Cyro Baptista Has a Drum For Your Soul
By J.C. Tripp
Whether by luck or fate, Brazilian composer, band-leader and “madman percussionist” Cyro Baptisa landed in the right place at the right time. Like a Brazil-alien dropping from the sky, the São Paulo- raised Baptisa came to New York in the early ’80s just when “world music” (as we know it) was in its genesis. His prolific career has paralleled the rise of both world music and New York City’s avant-garde improv scene.
Arriving in upstate New York in the early ’80s, Baptisa studied at the global-fusion hotbed of Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio. Living on a communal farm and jamming alongside Don Cherry, Trilok Gurtu, Karl Berger and his idol, Nana Vasconcelos was a fortuitous and profound experience for Baptisa. Two months later he moved down-river to New York City, busking on the streets and subways to get by. The going wasn’t always easy but Baptista took inspiration from the energy of the city’s streets, channeling it into his style — one that ranges from maddeningly cacophonic to seductively gentle. From the streeta Baptisa had the good fortune of hooking up with John Zorn, a match of two equally offbeat minds.
New York became Baptista’s home, where’s he now lived for 22 years. It’s the place where he’s found his voice, working within the downtown scene, as well as with Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Cassandra Wilson and Laurie Anderson. His solo recordings includes “Vira-Loucos: Cyro Baptista Plays the Music of Villa-Lobos”, which interprets a number of themes by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Like its title (translated: going crazy), it’s a wild reinterpretation of the composer that, as Baptista says, might have the composer rolling in his grave. Other projects include “Supergenerous”, a brilliant excursion in improvisation and acoustics with guitarist Kevin Breit and his most ambitious project, Beat the Donkey.
Baptista has reached a creative zenith with the 10-member group Beat the Donkey. This wildly entertaining and percussive ensemble takes its name’s translation —” let’s go, let’s do it” — to heart. It’s a hyper-meltdown of Brazilian rhythms mixed with rock, funk and everything in-between. For Beat the Donkey’s live show, Baptisa orchestrates a continuous flow of energy: drumming, dancing, Capoeira performance, singing, and a DJ, for a musical spectacle unlike any other. Recently touring with Phish’s Trey Anastasio at Radio City Music Hall, Beat the Donkey created a traffic-stopping marching from the stage out onto 6th Avenue for a giant block party and samba drumming session with the entire audience. Beat the Donkey’s self-titled debut does a spectacular job capturing the groups intensity, covering the full spectrum of possibilities. The recording was recently selected by tne New York Time’s Neil Strauss at one of 2002’s best alternative albums.
Nailing down Baptista is a matter of a few phone call attempts — after all this is a busy man. But, upon contact, Baptista is as irreverent, engaging and receptive as his music. During the conversation Baptista’s sense of humor is ever-present, with his uproarious laugh marking many of his responses. Here’s a serious man who doesn’t take himself too seriously and a man who really lives his music.
In addition to his impressive accomplishments, Cyro Baptista is one funny guy as the following interview reveals. If he can’t win your over with his music, he’ll surely do so with his disarming laugh.
MV: I’d like to discuss a little of your history — at one time you studied in Woodstock. Can you tell me about that?
CB: That’s funny because I just went to Woodstock to record yesterday. That was at CMS, Creative Music Studio, that was a school at a farm and I was invited. And I was in the right place at the right time, because it had amazing teachers there, no? Nana Vasconcelos and Don Cherry and Trilok Gurtu and it was amazing people living on the farm. And I stayed there for like two months and I learned ten years of music. I was really lucky, you know, because it wasn’t like a formal school. It was ‘let’s play music’. I think it’s very difficult to teach music and it was great, I learned so much there. It was the beginning of this, what they call now ‘world music’. This was in 1980, that’s when people from many different cultures started to get together and say ‘wow, we can play together — it’s not so different, we have many things in common too. And that was my beginning. I stayed there and it’s great that now I can come back there and the people that founded this school, like Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso, they were at the recording yesterday and then I came back and it was nice because we remembered the old times. And today I can help them.
MV: So, that was your introduction to New York?
CB: Well, I finished there and I had like seventy dollars in my pocket and I said ‘I’ll go to New York to spend the seventy dollars’. (laughter) ‘And I’ve been here for 22 years!’
