The man has laughter in his voice. Even a few minutes with Cyro Baptista is like laying in pure sunshine. He is alive and awake and transmits that joy of living through his entire body. With his alien array of homemade and traditional percussion instruments, he has played with the such luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Brian Eno, Paul Simon, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tillson Thomas, Medeski Martin & Wood and David Byrne. He has been a touring member of Trey Anastasio’s band for better than a year.
His first solo album Vira Loucos: Cyro Baptista Plays the Music of Villa Lobos (1997) has the flavor of vintage Caetano Veloso or Nana Vasconcelos. He followed this with a loose, hugely enjoyable collaboration with Canadian guitar whiz Kevin Breit called Supergenerous (2000). Recently he's formed a new 10-piece percussion ensemble called Beat the Donkey, made up of players from around the world. The group incorporates a dizzying array of styles and their live shows are a spectacle in the finest sense of the word. The thin line between performers and audience is stomped on and any room they play in comes alive with fresh color. Their album released by John Zorn's Tzadik label is a stunner. Opening with a metallic roar and then slipping into a playful vocalese, the self-titled release ignores easy categories and plows ahead on a course only they can see. This multiplicity of voices transcends any one time period but also manages to evoke the power and imagination of pioneer recordings by fellow Brazilians like Jorge Ben's África Brasil and Gilberto Gil's 1968. With touches of pure Tropicalia and sheer avant invention, this record encompasses violence and beauty in a expansive, every shifting soundscape. Without a doubt, a dead lock for one of the best albums of 2003.
Cyro took time out before his performance with the Trey Anastasio Band at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco to speak with us about his new group, touring with legends and his decades as a working musician. The first point we touched on was the Beat the Donkey manifesto which begins:
Sometimes we are gladiators of sound.
Sometimes we come from the jungle.
Sometimes we walk concrete streets.
Sometimes we roar and
sometimes we can only mumble.
Dennis Cook: I like a band with a manifesto. That's one of the first things I noticed on the Beat the Donkey website.
Cyro Baptista: I can't talk much about the manifesto because it was not me who wrote it [laughs]. It was the members of the band. Mainly, it's the spirit of Beat the Donkey. Since I was a kid I played percussion. I had this amazing teacher, Villa Lobos, who did this amazing program while he was the minister of music in Brazil. He did this thing where every school would learn a part of a tune. Then they would come to the biggest soccer stadium in the world and everybody would sing and play their parts. When I started to learn these tunes in school it was already the end of this era. And then it was boring learning after that. Then another teacher said let's not learn Villa Lobos, let's start a percussion group. But we had no instruments. So he said let's invent instruments. My first instrument was a coconut. You cut the coconut in the middle and polish it and it goes [makes a "cluck cluck cluck" noise]. It was so nice for me to be part of a group playing music. I was very lucky to be part of this. How wonderful it is to make music together. So, my whole career I'm trying to do this, put people together to make music like this. With Brazilian music it's simple parts with thousands of people playing together. I think I have this in my genetics.
I remember when I started Beat the Donkey I called this percussionist and told him I have these compositions and want to put together some people. But he told me, "Cyro me and you, we can do this with samples alone." [Laughs] That's not the idea. The idea is to have people. Then going back to this thing, the manifesto, I don't want to be some sort of Brazilian tourist. I left home early and went to Europe and then to New York. When I play with Sting and Herbie Hancock and whoever I travel the world a lot. For sure I'm Brazilian but I'm also a New Yorker and my heart belongs to other places, too. Then I start this thing that many people did already of putting different cultures together. Beat the Donkey is a kind of musical United Nations because it has elements from the Japanese, the Germans, people from all over the world. In theory, it's beautiful. But it's not easy because every country is different. I'm learning that. The Japanese react completely different than the Brazilians. You need to respect the tempo of every culture and how we get the chemical thing together. It's about bringing heart to everything.
By Bob Massie
Dennis Cook: I like the image of a chemical reaction because with music, the best music, it's like a crucible. You put the chemicals in and put heat underneath it and it's sealed. For me, a lot of the time, the best music is like a crucible. It gets heated and then the top comes off.
Cyro Baptista: It's catalyzed! I have a moment in my life where I studied musical therapy in Brazil. I was tired of playing and decided to study it. During my life I did a lot of work with percussion with people with problems, retarded kids, epileptics, catatonics. Sometimes I get a little tired of the show business and this brings me into reality. It's funny, musical therapy, it's something they can't explain scientifically but it works. Music is funny. You play music and suddenly you are floating and going to Heaven and you see angels, you are in the clouds and these amazing spheres. And then suddenly it throws you right down into Hell with the devils. Know what I mean? No in-betweens. That's what music is all about. You don't have much control. It can make you feel good or it can make you feel really bad. I went to hospitals with my instruments, many of which I create using old recycled materials or combinations like seeds and a piece of wood or a tree branch. Then I give it to a patient or someone with a problem. They make a sound and it's very rewarding. That's the chemical thing that comes, a reaction.
