Words by Jared Newman
Anthropo-Fagia with Cyro Baptista :: 02.15.06 :: Tonic :: New York, NY
In a bizarre twist of meteorological events, the blizzard that landed on New York City on Saturday and Sunday, February 11th and 12th, almost immediately gave way to temperatures in the 40's and 50's. Any water that remained frozen by the time Wednesday rolled around was melting quickly, and on Suffolk Street in the Lower East Side, the dripping of a rain pipe was creating loud, rhythmic pangs.
How fitting an approach to an evening with Cyro Baptista, the Brazilian percussionist who was playing one street over at Tonic, a shrine to downtown music that Baptista himself helped build. Baptista loves natural sound, so using similes to describe his music is often irrelevant. It doesn't just sound like he's playing a set of PVC pipes with a pair of flip-flops, he's actually doing it. Instead of a cowbell, there's an upside-down gas tank, and perhaps in homage to the guys who rock out at the Times Square subway station, Baptista's rig even had some big chemical buckets to beat on.
Baptista, with whom Phishheads are familiar through his work with Trey Anastasio, was premiering a new band that night called Anthropo-Fagia. Pianist and keyboardist Brian Marsella and drummer Tim Keiper from Beat the Donkey (Baptista's larger ensemble) were there. Shanir Blumenkranz, a frequent downtown music player, helped out on bass, oud (like a guitar with a shorter neck and big round body), and some primal-looking box with a skinny neck and three thick strings.
It doesn't really matter who's backing Baptista, because he's the show. The band sat in silence when they got onstage, allowing Baptista to create some sinister tones on the PVC pipes. He smacked them with his palms and then with the flip-flops, occasionally slapping them against each other to fill the space between pitches. Eventually, he found a bouncy Latin beat that the band took as a cue to jump in.
Cyro Baptista by Niqui Seuntjens
The first song sounded a bit like a rehearsal. Keiper was having some trouble locking in to the beat, and Marsella was trying to carry the melody with a melodica (that's the little keyboard with a reed that gets blown into), which had a tendency to sound empty. The piano jam that followed was more captivating, especially for Marsella, whose posterior would fling out and to the side when he emphasized a note.
The chemical buckets came out for the second tune, which sounded like a spy soundtrack waltz with a hint of South America. While Marsella persisted in trying to lead the song with that little melodica, Baptista's hands were alternating between the buckets, a snare drum, and a nearby set of woodblocks. Things were starting to lock in; pockets of rhythm where everyone was on the same page became more frequent. At times, there were even subtle rhythmic cues that brought on new segments of the song — impressive for a newly minted band.
Brian Marsella by Nami Ogata
Between songs, Baptista explained the band and his affinity for trying new things at Tonic, and he defined Anthropo-Fagia in imperfect English as "People who likes to eat people." He then called Adam Weinberg to the stage to play guitar.
When the band eased Weinberg's guitar solo into a slow, Middle-Eastern sway, Marsella's melodica sounded perfect, just delicate enough to weave through Weinberg's backing chords. Meanwhile, Baptista was making the tambourine and the triangle — two instruments that always get a bad rap — sound rich and complex. He hit the tambourine on every angle with his fingers, palms, and nails and jingled all points on the triangle while occasionally easing his grip to let the sound reverberate.
The band was really swinging by the end of the song. Blumenkranz took a bass solo and traded riffs with Keiper, Marsella was playing the organ, and Baptista was shaking some big round see-through amalgamation with sleigh-bells attached to it.
Blumenkranz switched over to the oud, and Weinberg complemented the band for one more tune. After that, Anthropo-Fagia cranked out the most amazing and mind-boggling performance of the night.
Keiper kicked it off with a few bars of beat-boxing, glancing wide-eyed at Baptista, partly to get him to join in and partly as if to say, "I can't believe I'm jamming with the guy that helped create this scene."
They teamed up for only a moment before Baptista took a solo to reiterate his tambourine skills. Even the band looked impressed as he toyed with the individual cymbals and ran his beard over the drum skin to make different pitches. Keiper joined in, and the two percussionists started passing sequences of beats back and forth, Baptista at one point hitting the tambourine against his elbow and foot.
From there, the band picked up a slow groove, with a melody that wrapped freely around each measure. Keiper returned to the drum kit, and Baptista used what looked like a ping-pong racket wrapped in cotton to pound an oversized jug and a big wooden box. The sound was thunderous.
Cyro Baptista by Luca D'Agostino
Keiper stood up again and began blowing on some beer bottles taped together in a row while Baptista sang, as he had done periodically throughout the set. What he lacks in accuracy and smoothness, he makes up for with might. When he starts yipping and yelling in Portugese, his voice becomes a percussive instrument.
However, the slow groove was dragging, so Baptista yelled, the band responded with a loud blast, and suddenly things were in high gear. Marsella banged out all sorts of notes, Baptista spat out words and sounds, and Blumenkranz kept up with bass runs. Baptista grabbed whatever instruments he could find and shook them for a few seconds before switching to something else.
The most impressive part happened next. Baptista stopped playing and simply used his hands to direct the band. Sometimes he pointed at a player, and his instrument made a little burp. Other times, he waved his fingers around, causing the band to grow louder before a swipe of his arm sent everyone into loud atonal chaos.
Cyro Baptista by Shawn Scheps
After a few minutes of this amazing coordination, the band was silenced, and Marsella played a solo riff on the melodica. The contrast between the chaos and what sounded like a neutered accordion made the crowd burst into laughter.
The energy continued when Keiper used the tops of trash cans to strike his drums, and just when it couldn't get any better, Baptista (and this is worthy of a rare exclamation mark) took out a gong! Beating it over and over, he hummed into the microphone, stepping over some of the instruments he dropped so he could use effects pedals to loop the two droning sounds. The noise grew to a crescendo, and the band abruptly stopped again, returning to the melody that occurred somewhere in the middle of this ridiculous song/jam/performance/whatever.
Anthropo-Fagia played another number after that, but it hardly seems worth describing. Baptista played a bended stick with a string attached to each end, and at one point, a cell phone interrupted right when the band had gone silent. But instead of groans, people laughed. Cell phones are a natural sound too these days, and after an evening listening to Cyro Baptista, the little jingle fit right in.
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