Kurtis (Conga Kurty) Parsons – To the Beat of His Own Drum

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I had the opportunity of finding Kurtis Parsons, aka “Conga Kurty” on Facebook, via a few Reggae groups in which I participate. I followed his Instagram, joined his fan group, and quickly learned just how talented a percussionist he is, as well as an intriguing individual. Kurty agreed to this interview, and I couldn’t be more excited for you to get to know this multifaceted individual a little more.

Kurty was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, which is ‘Home.’  When asked how old he is, Kurty replied, “I’m timeless.” He learned how to play percussion in 6th grade. He recalled a discussion with a teacher back then, which motivated and inspired him to become the artist he is today. The teacher, after listening to Kurty perform one day, told him, ‘’You don’t have the right rhythm. Go home and practice.” So that’s exactly what Kurty went ahead and did. Two weeks’ later, Kurty returned to his teacher to play again. This time, the teacher was pleased, and Kurty was placed in the drum section. He made his way to first chair. By 8th grade, you could find Kurty at the head of the class, playing the full kit in Specialty Jazz band.

He relocated to Hawaii in 1997, at the age of 18 years old. There, he was “brought in by local fams,” with whom he surfed, hunted, and fished. Kurty spoke of one day in Hawaii, when he unpacked the custom Tule bike his father made for him. He rode “from sea level to Pahoa, which was 11 miles from the airport, which was straight up hill.” He described how surprising this was to him, as his only experience of islands prior to the move was in cartoons (where the islands were tiny). His musicality grew in Hawaii as well, as he learned how to play the Ukulele.  

He went back home to Washington for a period of time, where he attended Massage School, and was trained in the healing arts. Kurty, Eric Woodruff, and Adam Luft all went to college in Bellingham, Washington. They formed the band Rise and Shine. That was Kurty’s first touring experience.

Next stop on his journey would be Mexico. While down there, Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds and Hirie, along with others, were down in Mexico donating instruments to orphanages. Hearing that Kurty was living down in Mexico, they found him, and signed him on to the tour. Touring with Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds was the next step in his journey in music, and Kurty expressed his sincere gratitude for the opportunity. Hirie asked Kurty to join her on tour next. As a result of these invitations, he’s had the opportunity to tour with Nahko and Medicine for the People, JBoog, Slightly Stoopid, Tribal Seeds, Michael Franti, Matisyahu, and so many others.

Since he’s had so much touring experience, I knew there had to be a few good (and a few bad) stories to tell. He wove a tale of a summer day, in the middle of the desert, 120 degrees heat, with a broken air conditioner. Or other times when the tour bus would break down and everyone had to pitch in and help out.

It was the Red Rocks Tour, in the middle of the summer, and the tour bus (Delilah) kept breaking down. That would be the worst [tour story], but also the best because it built character. You find out who people really are when shit hits the fan. Everybody in that whole crew put their best foot forward –family style. Where everybody’s skills were used. One guy was a really good mechanic, another was really organized, another was a good driver. Everyone took their roles on…Let’s make this work. Miraculously we’d be back on the road, make our gig.

Kurtis (Conga Kurty) Parsons, percussionist

He’s performed at many large festivals since those days, including One Love Festival, AZ Roots, and Reggae Rise Up – Florida. I ran into Kurty at the One Love Festival, in Long Beach, California, right before he took the stage with Slightly Stoopid. He was so humble and kind (I even took a selfie with him)!

Since I’d had the opportunity to see him immediately before he took the stage, it made me curious what was going through his mind at that time, and what it was like to go on stage in front of a huge crowd. So, I asked him.

Right before going on stage is the worst. 20, 15 minutes before. The moment you step on stage, you get hit with ‘rawarrrrrr’. I feel like King Kong once the music starts. Prior, I’m like a little, scared, mouse. Frantically running back and forth. As soon as I get on stage, I feel like it’s the coolest shit in the world.

I equate it like, my surfer buddies, being in the barrel. Once you’re in that little barrel and you’re holding it, and coming out of it, that’s what playing music is like to me.

Like Red Rocks. It was only a 30-minute set. But the night before, we drove 12 hours. We get to the location. We’re backing up the bus, hauling gear. It takes hours and hours, and 100s and 100s, if not 1000s of dollars to get a band to a gig, to play a 30-minute set.  And once you’re done, it’s ‘ok, now we’re done. Let’s go.’ Pack it up. Who’s the driver? We have to get to the next location by the next day. There’s no down time. Once I’m on stage. It’s the best feeling in the world.

For me, I’ll scan the audience. Whomever is smiling the biggest and making a connection with me, whether it’s a guy or girl or old or young, it doesn’t matter. Whomever is just so stoked to be there. I’ll just watch them and feed off that energy. And sometimes, it’s the majority of the crowd. Which is great. There are moments when everyone is so stoked. I look for my favorite person, my other favorite person, favorite families. Especially families with little kids. 

Kurtis (Conga Kurty) Parsons, percussionist

Kurty is dedicated to his music, telling me, “I want to be playing percussion until I’m a little old man. I want to be doing it at a big level, in front of people, on tv, and being paid well to do so.” When asked about his long-term goals, Kurty tells me that he wants to leave a legendary footprint as a percussionist. Kurty describes a night at the Grammy Awards, in Los Angeles, California. He pictures himself there, one day, as the house percussionist, “There’s always a percussionist, no one knows who he is but he’s shredding. I’m fine with that.” When asked who he’d like to play percussion with, he mentions Skip Marley, grandchild of Bob Marley, as well as H.E.R., Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, and Justin Timberlake (pretty eclectic).

