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The child prodigy who invented bucket drumming

If you live in a city, you probably have a love/hate relationship with bucket drumming: Sometimes it's an unlistenable cacophony, and sometimes it's art. If you heard Larry and Sonia Wright playing, you'd find yourself stopped on the street, listening to surprisingly subtle and intricate drumming. The duo elevates street performance into something spectacular.

That's not a coincidence: Larry Wright has a surprisingly strong claim to having popularized bucket drumming busking in America.

The early days of bucket drumming, and what we do and don't know

Narrowing down a street art like bucket drumming is a little like trying to find the first example of graffiti: There are examples all over the world of the art form, and the real "first" is probably undocumented. Some bucket drummers go as far back as the Civil War, when 13-year-old volunteers would play drums on their dinner buckets. International examples abound, as well — drummer Frisner Augustin recalled playing on a plastic bucket during his childhood in Haiti in the 1950s and '60s.

Factored into that are considerations of when exactly plastic buckets were invented. As plastic became a more common material in the '50s and '60s, inventors like Earl Tupper (of Tupperware fame) helped plastic become more mainstream. Early patents, like this 1967 one for a plastic bucket, also helped, and people probably considered hitting them the second they bought one.

That said, American bucket drumming is surprisingly easy to track to one key person.

Child prodigy Larry Wright changed bucket drumming techniques

In 1990, the Associated Press wrote about an amazing kid named Larry Wright, a 13-year-old who'd taken it upon himself to drum in the subways. The AP story focuses on the painful personal history that marked his street performing career, including the death of his mother when he was 15, after she was shot during a robbery of their Harlem apartment. After she died, Larry lived with his grandmother.

That dramatic — and heartrending — personal story risks overshadowing the important technical innovations Wright brought to bucket drumming. His biggest musical ideas were outlined by Julia Kaye, writing for the Drummer's Journal in a fascinating 2013 profile. First, Wright uses different buckets and parts of the buckets to create different sounds: For example, the rim of the bucket serves as a hi-hat, while a seven-gallon bucket might act as a bass compared with the usual five-gallon bucket.

But the most important breakthrough might be his use of his foot on the bucket. By lifting a bucket in time with his drumming, he can use it to create a different sound:

Larry Wright's foot technique

Larry Wright's foot technique.

YouTube

Those technical innovations made bucket drumming into an art form, and with a national media platform, it was possible for people around the world to see Wright at work.

His celebrity in the early '90s helped promote bucket drumming

Perhaps as crucial as Wright's drum skills was the national media interest that gave his style of drumming a unique platform. Though many sources credit Wright with inventing bucket drumming — including Wright himself — it needed a way to spread. Though consistent subway busking was an easy way to spread his technique, in a pre-internet age it would have been difficult for bucket drumming to go "viral" without a large media platform. Wright found it.

He appeared in a documentary (featured above) and a Levi's commercial (shown at the top of this section) helmed by Spike Lee. He even showed up in the 1990 Mariah Carey video "Someday" (he appears in the first 20 seconds):

Those early media appearances doubtless raised the profile of bucket drumming — it was an innovation that was easy to imitate (albeit difficult to imitate well). With those early media appearances came street-music-influenced Broadway shows like Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk (in which Wright played on occasion) and Stomp. Bucket drumming had become part of the street music canon, probably thanks to Wright and the major media popularity he found.

What bucket drumming's greatest player is doing now

Today, Larry Wright doesn't work alone — he's joined by his wife, Sonia, who plays the bass bucket with him. They continue to busk, seven hours a day, in New York City subways (as seen in 2011's busking documentary The Yellow Card).

Early profiles of Wright focused on efforts to bring him to traditional drumming. In the '90s, his drumming was praised by legendary drummer Max Roach, and he was awarded the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship, earning him a free drum set and music lessons (which he never took). He told Ashley Taylor, writing for the Beacon Reader, that he preferred playing in the subway with his wife, though he was open to other opportunities.

Today, bucket drummers around the world follow the example that he set. Though their rhythms are more likely to break down into cacophony, they're following a musical precedent improved and popularized by one person. In a 2015 WBEZ profile of bucket drummers in Chicago, the best drummers had added to Wright's style and said that an accompanying vocal was the sign of a great drummer. And chances are if you're walking a city street, you'll get to hear the style continue to change in the years to come.