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Grounation 2015 closes with Bilby, McDonald

Published:Wednesday | February 25, 2015 | 1:41 PMMel Cooke
Larry McDonald
Kenneth Bilby

The weekly 2015 Grounation series ended on Sunday with the calm of Dr Kenneth Bilby's voice and, centred on Larry McDonald, drumming ranging from finessed fingering to furious flurries at the Institute of Jamaica, East Street, Kingston.

Bilby complemented his voice with audio and video in presenting The Unsung Contribution of African-Jamaican Percussion to Popular Music at Home and Abroad. McDonald, accompanied by drummers from Akwaaba and Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, as well as an unexpected horn section of Romeo Gray, Les Samuels, Michael 'Bammi' Rose and Lester Sterling, was as much a visual spectacle as aural experience for the full lecture hall.

The theme for Grounation 2015, which the Jamaica Music Museum's Herbie Miller was integral to, was 'Riddim Across the Atlantic: Di Drums in Africa and its Diasporas'. Bilby, in an extensive presentation, gave several examples of the nyabinghi beat being used in several countries, playing songs from Israel, Japan, and a rock group in the United States, named Vampire Weekend, before homing in on Jamaica.

A connection between the Maroons and Africa was shown in a song with the line, "Yes, me come from Guinea Coast". There was another direct African connection, this time to Sierra Leone, through a song done to a kumina beat by a singer from St Thomas.


celebrating release


The West Kingston community of Back o' Wall, was key to the drumming, one interviewee saying that the burru drumming celebrated someone's release from prison. In bringing the discussion to popular music, Bilby said, "we have to talk about Count Ossie", the late leader of Mystic Revelation of Rastafari.

Linking the thread of drumming through time, Bilby related speaking to Ossie's burru mentor, Brother Job (who, in turn, learnt from Watto King), who remarked about Rivers of Babylon (which Boney M made into a hit song), "It was we first sing that tune in the camp by Salt Lane."

While Count Ossie's drumming on the Folkes Brothers' Oh Carolina, produced by Prince Buster, is well chronicled, Bilby played a number of other songs produced by Buster, as well as a few other producers, with distinctive drumming. He related Buster, telling him about his commitment to the drumming tradition, rather than the rhythm and blues of other early producers.

"We had a music here before R&B," Buster said, adding that Coxson (Clement Dodd) and Duke Reid chose to have people forget the "natural music".

"The music a come from dung deh so, downtown."

The drums also influenced the studio musicians who were critical to the Jamaican popular music sound, Bilby relating drummer Winston Grennan's deep kumina influence from his St Thomas roots. Although he played guitar, Lynford 'Hux' Brown said, "Give me a kumina drum, I tear it up."

Appropriately, close to the end of his presentation, Bilby played a recording of Larry McDonald, Dr Clinton Hutton noting Bilby's over four decades of "not trying to understand the soundscape, but the inner landscape, the DNA of our music".

McDonald started playing alone, greeting his audience as if reuniting with a long-lost friend. "I left in 1973. To be remembered from that time ... Thank you," McDonald said.

He promised "a drumologue, as opposed to a monologue", starting off alone with a very good slow piece. At one point he remarked, "Duppy een ya", but there was flesh to go with the spirits as well, as the other musicians took position and joined in seamlessly for the throb of drums and keen of horns to fill the room.

McDonald was an affable compËre, the hornsmen occasionally coming to the front to deliver solos and Supersad standing for his singular flurry. Lester Sterling's scooping into Don Drummond's hornline excited the audience and the music was varied, jazz making its way into the evening.

In the spontaneous fashion of performance, Mama G moved from the audience to add her dance steps to the visuals on stage and McDonald stood at points, percussive instrument in hand, to move across to another drummer.

With one of his pieces, McDonald said, "I wanted to show how the rhythm from Africa came and how hard they tried to influence it in any way they could." But the music persisted, McDonald speaking about a recording made with kumina drummers in St Thomas, a Brazilian drummer in New York and a singer from the CÙte d'Ivoire.

"We are going to play as fast as we can without breaking down," McDonald said, Ouida doing the vocals for an extended song.

There were very few people still sitting when McDonald and the cast of musicians finished and those who stood to complete the ovation. And it was not quite the end of the music, as Sterling played Killing Me Softly and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, accompanied by a drummer, while persons greeted each other at the end of Grounation 2015.