MV: You really stretched that money!
CB: It was amazing, because I came to New York and I felt like it was my place, you know? I see people come to New York and the first day they arrive they hate it. But there are others who like it, and that was my case. Even if it was a hard beginning for me here. I started to play in the streets, from the street I went to the studio and everything’s happened, you know? You know what, when I give an interview, usually I say, ‘Oh, man, I played in the street, I lived in the subway’, and people don’t want to listen to that. They always want to hear, ‘Oh yeah, I came and suddenly I was playing with Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon’ (laughs). They like this part more than the other one.
MV: I’ve lived in New York and I know what a struggle it can be.
CB: But I was very lucky. It’s very nice, I came from the airport and went straight to Woodstock. And that’s beautiful for somebody who comes here. I came to New York, then I met (John) Zorn and he was starting this thing that they call downtown music today. With all these people, Marc Ribot, you know, and Joey Baron. We started to play in the little clubs, then the little clubs turned into the Knitting Factory and people started to like what we was doing — I don’t know how (laughther). But the city was great because I met all of the people that were crazy like me. You could go to the stage and shout or do whatever you wanted and incorporate that into the music — improvise, you know?
MV: Are your foundations primarily Brazilian?
CB: That’s what it is. And I think this is very important, to have a foundation, your thing, no? That I can stretch, that I can go completely bananas with, strange, improvising music or rock and roll. Whatever, but I always have a home to come back to. It’s what keeps me kind of sane.
MV: Otherwise you lose track.
CB: I think it’s important that you build a foundation from your culture, no? It’s like in terms of percussion. I see a lot of it in America: people want to learn percussion from India, from this or that, and they don’t see that there’s amazing percussion here. Like, I learned how to play the washboard. It’s an amazing instrument and it’s that — you have a lot of beautiful things here.
MV: So, you basically experiment with your traditions.
CB: Yes, that’s what it is. I call them ‘modern traditions’ (laughs).
MV: On your CD ‘Beat the Donkey’ you play percussion, but you also sing.
CB: Yeah, I do. I don’t know if I should do that (laughs). But I call myself the Brazilian Frank Sanatra. That’s a joke. I work with percussion but I know there’s the traditonal people that play, and I respect a lot, like the Three Congas. The traditional way to be a percussionist, no? I see percussion more as like an orchestra sound. Percussion has harmony and melody there, it’s not just rhythm, no? And I don’t know, sometimes I think that I’m the only one who believes that(laughs). Especially when I go to the record company and they say ‘What is that you did? It’s just percussion, I don’t see melody and harmony.’ And I say ‘Yes, it’s there.’ But, then I start to sing to make the melodies more obvious.
MV: That is very much a Brazilian thing because the rhythm is so prevalent. The melody is played out in the percussive element.
CB: Yes. If you compare it with latin music — that’s very different. With Brazilian it’s much more simple, no? Like, if you see they (Latin music) have the congas, the timbales, the cowbell, it’s not many elements but they are very complex. And in Brazil it’s like they have very simple parts but there are like 200, 300, sometimes 3,000 in the carnival playing together. And that is a different way to build up the polyrhythmn. And it’s simple parts but many people — and I like that. I like this kind of celebration mood that it creates.
MV: Talking about that in relation to “Beat the Donkey.” Is that a concept that just came out of the blue? How did it develop?
CB: Well, you know, in Brazil the percussion is very much a part of everyday life. Like the guy who drives the ambulance is a percussionist. When you’re eating at the table — I remember my father beating the table, doing the rhythm. I mean, it’s all the time. And that’s what we talk, having many people playing together and I always wanted to be involved with that. You know, we live in this time for me where you can sit in front of the computer, like I see so many people that I work for — alone. And you can do a whole album sitting in front of the computer and you have all the instruments in the computer. I remember when I first came up with idea for “Beat the Donkey”, I asked for a percussionist and he said ‘But why Cyro do you want ten people? Me and you, we can do this alone.’ And I said ‘Well, we can, but that’s not the idea. It’s like I wanted to do something together. Music is that. Now we watch TV, play video games, and all these things we do alone. There’s so many things that we do alone. And that’s what I want to pass with Beat the Donkey, no? Also, because when I play I have many instruments that I built with PVC pipes or with a Coca-Cola sign or with junk. And then I play and after the concert I have people who come to me and say ‘Oh man, I can do that too.’ In the beginning I used to get pissed off because it took me a long time to practice. But, it’s great that they feel that. I’m passing a vibe that “anybody can do that” and it’s true, anybody can do that. It’s something direct, it’s not like a guy who sits there doing a very complicated thing that you go home feeling ‘Oh my goodness, this guy’s a genius’, you know? That’s what I want people who go to Beat the Donkey to feel, ‘wow, I can be part of that, I can do that!’
