NYC JAZZ RECORD, August 2016
CYRO BAPTISTA: Forging the Alliance of Sound
By John Pietaro
Percussionist Cyro Baptista has lived in the US for well over thirty years since relocating from his native Brazil. The trail has taken him around the globe many times, sharing the stage and studio with many of the most relevant artists of free improvisation, world music, jazz, experimental composition, and some of the best of pop music too. Perhaps it is due to his status as a traveler, but Baptista has never stopped seeking out the community within the music—in any locale it takes him to.
Baptista was introduced to music performance in elementary school where the local music teacher engaged the children in the building of percussion instruments as well as in playing them. “My first instrument was a hollowed out coconut shell”, he recalled fondly, “and when I brought it the ensemble, this simple thing became something great we could do together”.
His immersion in the Brazilian music tradition introduced the percussionist to many instruments as he crafted his own expression and developed that sense of ensemble which remains so meaningful to him. Baptista traveled to New York in 1980; though he was soon to become a downtown stalwart, his initial destination was considerably further north. “I was given a full scholarship to attend the Creative Music Studio up in Woodstock. It was an incredible time to be there”, he explained, still reflecting on his work with Karl Berger and Ingred Sertso with a sense of wonder. “The best musicians in the world came through that program; Don Cherry was a regular! Every day, a new experience.”
After considerable immersion in CMS’ unique approach to improvisation and performance, Baptista decided to move into the City and into the burgeoning new music scene. “I lived on the Lower East Side to be near the music---and it was so cheap then! It wasn’t long before I became friends with John Zorn and Marc Ribot. They were great to me. I played a lot on the streets, trying to get to know people, but I hardly knew any English. I picked up a lot of, um, bad words immediately---but I didn’t know what they meant”, he said laughing. “It took me a while to realize I couldn’t use ‘M.F.’ in every sentence, but it was brought to my attention at a big artsy party on the Upper East Side. That was an eye-opener. My English is still not so great”, he injected with a smile, “Sometimes I think I speak like Tarzan. But back then, it was really rough!”
Cyro began playing gigs at now rather legendary performance spaces in the fertile terrain of downtown, 1980, where experimental composition and free improv tangled deliciously with punk rock and electronica. He found the mélange to be a refreshing change. “Once I became a part of the musical scene down there, a big door opened for me”.
His instrumental voice liberated, Baptista was among a growing brood that soon became known as the avant apex of the day. “We used to play these gigs at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street, but none of us were well known yet. The audience didn’t come at first--it could be a really tough neighborhood--but after a while, the word spread. John Zorn worked very hard to make it happen and we played together a lot. All of us struggled so much early on but we created that community of sound. People stood together.”
The list of pertinent composers and songwriters, improvisers and many other performers that Baptista encountered in the years since can fill volumes. His work with Zorn is well chronicled but Cyro also spent considerable time with the late percussion master Nana Vasconcelos, whom he considers his “inspiration”. Walking in such good company opened Baptista up to performance opportunities ranging from gigs with founding ‘no wave’ guitarist Arto Lindsay to globally renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma. Along the way, he performed and/or recorded with Sting, David Byrne, Dr. John, Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian, Gato Barbieri, Geri Allen, Trey Anastasio, the Chieftans, James Carter, Edie Brikell, Bobby McFerrin, Cassandra Wilson, Richard Stoltzman, Herbie Mann, Tony Bennet and the list goes on. Cyro enjoys every facet of his role as a percussionist, whether playing the traditional berimbau, hand drums, tearing up racks of blocks, bells and cymbals, or playing what he calls “transparent percussion”, the subtle touches that lie almost inaudibly on a track. His has been a rather storied career.
When Derek Baily, the master improviser and theorist, approached Baptista early on for a recording date, the percussionist jumped at the chance to make his debut recording. “Derek asked me to record with him and so I went and we just played. I never thought anything more of it and assumed it hadn’t been released. Some years later, I was touring in the UK with Nana, and a man came up to me excitedly saying, ‘You’re Cyro!’ and waving this album at me. It was Derek’s record. I was shocked to see that not only had it come out, but Derek had named it Cyro. This was very moving. Soon after we engaged in a pub tour”, he recalled.
But it hasn’t all been freewheeling music. Baptista explained: “I toured and recorded with Paul Simon for six years. He was a very particular kind of songwriter—he allowed the musicians room to create but then was strict about parts being played the same way every time. The band was amazing: Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Michael Brecker…wow. I had been used to clubs, halls, but with Paul I learned how to play to 30,000 people! We did the Concert in Central Park, played around the world in stadiums”
And what of Herbie Hancock? “He’s Number One. I actually rate my career on what I did before I met him, and after. After Herbie, I was never just a side-man again. The connection we had went beyond music—I became a Buddhist through his example. Musically, everything was so open, the expectations for the band to CREATE every moment was so high. He approached me once, saying he was very happy with what I played but he noticed some of the same phrases night after night. He said I needed to play something new each time”, Baptista laughed. “So I went from a leader that always wanted everything the same to one that never wanted you to repeat yourself.”
The percussionist has been an active composer for years and founded several ensembles which feature aspects of his musical breadth. But he works to build the sense of ensemble in each situation. “Every time I play it’s a different set-up. I’m always experimenting with sounds. For certain gigs, I will learn to play a new instrument. These days I’m killing myself to learn the balafon, spending five hours a day practicing. It’s like starting over, but we should never stop growing”.
Here is where tradition can take wing: “Once you learn the roots of your instrument then you can go anywhere. When I moved to the US I learned the washboard, an American musical manifestation. And when I formed the band Beat the Donkey I knew I needed to include a tap dancer for the same reason”, he offered. “But you must first conquer the roots; that’s where you’ll find the instrument’s genetic code”.
Beat the Donkey (the translation of a Brazilian expression for “Let’s go!”), a true fusion of culture and genre, has been a main Baptista vehicle these past 15 years. He boldly added adaptations of King Crimson and Led Zeppelin into an already expansive repertoire, at times to the chagrin of concert hall administrators. Still, his work isn’t limited to this band. A case in point is Baptista’s newly released disc Bluefly (Tzadik label), inspired by the title insect’s ability to travel mass distances on the back of a large animal, another metaphor for the leader’s journey. It features a pair of musicians from Sting’s band and a bevy of guest artists. And then there’s the percussionists featured spot on Jamie Saft’s new album Sunshine Seas (Rare Noise).
However, this month the focus is on Banquet of the Spirits, yet another band under his leadership. Several members of the assemblage (pianist Brian Marsella, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, sinter and oud, and drummer Gil Oliveira) will perform along with special guests in a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert this month. The event is Baptista’s tribute to Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer, and an extension on a project began a generation ago, ‘Vira-Loucos Villa-Lobos’. He ranks this upcoming concert as one of the highlights of his work, a chance to both celebrate and reconstruct this master’s music.
In many ways, this brings it all back home for Baptista, as does the goal of inspiring coming generations. “In addition to writing music, Villa-Lobos ran a program for school children to perform his choral works all over Brazil. Every year they’d pull these choirs together for a concert in a soccer stadium”. In this regard, Baptista has been facilitating a project with drummer Kenny Wollesen, “The Sound of Community”, which brings music programs to economically deprived areas. “We’ve done this in Mexico so far, but plan to extend it further. We create instruments with old people, children, workers—and then together all of us create compositions for these instruments. In the end, we hold a concert with them. The program allows even the poorest people to see the possibilities”.
“Music is music, but we keep changing”, the percussionist relayed. “In the end we can bring it back to what it was in the beginning, when people sat around a fire for survival, sharing songs”.