaadcore and I—I had an interview with him—and we spoke about two things that are very relevant to you. We talked about your wicked percussion on his remake of John Holt’s “Police in Helicopter.”
Yeah.

Where you’re in the official video—
Yeah.

—and it’s super-wicked. We also talked about, Larry, the Jamaican government’s continued failure to honor legendary musicians—like yourself—for their many, many decades of contributions. To the music. And so I wanted to let you know that we talked about that.
(Laughing)

Ken Stewart (keyboard player for the Skatalites): (Laughing)

Other than that wicked collaboration with Yaadcore, Larry, I believe you’ll be touring overseas—with the Skatalites—soon?
Yeah.

And are there any other musical endeavors or projects that all the very many Larry McDonald fans—and I’m the biggest one, or maybe—
(Laughing) Right.

I would like to claim. What should we be aware of that you’re gonna keep doing—that we should keep our eye out for? What you got going on in the works, Larry? What’s in the pot? What are you mixing? You told me you [are] a good cook in one of our [past] interviews.
Yeah.

What are you mixing in the pot going forward? Are you gonna just keep doing the Skatalites, and working with Subatomic Sound?
Well, like I said, the Skatalites is kind of a homecoming to me, you know? And I’m not going to stop doing that. But I’m sure that they’ll leave me some time to do something for myself (looking at Ken Stewart and laughing).

They’ll give you time to do that second album. Larry, my friend, I just have one last question for you. I know you need to—the band is waiting on you, and you need to actually get back to where you’re going. But admittedly, again, this is a bit of a loaded question—like I started with. But I would argue that it’s loaded with goodness.
Okay,

In our past interviews, Larry, you told me you “[just] wanted to be the conga player,” and that, you wanted to “fatten the pulse of the rhythm.” I personally think, and I hope and pray, that you’ll still be doing both of these things for many, many, many years to come. Still, would you please offer your thoughts on this one question: When it’s all said and done, and all the history books are written, what do you hope you’ll be remembered [for]—in terms of your musical career? What do you hope to be remembered for?
Well…. I would like to think that because of my stubbornness, I kind of forged a place for my instrument of choice—at the table—at the reggae table, you know?

Thank you for doing that, Larry.
The thing is that—people in Jamaica—the people who do the awards and all that. They have no idea what I’m doing. They don’t know the amount of bands in New York that—

They don’t pay attention to all this.
—that call me. To come play with them. To do stuff in New York. It’s not one kind of band. But they’re all interested in Jamaican music. And they all call me.

And they should be calling you.
And you know, the thing is, I’m not a bitter kind of a guy.

I’ve never sensed that from you, Larry.
Because I figure, I figure, that if what I did was worth anything, in the scheme of things, somebody will come along and see it. And say, but wait a minute, nobody ever approached it like this before, or—I just want to know that it is recognized. That whether you like it or not, I have even one little square inch of ground that I have cultivated—in this music.

Larry, my brother, you have cultivated fields in this music. You have to know that.
I just don’t want [it] to go to waste.

Larry, your music will live forever. Your music and your legacy is gonna live forever. And I just want to thank you, so much, Larry. For everything.
Look, I’ve got to thank you for the stuff that you’ve been writing—about reggae music—Steve. I mean (speaking to Skatalites’s keyboardist, Ken Stewart), this man is such a prolific writer—I have to show you some of the stuff that he wrote.

(Laughing) Thank you so much.
About various, I mean, various artists—“obscure artists.” Quotation marks. He’ll find them, and do a whole piece! (Laughing)

(Laughing) And then I send it to Larry, because he’s the only person whose opinion I really care about.

Ken Stewart: I just wanted to interject, but not on tape, but Sidney’s got so much more time on his hands now. That’s another whole ball of wax right there.

Nice.
Oh, yeah. But we still have—

Ken Stewart: We’ll give you all the time you need to do something else—if you want?

No, but, (laughing) we’ll find the time, man. We’ll find the time, Ken.

Ken Stewart: We have to get you on some Skatalites stuff—

Oh, but of course—

And then invite me. And I will be out here to see you.
Okay. Okay.

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