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Percussionist Ralph MacDonald is visual and sometimes quietly intense but always expressive, and is an embodiment of unique island and conventional percussive rhythms. The When Steel Talks (WST) crew was privileged to sit down with the dynamic musician in his Stamford, Connecticut home and preview Mixty Motions his newest CD before its release. MacDonald has done a lot of interviews, but only here with WST, in addition to the detailed look at Mixty Motions, does the world get the inside scoop on his full relationship with the steelpan, and his intimate connection with what is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and hear him proudly proclaim that his favorite orchestra is the mighty Desperadoes Steel Orchestra nestled in the hills of Laventille...
As one of Harlem's famous sons, three-time Grammy Award winner Ralph MacDonald is of Trinidadian parentage and grew up in the ‘Black Capital of the USA.’ Born March 15, 1944, MacDonald has lived both the New York and Caribbean-influenced lifestyles, juxtaposed as they were during his youth in Harlem. His African heritage was never too far away, with his paternal grandfather hailing from Nigeria. MacDonald was in step with his father as soon as he could walk, and admired by audiences who were charmed upon seeing and hearing him play drums with his father’s twelve-piece orchestra. In fact, dad Patrick MacDonald was himself a calypsonian who opted for the sobriquet The Great Macbeth, and so popular, he had two orchestras for ‘gigging’ on the same nights.
Moving easily between the Trinidadian/Caribbean and New York/African American worlds, MacDonald was also growing up within the Harlem Renaissance. When acts like the Three Degrees and the Four Tops awed audiences at the historic Apollo, MacDonald was there. And his observations and experiences were being codified while absorbing the charismatic, empathetic and militant Malcolm X who would be regularly schooling the disenfranchised Harlem masses, right next to the subway at 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. The young Ralph MacDonald was also noting the goings-on in the artistic and entertainment worlds, such as the flow of white comedians coming up to Harlem and catching all the famed black acts like Red Foxx et al, and stealing the acts/routines of blacks, taking it downtown to their white audiences, where blacks were conveniently disallowed.
Ralph MacDonald has journeyed much since those days – from his fledgling career with Harry Belafonte at age seventeen, to today’s super-successful songwriter, producer, performer and businessman. But his music along the way has always been filled with Mixty Emotions, now reflected in the name and feel of his latest CD. “My heart lies in two places – New York, and the Caribbean - so my music is always filled with Mixty Motions (‘Mixed [E]motions’)” MacDonald says with eloquent simplicity. His enduring friendship and musical collaboration with steel panist extraordinaire Robert Greenidge (keeping in mind that his favorite orchestra is Desperadoes in Laventille) once again surface as Greenidge’s incomparable talent is featured on several of the CD’s twelve tracks.
As WST delved into the framework of Mixty Motions, MacDonald was brimming with anticipation as he explained the innards of his long-anticipated release. “Pop, rock, calypso, latin - it's [the CD] got all the different things, places, I've experienced in my life...”
Rhythm of the Drum, track one, previously dubbed ‘Freedom’ was brought to MacDonald by his eldest son Anthony. Dad liked it for his CD, and felt that it needed some lyrics. For this he turned to Nicolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. He has been 'good buddies' with Ashford & Simpson (of ‘Solid’ fame) for more than forty-years, and MacDonald thought it was time that they 'do something' together. It turned out that they did indeed like ‘Freedom’, and ended up doing not only lyrics but vocals as well, and renaming the song which features none other than Robert Greenidge on steel drum.
Second is the title track, Mixty Motions, the first of seven instrumentals, followed by Simpson in the spotlight on vocals with the R&B-tinged unapologetic Love Finds You.
My Space already wowed the audience at the 2007 Lincoln Center Steelpan Jazz Father's Day Concert (MacDonald pictured in action at that concert), and on the CD is a bit mellower in delivery. MacDonald fondly claims and cherishes ‘calypso’ as his own ‘space’ because of his dad and his family history. Apropos, sounded next is the clarion call of You Need More Calypso featuring Greenidge on steelpan, Etienne Charles on trumpet and, making the first of three appearances on the album, Trinidadian vocalist Roger George.
A tribute to Trinidad and Tobago, You Need More Calypso was previously recorded on one of his earlier albums that was never re-issued on CD. But the original record company/label would not release the track to MacDonald, who is savvy in recognizing that it is too much an attractive and significant selection to be shelved, and not benefit from today’s technology, and thus be afforded longevity and flexibility in being available on the digital/CD medium.