MV: And with the huge ensemble that you have, you’re the orchestra leader or the band leader. You pull all of the elements together?
CB: Yes, I come with ideas: ideas I’ve had for a long time or fresh ideas and I ask for them to do it. And they start to do and it starts to become another thing (laughs), because percussion has that — it’s very easy to input on that. Everbody comes with their own experience and it’s not very difficult to be a band leader there. It’s a collective thing.
MV: How did the album come together?
CB: We were lucky. It was hard to get somebody to put the album out. At the time I started to do the album I was signed with Blue Note and then I brought this idea there and they said ‘but this is percussion’ (laughs). Well, now the album came out and yesterday the New York Time’s John Parelis put us on his list of the best 10 independent albums of the year. And that helps a lot. Also, I’m really grateful to Zorn who’s label, Tzadik, it’s on.
MV: You work with John Zorn in the studio on many projects, right?
CB: With Zorn, I met him when I came in 1980 and I’ve done 20 or 30 albums with him. Many soundtracks for movies — hollywood feature films to Japanese porno. We did everything you can imagine (laughs).
MV: So you’re obviously a man who can switch gears and wear many hats.
CB: Oh, man you don’t believe the collection of hats I have. It’s funny, I wake up in the morning and say ‘how I can do that?’ and how lucky I am, you know. The other day I was playing with Sting and now I’m doing an album with Yo Yo Ma, and also now I’m playing with Trey Anastasio from Phish. We played in Chicago in July! Man, it was a great concert. It was the best concert on the whole tour, it was amazing the people went bananas. For me, to play with Trey has been a great experience because I could be a grandfather of many of the people in the band (laughs). I’m the oldest person in the whole venue!
MV: How did you connect with Phish?
CB: They called me and I said what’s this? Because at the time I was playing with Medeski, Martin and Wood. Billy Martin used to study with me when he was young. And then he said, ‘play with me and my band’. I went to play and I ended up falling into this vibe of music. It’s new for me and I love it. It’s young people and they are doing something that I really respect. They don’t depend on record companies, they don’t depend on nobody and they are huge! We did the the Bonnaroo Festival in July. They kept me for the tour and they said ‘oh, man we’re gonna play this Bonnaroo, it’s gonna be the shit, it’s gonna be great’. And I said, what the fuck is this?’ And then we go out there and it was like 70,000 kids going apeshit! Going really crazy and it amazing. Nobody knew how these people got there in the middle of Tennessee in a place that’s nowhere, with no record company behind, no nothing. It’s amazing what these guys do, no? They don’t depend on selling albums, they do a show and a lot of people go.
MV: It’s good to know that music can thrive outside of all the problems with the music industry.
CB: These guys from the music industry, they’re gonna go down. I’m sure that they’re days are numbered. I played like three years ago, I did an album with Herbie Hancock, “Gershwin’s World” and we won a Grammy for it. Then I started to tour with him, and he’s a great guy, we ended up being good friends. And he told me, ‘Look I told these guys 15 years ago, either you change or you’re going to go down. Things are going to change.’ And they don’t want to change. They are crying that the kids are downloading from the internet. And yes they are downloading from the internet and that’s the way it’s gonna be. Everything is changing. It’s gonna be a different way to divide the cake, no? The musicians of the young generation don’t need to pass for what I pass, you know? And I hope so, it looks like it’s gonna change for something better.
MV: Well, another record you did, which I belive was your first solo record, was “Vira Loucos”. How did that recording come together?
