Cyro Baptista’s successes say a lot about him. And so do his failures.
He’s the ringleader of a circus of a band, Beat the Donkey, that conflates dance, percussion and theater. These days it’s a clatter of seven percussionists, an electric guitarist and an accordion player, all of whom multiply their presence with additional on-stage roles.
He’s a guy with the résumé that includes work with names everyone knows, names like Sting and Paul Simon. And work with names almost everyone knows, like Phish’s Trey Anastasio. And work with names like John Zorn, known mainly by those who consider themselves in the know. He’s worked with many of them since they were virtually unknown.
Ask about experiences that formed him, though, and Baptista also brings up flops — and twists of fate that turned a doctor’s son from Sao Paulo, Brazil, into a guy who pummels all manner of percussion instruments like a madman. Which is what he is en route to doing at a Donkey gig in Baltimore when he calls from the van to chat.
There was the time when he was working for Herbie Hancock, and after the show, when the Brazilian sideman wanted a pat on the back, Hancock lowered the boom: Baptista’s soloing was too structured, “too logical.”
“I was kind of pissed,” says Baptista. But the keyboardist told a story about his days with Miles Davis, the moral of which was: “Take chances, try to discover something. Don’t be a coward with music, be courageous.”
Likewise Baptista cites his first night in the States in Woodstock, N.Y., at the Creative Music Studio, a world-music school before its time, where American and European jazz and new music cats taught alongside open-minded brethren from around the globe.
The hot, new student from Brazil had to sit in on “Night in Tunisia.” It was going to be easy, they promised.
For a while it was, as Baptista remembers: “Then something happened, and I think these Americans don’t have swing. And then it happened again, and I said, ‘These guys are doing a mistake.’ And then I looked up, and they are doing a mistake together, and when we got to the middle of the tune I was totally desperate. I could never get the beat together, and I start to think that when I crossed the equator the magnetic field took my musical powers. On my first day in America I was almost crying.”
Afterward a Turkish instructor explained that the tune had been in 9/4 time, “as natural as a samba in my country.” Baptista says he felt something like “an electrical shock.”
“It was like opening the door for me, and that’s what I like in music,” he says of the next day’s lessons that began working on the gaps in his rhythmic repertoire. “When you get to my age, and you look back, you see that the fun times in your life are when you are starting something new.”
‘I wanna go there’
In his accented English, Baptista, 52, talks about the ubiquitous beats of Brazil. Even his doctor dad drummed on the table during their long Italian-style dinners. (“I come from Italian Brazilians, a really weird mix,” he interjects.) Meanwhile, out in the streets, there was the annual carnival where “they have different groups and each group is … 1,500 drummers.”
Not that his percussive interest was encouraged. One day he came home with a berimbau, a Brazilian percussion instrument that looks like a weird hunter’s bow.
“My father said, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘This is what I want to do, I want to play music.’ And then he have a heart attack,” says Baptista, adding the laugh that seems to punctuate most of his yarns. “I hope that wasn’t the reason, but he was really disappointed.”
Unintentionally, though, Cyro’s dad also encouraged his son’s interest in getting out the mainstream. The doctor taught for a while at the University of Michigan in the flower-power ’60s and came home, saying, “Oh my goodness, this city is crazy.”
“He tells me these stories and I say, ‘Wow, I wanna go there. I wanna be one of those people,’” Baptista remembers.
Another inducement to freakdom was the chance presence in the neighborhood of Rita Lee, a daughter of an American and a member of the band Os Mutantes. Lee would be coming home from gigs when Baptista was walking to school. “I was in love with her,” he confesses. “She was American and blond. It was like the first rock ’n’ roll manifestations in Brazil and I learn a lot and see and listen to them like the hippie times.”
Baptista later spent a couple hippie years in Amsterdam. Back in Brazil, he played in the Brazilian version of Top 40 bands (“10 sets a night, one set of boleros, another set of disco, samba, carnival” until 4 or 5 in the morning). He eventually crossed paths with an American, Janet Grice, who’d come to master Brazilian music on the bassoon (“which was really mission impossible”). She insisted Baptista belonged at her alma mater in Woodstock, and arranged the scholarship that changed everything for him.
Asked where his life might have otherwise led, Baptista says, “I think I don’t want to think too much.”
Like the U.N.
After Woodstock, Baptista headed for the low-rent, Lower East Side of New York where new music was brewing in lofts, little clubs and smaller labels. Arto Lindsay of the Ambitious Lovers introduced Baptista to Zorn, a main force on the scene. On a Zorn gig, he met the British guitarist Derek Bailey, who suggested they record the next day.
More mainstream bandleaders, too, heard something unique in Baptista. He was Brazilian, but not folkloric. He was willing to be subtle or outrageous, depending on the situation — and he might be pissed, but he’d ultimately be receptive, if pushed. When Zorn’s 1985 record The Big Gun Down (originally on Nonesuch, now on Zorn’s own formidable Tzadik) marked the first big production to herald the “downtown” scene, Baptista was there on cut No. 1.
As his arsenal of world percussion instruments grew with his travels and income, he came on the idea of gathering a group to help play them, and the first 15-member edition of Beat the Donkey was born in 1997. (The name is a literal translation of “pau na mula,” an idiomatic Brazilian expression that sounds like a small explosion and means “let’s go.”)
Some members began as dancers, not percussionists, and the current lineup includes tap dancers from Texas, Austria and Japan. “I have people from Africa, Brazil, Europe, Asia, and when I say it looks like United Nations, in theory it looks very beautiful, but it’s kind of hard to put all these people together,” he admits.
A public TV documentary from a couple years back captures the orchestrated anarchy of tap dancing, break dancing, Brazilian martial arts and body slapping. A woman runs to center stage and goes to her knees, thrashing power guitar chords. Donkey Beaters create trances with gongs. They play pseudo doo-wop by blowing across the tops of soda bottles. Who’d run away to join the circus when this crew is in town?
But Baptista says he’s going for something even more basic than the big top. He says he wants a “a primal energy, tribal energy … like we used to do in the beginning of civilization.”
Since Cyro Baptista calls his band a “a minifestival” in itself, it’s a perfect fit for the three-day Detroit Festival of the Arts in the Cultural Center, the last big blowout of the summer music and arts festivals. Beat the Donkey performs Sunday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Masco/Metro Times Stage. Among other attractions this year: the Funk Brothers (Motown veterans), the Cool Crooners of Bulawayo (South Africa’s answer to the Mills Brothers) and Fiamma Fumana (Italian folk-meets-techno), not to mention poets, visual artists, and more. It’s all free, except for a 10 p.m. Friday after-party and fundraiser ($25 admission) at the Scarab Club, with performers from various groups in attendance. For a full schedule, see detroitfestival.com.W. Kim Heron is Metro Times managing editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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