“It’s just one bridge, to another bridge…just connecting feelings, connecting the music." That’s what MacDonald set about illustrating in track six, the musical tapestry – Bridges. Identifying with some diverse musical influences (funk, fusion, jazz, European and more), he fearlessly and unhesitatingly blends various styles and instruments including strings and the steeldrums. Bridges started out as a musical collaboration with his youngest son Atiba, who can also lay claim to a major role in the CD’s penultimate track. Of course he is into music and plays trap drums and writes songs on his computer.
There is a bit of a Latin feel to Man Dance with Dave Spinozza on guitar, flavored with the trademark sounds of Steely Dan and Carlos Santana. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and came about after the track’s individual musicians gamely demonstrated which dance steps they personally envisaged going with the music. Julian is named after 'Cannonball' Adderley whose full name was Julian Edwin Adderley. “We put a little marching band solo in it, so people who know Cannonball will 'recognize' him in it” explains MacDonald.
A Brazilian trip birthed Little Black Samba which has a spritz of funk, and pairs vocalist Roger George with Greenidge in the spotlight. Up next is the sensuous You Leave Me Breathless, the only ballad on the CD. Sentiment is key in the final two tracks - Mayaro Drive and Lord, Don’t Stop The Carnival. Co-written with son Atiba (pictured second from right), the former is evocative of a drive through Mayaro, the area in Trinidad where MacDonald met his present wife, Grace (pictured second from left). He always thinks of the road where the coconut trees over-arch and close in on each other, and he percussively emulates at one point the sound of the falling coconuts as one drives through, and then elsewhere in the music, emphasizes the ongoing journey through the village and interaction with its people.
Lord, Don’t Stop The Carnival was originally an old Trinidadian folk song penned by his father when MacDonald was a small boy. Years later, the younger MacDonald took that material and put verses to it and presented it to Harry Belafonte as a replacement in his routine for ‘Matilda’, the popular singer’s closing song. The elder MacDonald’s orchestra had always closed his dances with the-then instrumental Lord, Don’t Stop The Carnival, and his son now selected it as both his tribute to his late father, and to close his latest album.
Mixty Motions is the tenth album MacDonald has recorded. His last, Homegrown was released four years ago in 2003. Since then though, MacDonald has been fully occupied, performing with Jimmy Buffet, Roberta Flack and others. It has taken up a lot of time, but the percussionist loves the intimacy of performing ‘live.’ He lives for that interaction with the people. And under his own name, that of Ralph MacDonald, he says “I still think that musically, I still got something to say." Humorously he noted that there is music the public takes to, and that goes down ‘real well’ with them, but [they are] ‘unaware’ it emanates from him. “A lot of times they like the music, but they don't know it's Ralph MacDonald; other people do it.”
He has always lived and breathed the pure forum of music, and tolerates no ‘pretenders’ in his own professional arena. MacDonald allows nothing but live musicians and instruments when he is recording his albums; there are no synthesizers. The 'real deal' had always been both his playground and foundation in the formative years of his life.
“I mean, there's no contest," remarked MacDonald. While okay for demos (where synths provide a quick means to giving form to musical inspiration in the chrysalis stage), MacDonald explained “To me, music is like your heart - your heart beats fast, sometimes it beats slow - , it don't stay in no one thing all the time..." For he had come of age with the perfect grounding - starting first with his father’s orchestra and the legendary people who were part of their extended music family, such as the likes of the late, legendary Tito Puente, to be continued with his lucrative and professional calling with Harry Belafonte, by age seventeen. The lure of the music business as a career was proving more potent than completing high school, at that pivotal point in the framework of MacDonald asserting his identity.
In addition to being involved with his father’s bands, his main steelband involvement had begun three years earlier at fourteen via the Harlem Boy's Club, where Dr. Conrad Mojay started the Harlem Steel Orchestra. The seeds for MacDonald’s relationship with Harry Belafonte were sown with the teenager volunteering to help some friends who played the steelband, by carrying their bags to an audition for Belafonte. They got the gig and the teenaged MacDonald would be on spot observing and absorbing it all, whenever they rehearsed with Belafonte. He would go home and practice on his tenor, what was played in rehearsal.
On one fateful occasion the tenor pan player was late, and MacDonald stunned those present by not only being able to stand in, but that he knew note for note, all the music entailed. The latecomer eventually turned up, but by then - MacDonald had already struck those 'chords' within all present – including Harry Belafonte.
The following day, he would again make his mark when world-famous singer Miriam Makeba turned out for a practice session for an upcoming show with Belafonte. The talented seventeen-year old impressed the iconic South African vocalist, this time around with his dancing talent when he ably executed the African Boot Dance (a ritual dance performed by miners from South Africa, Makeba’s home country, to ensure their safe emergence from the mines). After two previous people failed to live up to the requirements of Makeba, for Belafonte, it was a no-brainer. He of course turned to MacDonald, who was more than up to the task; after all, his father earned his living with his orchestras providing music for dancing.