CB: “Vira Loucos” was my first album, and I was so scared (laughs). Because I’d played on so many albums, no? With many people and many albums that they know in the show. And I didn’t want to do another album that’s gonna be like that, you know? And then I was in Miami to do a concert with Michael Tylson Thomas, who’s the conductor of the San Francisco Philharmonic and he was doing a program on Villa-Lobos. And, believe it or not, these people invited me but I went there to do a solo in the middle of the concert, and then I stayed with the orchestra in the middle. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to do that, but it’s the most amazing thing you can do is to be in the middle there. Because different sounds come from the sides — it’s amazing. And I knew Villa-Lobos, but not much. And then this day I thought ‘this guy’s a motherfucker’. And I said I’m gonna do an album with his music because it had so much percussion there. And that’s how I decided. Zorn said ‘No man, that’s great, let’s do it’. And I did it in like three days. We went to the studio, we prepared a lot before, but ‘boom’ we did a mix and I was very happy with the results.
MV: Well, he’s been more recognized in North America in the last few years as a great composer.
CB: Yeah, he’s considered one of the ten best composers. Like I say on the album, I don’t know maybe he’s turning in his grave by what I did to his music (laughs). It was great and to this day it’s still selling.
MV: You’ve done quite a bit of work with Cassandra Wilson? It’s amazing that you can create something like ‘Beat the Donkey’ that is very experimental and brings in so many elements. And then you can really tone things down and really get very serious.
CB: I think one of the reasons Cassandra called me was that she knew what I could do in terms of percussion and being more orchestal percussion sound with organic instruments. And then she called me for the first album. I didn’t know her very well but she called me to do arrangements for percussion — that’s how I first met her. And it was a funny story, because I went the studio to do these songs that I arranged for five or six percussions. And I said ‘look, the thing is very easy, you play this part’. But they don’t want to do that. You know how the studio is: no window, no woman, it’s a very hard place. And you have some ego happening there. And I saw that the situation was heavy, no? Then I start to tell some jokes and then I start to do some imitations of like, a Chinese percussionist, a Puerto Rican percussionist. I did that and then they relaxed and then they played. Then passed like three or four months and the producer Craig Street called me and says ‘look Cyro, your song is on the album’ And I said ‘which song? I never wrote a song.’ And he says, ‘no, you remember the imitations you did? We recorded that and it’s going to be on the album.’ And I said, ‘no, don’t do that’. But he said ‘it’s too late, the label loved it and it’s there already.’ I said ‘Oh, shit!’ But I thought, maybe nothing’s gonna happen, let’s forget about it. But then it sold 300,000 right away! And, well, I think I made more money with that tune then I did with all my other tunes combined (laughs).
MV: What sytle do you prefer? Jazz or world or improv or what?
CB: I like what I’m doing at that moment. When I was younger I used to say, ‘oh, I hate this kind of music, I’m never gonna play that’, you know? And then later I was playing that with all my heart (laughs). Then I learned, no, don’t say that you prefer this to that. But I like it a lot when I play and I’m feeling like I’m playing with friends. That’s very important for me. Like, I played with Laurie Anderson. Well, that’s great, it was like friends for life. Like with Herbie (Hancock), he’s a Buddhist and I turned into a Buddhist. You know some people and it’s not just music you’re doing but you’re like living together and then you bring that to the music. Sometimes this is more important than the music, no? Because I think that’s what people want. And going back to Beat the Donkey. Like my siter, she’s a biologist and she went do research with the Indians in a park in Brazil that nobody can go, it’s closed. And I told her ‘look, you’re going to see the Indians? Any instrument you find, you bring to me! I want to know what they do.’ And then she came back with this little piece of wood with a little gourd on the top and with a string with a piece of teeth of an animal. And then you shake it and you can barely hear the sound. And I said ‘what is that? This doesn’t make any sound’. She said ‘yeah, but six o’clock every day 2,000 get together and start to shake that’. And that’s the shit, because these are not musicians, it’s like a people who get together at a certain time of the day and do a sound together. That’s what man is, it’s this tribal thing that we have forgotten that we have inside us, you know? That’s what I want people to listen to with Beat the Donkey, that we still have fire that we can get together and rock the shit.