By Eleonora Alberto
Dennis Cook: Speaking of the way that music interacts with people, whenever I hear your music I always feel compelled to join you in some way. To slap my hands against my leg or move my body. It seems to require me to interact with your music. Being passive is not an option. What role does the audience play in you making this music?
Cyro Baptista: I'm starting to understand that. Not with Trey [Anastasio] here where I play a more conventional percussion but with Beat the Donkey or with the so-called Downtown Music I play with [John] Zorn there's a lot of buckets and pieces of refrigerator or things I find in everyday life. Then I go and play these things and many times when I finish the concert people come up to me and say, "I can do that, too. You're just shaking this thing." In the beginning, I used to get kind of pissed off with this. It looks easy but it took so long for me to learn it, discover it. Now I think how great is this because now this guy feels like he can do this. It's not like you go to a concert where you usually see someone do this amazing thing and you leave feeling like a little person. It's great that the work I do affects people this way. You can do this, too. The message for Beat the Donkey is for people to view this primal thing that we have. Remember when mankind started they had rituals where people gathered and do this thing everyday together, making sounds together because it had a meaning. That's kind of dormant now because we are living in this very technological time. We have this fire, everybody has that.
By Dave Weissman
What I think of with music, especially the percussion you play with Beat the Donkey really taps into this, is the idea that we can get past all the different languages we have when we get down to sounds. That it speaks to something that goes beyond language and the meaning we normally attach to language. You said primal, and I agree with that, but what's interesting is you're still communicating.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. My sister in Brazil is a biologist. Many years ago she was working with some research people from the government in an area where the Indians are that's normally restricted in the middle of Brazil near Amazonas. When I knew that, I told her that anything that makes sounds, any instrument she should bring to me. Nobody knows much about them because they live in the jungle. After six months, she brought me this little gourd with this little piece of wood [you can hear the disappointment in his voice]. On the top of the gourd they have a string with the teeth of animals. This is a ridiculous thing. When you shake it it goes "peep, peep, peep." This is nothing. She says yeah but 6 o'clock everyday 2000 get together and do "peep, peep" [he makes the sound rise into a roaring buzz]. Wow! These are no musicians on a stage but everyone's a musician. We live in a time now where people work at a computer, watch a lot of TV and do a lot of things alone. Music is an opportunity to do something together. You need to listen to hear what's happening.
By Adam Gulledge
We've been indoctrinated to spend time alone. We've been indoctrinated to believe the world should be shaped the way I want it, the way you want it. We listen to a Walkman so we can hear the music we want to as we walk around, we watch just the TV shows we want to see. We've lost some of that communal experience we used to have. Even a concert, which is still a form of commerce, is a ritual space.
People forget this.
I think we're hungry for ritual. I think we want it more than we admit.
This is what happened with Beat the Donkey. When I started to do the album, I signed with Blue Note. I did an album for them with Kevin Bright, this amazing guitar player I met when I was playing with Cassandra Wilson. There's a funny story. I met him doing overdubs for Cassandra. He lives in Toronto and I never saw him really. When I do an album I'm usually the last person to go in for overdubs. I kept thinking this guitar player is so amazing. So I called him in Toronto and said, "Oh Kevin, I'm sorry to bother you but maybe we could do something together." He said, "I'm getting on a plane and I'll be at your house tomorrow." We went to my studio in the garage and started jamming. I called up the Knitting Factory in New York and asked if we can come jam. They had a band doing a showcase and they let us open for them. The band they had playing had a big production thing and me and Kevin could only play in a corner of the stage. The record company came and said the big production is nice but we're gonna sign these two guys there [meaning Cyro and Kevin]. So we got signed first time out by Blue Note. We did the album called Supergenerous, a great album we did in like two days. Then I wanted to do the Beat the Donkey record with them [Blue Note]. I brought them the percussion notes to show them and they said, "This is just percussion. It has no melody, no harmony." Maybe I'm the only person who can recognize melodies and harmonies in these sounds. Then I said I'm never going to get anywhere so I worked on the songs elsewhere. Now we have the whole show, full of theatrics.
By Dave Weissman
One of the things I hear as a distant echo on the record is the inspired madness of Tom Ze. I wondered if he'd been an influence on you. The way you swing between placid, quiet moments and this extreme violence reminds me a lot of his work.
When I was a kid there was this movement at the end of the '60s, beginning of the '70s that's called Tropicalia with Caetano [Veloso], [Gilberto] Gil. These guys are my idols. Then many years passed and I came to live here. I was lucky enough to play with Caetano. David Byrne called me one day and said he had these tracks by this guy, I don't know if you know him, this Brazilian musician I discovered and I want you to repair it. I'm a music mechanic sometimes [we both burst out into big laughter]. Something wrong? Call Cyro and he'll do something with it so it doesn't sound bad. The guy he was calling about was Tom Ze. It's amazing that I had the opportunity to repair the tracks of one of my idols. I told him I cannot do that! For sure, Ze was an influence on me but maybe not a conscious one, more in the back of my spirit.
You also share some similarities in your live performance, a kindred wildness.
Have you seen him? I’ve never seen him perform.
