"Big people learn to manage the space they inhabit", that's what my business partner Joseph McElroy once said to me. And the more large people you meet, the truer it feels. Tomas Doncker is a giant of a man and despite his peaceful demeanor, there is something explosive about him. When he comes to hug you hello, there is an element of being crushed, and when he plays guitar on stage, he seems to suck you into the centrifugal force of his personality. He doesn't play easily, the bands he likes, the people he records on his label True Groove (distributed by Sony Label), all of them, are edgy, abrupt, powerful, uneasy listening that demands a response.
Similar to the music he loved as child. "I was watching television late at night, those 1970s music shows, Don Kirshner's Rock concert, when a prog-rock band came on. I went crazy. I went running into my parents bedroom, I didn't knock on the door, I went running in. I woke my Mom up, 'Mommy, come down here, you have to hear this'. My Mom understood, she got. I pointed to the TV and I said, 'Mommy, that's what I want to do.'"
This is Tomas Doncker, the man and the band behind "The Power Of Trinity", behind the insurrection of Ethiopian Soul in the US. Befind "Children of Darfur". This is Tomas Doncker. Does he think he will make it big? "I've already made it big," the large , muscular man replies.
Doncker is 50 years old. Both his parents were deeply involved in the Black Caribbean Political movement of of the 1960s, and by the 1970s were part of New York's power structure. Like all winners of wars, they joined the mainstream. "I remember as a child, big meetings, big talks about the changes which were coming down. This was in Brooklyn, we were a Middle Class family, we weren't what you might think of, we were part of the mainstream. But at the time my parents were deeply involved in the movement."
It was Tomas' mother who lit the fuse to his deep love and commitment to music, to the guitar. She taught him at an early age, indeed, at the moment he claimed to want to spend his life as a musician, that what it took was discipline. And today, it is as if part of his love of music is a transmigrification of his adoration of his late mother. "She is with me every day, all the time. I can feel her aura", he claims. And appearances notwithstanding, this isn't a particularly new world statement: it is more like a reality you might share.
Some homes were filled with music and Tomas had one of those types of homes, an unquestioned safe haven where Tomas could grow into his gifts. he played in band after band, school bands, his own band, he wrote songs, music, and he played live and he practiced.
But here something of Tomas' true nature came to play. A gifted athlete, Doncker was a star High School Basketball player till he quit after losing a regional finals. . "I was a great basketball player, very talented, very gifted. But I loved the game for the game, I loved being on a team. I loved playing on a team with my team mates and if we didn't win, as long as we played well, I was good with it. We had played a great game and though we lost I was very happy but I looked at my team mates and they were all crying as though someone had died. It was then I realized it wasn't for me."
Much like his love for music, Doncker's love for basketball was pure.
1. He loved the dynamics and atheticism more than the competition.
2. He loved the team spirit.
3. And he loved to lead a team.
These attributes caused him to drop out of the college and pursue music full time. It is also reflected in his current musical interests: Tomas leads his band filled with likeminded friends, records these friends, who step in and out of the spotlight, releases their albums. Sometimes a back up singer, like Heather Power or Lael Summer, is up front leading the way, with a new EP just released, sometimes they are in the background lending their voice to the greater good. Doncker is the leader but he is the TEAM LEADER.
This comes into play with Tomas' first big break. A former band member, and jazz greater Lester Bowie's brother Joseph Bowie, was playing with James White And The Contortions and called Tomas to tell him James was holding auditions. There were a lot of people auditioning and one guitarist in particular seemed likely to get the position. A local legend, and a great musician, it seemed to be his for the taking. Tomas, at a mere 20 years of age, got the job. Why? "The guy was a great musician, a better musician than I am, and he knocked everybody out. But he played FOR THEM, I played WITH THEM." The team player again.
This during the second (some claim third!) wave of punk rock, and Tomas was at the centrifugal point of the New York Underground scene. James Chance was a genius white mash up of skronking jazz, punk noise, and James Brown funk, and signed to Ze records, there was no cooler place to be on earth. How cool? Tomas was there when Joe Papp discussed launching an (off) Broadway musical with August Darnell. You know, Kid Creole And The Coconuts. Kid Creole recorded for Ze records, so did Tomas's mentor Bill Laswell's band Material, Nona Hendrix was around for that. Suicide, Arto Lindsay… you get the picture.
Tomas found the scene as vibrant and alive as you and I did, and by the time they reached Los Angeles were heralded with an LA Times headline dubbing them the new Bruce Springsteen. Given the music the Contortions were playing, it speaks volumes as to their gifts. But that was the apex, and, as New York as the epicenter to the world began to implode in drugs and, soon after, AIDS, the bottom was falling out of everything. "Drugs, it was drugs that ended things." Tomas explains. And not just the Contortions, but the band Doncker joined next, Defunkt. Listen to Defunkt today and they are still an unbelievable thing. They sound like Chic plastered by Miles Davis circa Black Magus and scrambled like hell. And drugs derailed Defunkt as well. Tomas, as lively a man, and as passionate a conversationalist as you will ever meet, quietens down as he remembers the 1980s. It is really a sad story, it is as if all the things that might have made the scene so great propelled it into oblivion. It would take years for the great musician to find his way back in.