The teenager promptly found himself ‘on the road’ with the world-renowned singer, performing the African Boot Dance with Makeba on stage. This is where his career officially started. MacDonald would stay with Belafonte for ten years, while the original steelband combo would be history in but one. But before those years passed, Belafonte would discover the monster talent that lay within the super-confident teen, and make the competent and upcoming youngster a permanent player in his official stage retinue.
That pivotal time-frame came toward the end of MacDonald’s second year in the band in 1961, when he declared he believed he could play the congas better than the then-resident percussionist/congas player - Danny Barrajanos. One day, those congas were alone just about an hour before the show, and the band threw together an impromptu jam session in the dressing room, with MacDonald on congas. Close to showtime Harry Belafonte came round, hearing the session, and wanted to know what was going on, and also realized who was on congas. His only words were - "Hey Kid, tonight, I want you to come on stage when I do my calypso stuff and play the conga drums." This - from a man who never let anybody on stage without a rehearsal, simply scooped MacDonald up and placed him in the percussion/conga spotlight.
With this type of pedigree and after so many years, it is little wonder that this powerful musical force’s modus operandi is one of ‘Been there, done that, [don’t want] no stress,’ and at this stage of the game insists on knowing who will be the other musicians on a gig. He essentially prefers working and collaborating in environments where everyone knows what they are about, nobody is fussing, arguing. To make his point, he elaborates, “No prima donnas. Quincy Jones (who aptly calls the percussionist ‘MacD’) would say ‘The MUSIC is the prima donna; check your ego by the door - everybody's 'a star’ here!’”
And on his own projects, MacDonald enjoys surrounding himself with people of comparative genius and passion, not least of all gifted panist Robert Greenidge (pictured with MacDonald). He remembered how one time Greenidge stunned Tom Scott, a world-renowned conductor, composer, arranger, producer, saxophonist and musical director for the Academy and Emmy Awards. Scott was in Japan with MacDonald and had just heard Greenidge play his signature ‘Stardust.’ Very impressed he asked: "Who is that cat?" Scott would later say to Greenidge, "That song was nice, man, but you only played in one key." Greenidge said nothing, but the next night, took the stage and literally blew Scott away. Greenidge’s genius became crystal clear to Scott as he listened. Says MacDonald: "He was like 'Oh my God!’" and in awe as Greenidge dropped some completely new stuff, and of course in a different key, with this subsequent performance of ‘Stardust.‘ All Scott could say was "Ralph, tell me to shut up; remind me to keep my mouth shut the next time!"
MacDonald also benefited from and respectfully maximized on his close friendship with another musical genius during his lifetime – the late Rudolph ‘The Hammer’ Charles, legendary leader of Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. When the percussionist was ‘on the Hill’ he would admire Charles as he went about intricately eliciting that unique sound that was Desperadoes. He remembers ‘The Hammer’ fine-tuning, going for the "partial" (the harmonics to other nearby notes) - the third, fifth, seventh, eleventh and more, after the respective tuners (at the time Bertie Marshall, Lincoln Noel, Wallace Austin) had each taken care of their voicings.
Charles personally built the steelpan instruments that are to this day heard on Ralph MacDonald recordings. When he was alive, MacDonald always had Charles come up to his studio one day before the recording and tune those steelpan instruments (that would be played by Greenidge). Still in admiration of the Desperadoes legend, MacDonald expounds on the man who was indisputably a genius despite lacking any formal music training, citing one occasion when Charles was at the studio as customary to tune the steelpan instruments and put them in the key of the other musicians’ instruments.
As Charles listened to the tracks, and started to tune the steelpans, he asked by what the other instruments had been tuned. MacDonald said his electric strobe, to which Charles replied “your strobe is off.” “Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Randy Brecker, Eric Gale, all these musicians on the record, all played to the strobe - all with good pitch!” exclaimed MacDonald. They had already laid tracks down, and nobody had picked up any discrepancy. Giving Charles the benefit of the doubt, (and with more than just a little incredulity visible on the part of the other musicians), Ralph MacDonald called in to have the strobe checked out, only to have Charles’ statement confirmed: “Yeah, your strobe is off, Ralph.” Solely by ear, Rudolph Charles had been correct, and was unerringly accurate – unlike the strobe.