MV: Experiencing Beat the Donkey live was just that. It was really being part of something.
CB: Yes. But then when I play with these big names, I like if they do that. I don’t like when it starts to be all going through the moves. But it’s amazing. Like, I played six years with Paul Simon with an amazing band: with Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, and we played every night for 20,000. At one date we played for 750,000 in Central Park. And I learned a lot about that, but I also learned a lot from the Indians.
MV: You studied with Nana Vasconcelos. Was that in Brazil or New York?
CB: I knew Nana’s work and then that’s why I told you, when I came to Woodstock, luckily he was there. It’s amazing that this happened. And Nana turned into my master. Today I look back and I see that I’m so lucky to have that, you know? I don’t know if people still have that, knowing somebody who you learn from. And it’s very important to learn from somebody you really love, you really respect. And I learned a lot from him, and he turned into my best friend and till today we are comapadres. And we cook every week together, bacalau and this was the most important thing I learned with him. I even mention this on the album. I dedicated my album to him. Now he’s living in Brazil but he’s still a good friend. And, I learned so much with him, we did a band together that’s called the Bush Dancers. And we did an album called “Rain Dance” on Antilles. It’s very difficult to find but it’s an amazing album. We played for like three years together, in Europe and a little bit in America. And we did many things, we did soundtracks for movies together. It was great because I learned from him and I played with him, I did the whole cycle. I learned so much, the business too because it’s very difficult: to make music is great but the business is one of the lowest businesses on the planet, it’s really dirty. You need to know how to keep your creativity and to be honest with your creation. And also deal with this mafia, these gansters! (laughs).
MV: Yes, like the guy who’s running this country right now.
CB: Even Bush cannot help them anymore (laughs).
MV: Do you check in on the scene in Brazil at all? Is there anything going on that interests you?
CB: It’s hard for me because I’m here for 22 years, I’m so involved here. Before, when I played with Brazilians, they’d say ‘Oh, you turned into an American!’ and I used to get really pissed with that. But, no. Now that I’m getting older I said ‘Yes, I have a part of my heart that’s American’. You cannot live in a place for this long and feel like you hate everybody. A lot of my music is the sound of the subway and the lights of the street in New York, no? Many of these things inspire me. But, I think there are amazing people in Brazil. Like Marisa Monte, she’s an amazing singer, incredible. I played on her album. Or Chico Science? He died but all that movement! When I went to Brazil I went to Pernambuco, that’s Northeast of Brazil. That’s a cool place! Amazing music, so many different types of tradition in one small place. In one night you’ll see so many things it’ll blow you mind, you know? I believe in the planet, earth, there’s some places that have musical energy and maybe has others that don’t and I’m sure parts of Brazil has this energy gravitating there, like New York has. Even if now New York has turned into a Disney World it still has it.
MV: What are your thoughts on Gilberto Gil becoming Minister of Culture?
CB: Oh man, it’s amazing. I read it in the paper and I got so happy. I played with him and Nana in Brazil not long ago at a percussion festival there in Bahia. And he’s a geat guy — just to talk with him. He’s full of light, you know? And it’s funny, he’s been my idol. He always was the opposition, like they threw him out of Brazil. It was funny, his first words were ‘I always was throwing rocks in the window. And now I’m the window.’ (laughs) I don’t think they got Gilberto Gil because he was a big name and a pop star of something. He has experience, he’s already worked in politics. He did all these things in Bahia, working with the culture. He’s a guy who’s really into that. For me, to see a guy who’s a musician, especially in Brazil, is amazing because that’s totally opposite what a musician was in Brazil. I remember when I started to play, I used to go in the street after the gig and go eat something. And suddenly the police arrive and they say ‘OK, show the papers you work’. And I had my union card and I’d show it and they’d say ‘A musician, no. I’m asking what’s your work?’ And maybe the best Brazilian musicians are driving cabs. And now, Gilberto Gil doing that, that’s amazing because Brazil has a new awareness of what they have with their music. People love Brazilian music, everywhere I go. I go to Turkey to do a concert and there’s some place in Istanbul where they’re playing Brazilian music. You go to Japan and they have samba schools. In Germany they have like ten samba schools. If they knew that, but they don’t know.
-Interview conducted January 2003