At the heart of Donker's story, in this closing of the first part of his story, there is the crashing to earth of the New York music scene and its failure to ever completely recover. Even at the turn of this century with the rebirth of Stones influenced hard rock, even today with a thousand scenes blooming, there isn't the sense of excitement and adventure. The influence of the "No New York" movement ha left guitarist, Doncker free to take rock anywhere, to give free form all the elements of jazz, funk, rock and roll, from the metal bands he loved as a child to the Ethiopian soul he sometimes plays today, this foundation, although in some ways on quicksand, came forward here as it can only do for a master musician with a serious musical pass.
And Doncker is nothing if not a great musician. The first time I heard him live, at the Summerstage presentation of "Power Of The trinity" I was mesmerized not by his stealth but by his power. He is so big you worry the guitar is going to break off in his hand and even seated at the front of his band, he towers over the other three quarters of the page. His aura, even his consistent "Peace" salutation, is a force field. A couple of days after he played China, Doncker was telling me about having problems with somebody from the UN. "I was getting upset and I wasn't threatening him but he could tell I was upset." I bet the guy could tell it and then some. It is this passion that defines the man.
But there is a danger in passion and it has to do with disillussionment and as the bottom fell out of the 1980s, Doncker had enough of music. he gave it up.
Like so many of us, Doncker found the post-AIDS, and post every other band in the world, a land of horrors and it took till the late 1980s, when he moved to Japan and began work with jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and actually formed an early version of what would become his current True Groove Records. But he wasn't quite there yet, and returned to New York, where he became, and remains, an in demand session man as well as producer and songwriter upon occasion for a mind-bending roster of peers including Ivan Neville, Yoko Ono and Bootsy Collins. This is a hands on approach to music making. "I had friends who wanted to play on my albums. They're like, email me a track I'll and play over it. I absolutely refuse to do that. You want to play on my album, good, but then come here and let's play together. You can't make music that way, you can't make music if you can't be in the same room as the person you're making music with."
That could be considered a line that you can not cross with Doncker. he isn't a Luddite but still, he is hands on and not digitally mannered: he is about the realness of music, of a shared spirit.
In 2007 came his first album Inside/Out, a funk workout with worlds of soul inside it and he followed it with The Mercy Suite, a collaboration with the Pulitzer price winning poet Yusef Kounyakaa, a man, along with Bill Laswell, whom Doncker considers a mentor. "I had lunch with Yusef the other day and I had a problem and without me having to mention anything specific, he found the answer I was looking for".
And without getting specific, this would appear to have something to do with a member of the Doncker Band who wasn't being professional. At the heart of True Groove records, is the Doncker Band, they play everything from country to West African Soul and they play on all True Groove Releases. When I ask him about James Chance reputation for being difficult, he corrects. "No, Chance wasn't difficult. he took a risk with me, with the headaches of taking a young kid across the country to play in clubs. But he didn't let the musicians get away with not giving 100%. he understood that one person can destroy a band. And I have been weak in the past, thinking I could give a second chance. But I can't. You are either going to give the band everything or you can't play with us. It isn't fair to the other band members. A band is a family…"
In 2009, Doncker released Small World, and in 2011, Small World Part II, in 2010 in performed in china for the first time as part of the "Shanghai Folk Festival" to 100,000 listeners.
But still everything wasn't fitting 100%, till Doncker was contacted to write the score for the play on the verge of becoming a musical, "Power Of The Trinit". . The story of Hailer Seaside's attempt to move the United Nations into stopping Italy's encroachment on Ethiopia in the early 1930s. The score is the best thing Doncker has ever done. With Ethiopian guitarist (Doncker dubs him the countries Hendrix) Selam Woldemariam and one of the biggest singers Ethiopia has ever given the world, Mahmud Ahmed, working alongside him, along with the Doncker Band, it fulfills every promise Global Soul has in it. Doncker is in discussions to mount a production on the road, or in nyc or perhaps even in London. certainly, it is to West Africa what "Fela!!" was to East Africa.
As far as I can tell Tomas is probably right, he probably is succeeding at what he intends to do. He has a record label distributed by SONY, he has a family of musicians who play upon each others records for Truerue Groove Records, he gets to play whatever he likes for whoever he likes whenever he likes, release the music, tour, and grow his Label and concept larger and larger. Perhaps the most exciting thing Doncker has going on is a recording with Mahmud Ahmed. Something I would consider it the instantaneous album to beat in 2013.
A long way from the boy rushing into his parents room all those years ago. "I know my Mother's spirit is with me," Tomas says of his late parent who has proven to be such a big influence on his life. "I believe in an afterlife, I know she is still here." And in the here and now, Donckers' 50 year journey is just beginning.