If granted the immediate gift of learning a new instrument or way to create music, Kurty expressed an interest in the bass, in the ‘roots-y style’ of instruments. He grew very excited at this point in the interview, when he began to describe how he’d really like to learn how to use technology (beat machine, turntables), layered over his live percussion, to create a “tribal rhythm.” Kurty’s excitement for the new endeavor was catching – I replied, “Do it! I’ll subscribe!”

His tech-savviness aside, Kurty isn’t going to let anything stand in the way of his goals or accomplishing his dreams. Music is not his only passion project today. When I asked Kurty to describe what he’s been working on lately, his answer was a list. An impressive list at that.

Kurty has been working with his father on a school bus conversion for some time now. They took a retired Special Education bus and retrofitted it completely. The bus has within it:  hardwood floors, couch, small bed area, area that can fit a queen mattress, and storage. The roof is where it’s at though. Kurty and his father built a “corner-to-corner solid steel fitted roof deck.” Kurty envisions early morning Yoga sessions, or jam sessions with the band on this roof. If you’re interested in Kurty’s bus adventures, you can follow him @tinyschoolbusmovement, on Instagram.

Kurty is also hard at work in the Cannabis Movement and Industry. He envisions himself in five years, when asked, at a “huge upper level of Hemp and Recreational Marijuana production, making millions of dollars off of the industry.” He tells me of his passion for the plant and its uses. He’s been involved in the Cannabis Industry since the age of 14. To Kurty, “Every door that’s open to me today, including music, is because of the ganja plant.”  

We speak on the Cannabis Industry, and he tells me about how Hemp farmers have to register the same as Beet farmers, how it’s in “the same agricultural melting pot.” He’s taking small steps towards his future goals in this area, with distribution in Recreational Marijuana states such as Oregon or California. He is thankful for his financial backing and supportive friends and associates who have helped him along the way. We discussed Jack Herer’s book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and its look into the Cannabis Industry. Kurty tells me that he looks up to Herer, as a legend. He wants to leave ‘my footprint’ in a similar way as Herer did in the Industry.

Kurty is also focused on his health via his exercise routine, and the food he takes into his body. When asked what his favorite foods are and why, he replied, “Local, fresh, organic, non-GMO veggies. I make a salad, family-style, and eat the whole thing. Why? The way it makes me feel.” Kurty is a vegan and showcases his healthier food choices on Instagram. I’ve caught a few stories of his that intrigued me. One of which was a vegan pizza with sautéed garlic and mushrooms on top. I asked Kurty how someone like me could try on the vegan lifestyle. He responded, “Add one vegan meal a week. One a day. You realize you feel great. Better than when you eat a plate of bacon. Slowly introduce new foods a little at a time. Make it fun. If you’re going vegan right away, not familiar with all the alternatives, you are going to be really hungry and probably pissed off…Some like to go Gung ho, that’s great. But for me personally, I do better when I work into it…it becomes habitual.”

As our interview was winding down, I asked my usual question of my guests, “How can we support your goals?” Up until this point, I was already intrigued by Conga Kurty. His answer to this question really impressed me:

My biggest goal is to see the world be a better place. Not trying to be too cliché. Each individual doing something healthy and conscious for themselves. Becomes a domino effect. Every person in their own home in their space, doing what they could to help their neighbor out, meditating, eating healthy.

I just feel like there’s this whole shift happening, especially with this whole Coronavirus thing happening, govt and politicians and all this ‘what if.’ That would be my calling. I could give my Venmo’s and my stuff. Of course, that’s nice. Financials are nice. Liking my posts. I feel amazing when you do that. But, more so, I ask anyone watching this post…to do a little extra to better our state of mind, what we think, what we feel, what we project. That would be my wish, my calling, my hope, my prayer.

Kurtis (Conga Kurty) Parsons, percussionist

As a final question, I ask if my guests have any ‘shout outs’ that they’d like to give. Kurty shouted out his mother and grandmother, who passed away this past year. He says that “there’s this potent feeling of love and spirit and guidance,” that’s he’s felt since their passing. He “encourages those who have lost a loved one to tap into that feeling. It’s so real.” Kurty continues, “I no longer feel a sorrow, I feel a total stoke that I have these little ghost angels working things out for me. Even if that’s not true, it makes me feel so good. Native Americans, different tribes, believe it’s a celebration [when someone passes on]. I believe the same. I’m so excited when my time comes. Stoked on life. Happy, healthy while I’m here. But when my time is, I’m ready. I’m excited to be an angel for my loved ones.”

With that touching shout out, Kurty winds down our interview by playing us out. He pulls out his drum, and began a Nyabinghi, which originated in Africa. It’s played often in Jamaica to this day. Kurty expresses that the Nyabinghi is for “those locked up, for rebirth, passing on,” and, “It’s the sound of a heartbeat.” As my microphone picked up the beat, and I heard the gentle rhythm play on Kurty’s drum, I knew in my heart that I was in the presence of something, someone, great. I look forward to seeing Kurty play to the beat of his own drum well into the future.

To learn more about Kurty, follow him on Instagram: @congakurty.

Published by Shark Harbor Sunset

Life is an adventure. Care to join me?

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