When David Byrne put out some of Ze's records in the U.S. there was a tour with the band Tortoise backing up Tom. It was stunning and different every night. [pause] Since we're here talking before you perform with Trey, I have to ask, what's different about playing in a band like this versus playing in your own band? What do you take away from the experience as a musician as opposed to being a bandleader?
Well, for me, I play with so many people. Last week, they called me from this magazine, Downbeat, and told me I was voted first place. First place for what? Rising Star category. Oh man, I'm 53 years old and I'm a rising star? Aieee! Having a band and being a leader after all these years it's wonderful to discover the courage to do that after playing with so many people. But everybody I play with for me is a learning experience but especially this with Trey. I never imagined I would get to this point. For me, when I found out about these jambands, I never knew about the Grateful Dead or any of this. Two things I didn't know was that and opera. Is it going to be guys jamming on two-chords for 45-minutes? But let's do it. It turned out to be a door that opened for me. Trey is super talented, super smart and playing with him is like playing with a young brother. He's a new way to approach the business. I'm doing this so long, working for these record companies, and to do this new way is terrific. The music business is maybe one of the worst businesses on the planet Earth. These guys found a way to overlap that. I don't think they even sell that many albums. They sell concerts. They do their own thing and people follow them. Herbie Hancock has said that these companies are going to go down, their end is very close.
By Adam Gulledge
This might mean less suffering for musicians. They might get to go through less of the hardships that you've had to go through.
It's not about being a pop star. Trey's a regular guy. He has a used car. He's a simple person with no bullshit.
Where does the name "Beat the Donkey" come from?
I know it sounds kind of weird in English but it in Portuguese it means, "let's go, let's do it." You need to beat the donkey to move, and with the movement comes transformation. It's all about transformation.
Where do you see band going next? You have a record, you've played some live shows but this other way has opened up before you and I wondered how you plan to use it.
Playing with Trey I've gotten to be known in this completely different market. These kids know me now. But I'm going to be playing with Yo Yo Ma and Sting. These are old people [we both howl]. I played many years with Herbie Mann, the flute player. He got many gigs in Florida. The people like jazz there. You'd start to play and look at the audience and all you'd see was white or blue hair [the interviewer cannot stop laughing as Cyro talks]. When you finish a song you can never fade out or they won't clap. You have to have a big finish with a badda-bop-du-bop! Every tune has to finish boombastic.
By Adam Gulledge
Even the ballads?
Even the ballads! I've played so long but now this. It's so nice. This new scene is helping the band go in this direction. Beat the Donkey is beyond just me. I'm a leader in terms of keeping the thing together. All the compositions we do together and they take on a life of their own. Sometimes we are like a musical group where we play Bonnaroo and then suddenly we are in a more theatrical situation. And I like that. I like that and always want to do theatre.
I think the best, nicest thing you can say about the audiences in this jam world is that they listen with an open mind. They don't seem to think of music as discreet categories.
They listen with their hearts. They aren't analyzing much. They are trying to feel the moment.
You've lived in New York for a long time. It's a unique city and I wondered what its influence has been on you?
I came to America with a scholarship. I went to a great music studio in Woodstock and I met these amazing musicians there like Don Cherry and Nana [Vasconcelos]. I learned so much in 2-3 months, more than I would learn in 20 years. I was in the right place in the right moment. After I finished that I had $70 dollars in my pocket. Thought I should come back to Brazil but I went to New York and I've been there for 23 years. The moment I got there I played in the streets. Then I was really lucky again and I met [John] Zorn and [Marc] Ribot. I was so lucky to live in that time because now New York looks like a Disney World. Lower East Side was the very poor side of town and that's where the musicians were living. Then I met these guys who were doing improvised music and went to play with them. You could do anything at this stage. When you discover such things you feel like "This is my people! I can do anything!" We started this thing which became known as Downtown Music. It was considered avant-garde but it was a success. The other day I was recording a jingle and the producer said, "Cyro can you do some of that Downtown Music." I told him I don't think you want that! [more laughter] But if a jingle producer knows about it then it's not what it used to be. I was very lucky to find this niche. It opened a door for me. That's what I do, find a door and open it and bring it to another situation. I could have been playing the same things all these years like many people I saw. It's not easy. Sometimes it's painful. When you are born it's painful for the mother, it's painful for the baby.
By Bob Massie
There’s a wonderful line from a Canadian musician named Bruce Cockburn. He says, "Ask anyone who can remember, it's terrible to be born." I think that's something to remember. It's a joy once you're here but the process of birth, and rebirth, is full of pain.
I know it's something that can be philosophical getting to my age and starting up again with Beat the Donkey. Playing with Trey or Paul Simon I have a drum tech who baby-sits me but with Beat the Donkey I have to carry my own cases, do everything from the start again. I want to complain but I don't complain. I'm starting again and that's sweet.
It's the beginning of something and that's like falling in love.
That's it exactly. That's why you are a writer. (belly laughs from both of us).
Thank you, Cyro.
Like falling in love! You know what, most people that I know pass their whole lives and never fall in love. Falling in love means you do things like an idiot but a good idiot.
Interviewed by: Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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