MacDonald has always been very vocal in his love and support for the steelpan instrument, and the people who are an integral part of its community. He is extremely keen on [Len] ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe – “love him, love him!!” And though Desperadoes is his band, he loves to go down to Phase II Pan Groove, Exodus and many others and come panorama time, his mantra is ‘may the best playing and performing band win!’ He has great respect for the annual steelband panorama championship in Trinidad & Tobago, but at the same time he is also fond of listening to the slow versions of panorama selections, and savoring the arrangements, as initially conceived by the arranger, and not necessarily at the breakneck pace that is customarily characteristic of panorama time, or in "warrior mode" as MacDonald laughingly terms it.
And his love for the instrument does not stop there; it is of great concern to him when, in the land of pan [Trinidad & Tobago], instead of the instrument itself, routinely synthesized pans are used on recordings, especially and most lamentably on ‘pan songs’ written expressly with panorama in mind. As MacDonald notes "Maybe out of ten [recordings], you might find one [featuring a real steelpan]. That's not a good ratio to me. Represent your music and your culture!”
And while there might be a problem of appreciation by some in the land of pan for their instrument, there is no shortage of the ‘newly-amazed’ off-shore. To make his point, MacDonald drew on just one of his many observances in a Jimmy Buffet concert featuring Greenidge on double seconds. With crowds of roughly fifty thousand in attendance, and around forty such shows a year, he has seen the majority routinely baffled when Greenidge (at right in picture, with David Rudder - center and MacDonald, left) plays. They try to figure out the ‘sound’ of his double seconds, and where it comes from. "How many hands he [Robert] got?" is the kind of question that is thrown around. “Sounds like a band!” is the commonplace exclamation. Now - imagine these people in the presence of a one hundred and twenty musician-strong steel orchestra? “They'd freak, they'd pass out! And that's exactly what we want!”
Jimmy Buffet is a multi-millionaire artist whose fortune is based on his somewhat ‘folk/rock/country’ sound with his band and a global throng of devotees, and has long since been one of the steelpan instrument converts – to the extent that he once had Desperadoes Steel Orchestra on a tour of Florida. Featured in that period was a song written by the threesome of MacDonald, Buffet and Greenidge called ‘King of Somewhere High.’ Before the tour, Buffet was in Trinidad and on his way ‘up the hill’ to Desperadoes’ pan yard. He has described it as an ‘out of body experience he would never forget for the rest of his life.’ The astounding reverberation of Desperadoes rehearsing the piece reached Buffet when he was only halfway up the hill. As he immortalized that experience later in the Buffet-biography ‘A Pirate Looks at Fifty’: "Up, up, up on the [Laventille] hill we went, and then I heard it. The music flowed down from above us like a stream of lava, and on the streets everyone was dancing or moving to the music. The higher we climbed, the louder it got. The bass pans were now clearly audible in their low register. My body was humming with the electricity of the moment. I didn't want to touch anything because I was so charged. I thought I might spark and explode right on the spot."
MacDonald enjoys paying homage to the steelpan as evidenced by the wealth of memories he recounts. He had taken Robert Greenidge along on a gig at The Blue Note in Japan, where the panist was obviously renowned, and was a huge hit. Reminiscing, MacDonald says that the predictably quiet and reserved Greenidge was taken aback when members of the Japanese audience asked for him after the performance; and he was even more flabbergasted that they had brought their own pan instruments, so that Greenidge would autograph them! The way MacDonald sees it: if you “don't speak the language - music speaks…that pan is a piano, that could stand up with the right person behind it - you take a ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe or a Robert Greenidge and put them right next to [the late Luciano] Pavarotti, and I guarantee they'll hold their own, and some more, put a little fire underneath them... [Pavarotti and such others]. This is how I feel about this instrument [steelpan].”
As astute a businessman as he is an artist, MacDonald is quite active in various areas outside of performing and recording projects. One such is with his music publishing company Antisia Music Inc. formed about forty years ago with fast friends as of many years, William Salter and William Eagan. He has been happily working on his autobiography for the past two years, along with a children’s book ‘the path.’ The latter focuses on his course (path) traveled through life and utilizes his experiences as a base, juxtaposed with the progression of an instrument that has also traveled afar - the drum. The voyage has various stops along the way: his African origins, Caribbean heritage, his early steps into manhood in Harlem, and the ongoing passage that has also turned Macdonald into a world-class and globe-trotting musician, bringing him to where he is at today.
And it is at the point of his latest CD release Mixty Motions that When Steel Talks is privileged to chronicle just some of the characteristics of the man - Ralph MacDonald.
By choice, Ralph MacDonald’s CDs, including Mixty Motions are available only online, not in stores. Get your copy of this distinctive and on-time music collection at his website at RalphMacDonald.com, and take in the ninety-minute plus interview with MacDonald here on Panonthenet.
Enter the world of Ralph MacDonald - enter his world of Mixty Emotions…
contact Ralph MacDonald: email@example.com
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