CYRO BAPTISTA’S “SOUND OF THE COMMUNITY” COMES TO ARTPARK IN JULY
In a polarized culture, music can be a unifying force that enables people to find a common language, if only for a moment. World-renowned percussionist Cyro Baptista believes there has never been a better time to bring people together to re-discover that most ancient form of communication: Sound!
Working with fellow artists Billy Martin (drummer for Medeski, Martin and Wood), pianist Brian Marsella and sculptor Shasti O’Leary Soudant, Baptista is coming to Artpark in Lewiston, NY for 10 days of workshops, performances and an interactive installation that promises to reaffirm his belief in music’s transformative powers.
We sat down with Cyro in his studio and workshop in Montclair, NJ to talk about his ongoing Sound of the Community initiative and his upcoming Artpark residency (July 19—30). Surrounded by his collection of exotic percussion instruments — some of which he made himself — Cyro talked passionately about a project that has been a lifetime in the making. Along the way, we also covered Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Leon Russell and the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian rain forest!
When did you decide to be a musician and what made you choose percussion?
It’s funny, everyone asks this question and people who are not musicians may look at those who are and say: [Why] did this guy make this decision? He’s crazy (laughs)! He’s never going to have money and his whole family will be against it. But life kind of took me that way. When I was a kid, I was kind of nerdy. All the other kids played soccer, but I tried and it’s brutal. You needed to be very strong to play soccer in Brazil. I didn’t have the drive for that and studying was hard for me, too.
Now, this was at the tail end of the Villa-Lobos (legendary Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos) era in Brazil. He would take his compositions and teach different parts to kids as choral arrangements and conduct them in the huge soccer stadium, Maracanã. He would be in the middle of the field dressed in crazy clothing conducting everyone!
Even after he died, this kind of music education program continued in the schools, but it became very boring (laughs). It didn’t have the same presentation. But I had a teacher who was very smart and she said: “No, let’s not do that. Let’s make our own instruments and let’s make a percussion band.”
So she started your interest in making your own instruments?
Yes. My first instrument was a coconut. You cut the coconut in the middle, cut out the white meat and go (makes knocking sound with tongue). And that is a moment I’ll never forget: knowing I could be part of this little band and that everyone loved it. We went on TV. It was amazing! That was the spark that started my curiosity.
And I always ask musicians I’m playing with - Yo Yo Ma, Michael Brecker - “Why did you start in music?” And it’s almost always the same story: There was somebody who opened the door and said: “Bop!” And I think teachers like this woman are really like angels. They are here to inspire us and even give us tools to help us survive.
Are the Sound of the Community workshops, like the one you’ll bring to Artpark, a continuation of that spirit … that spark that others gave you?
Well, yes, in part it is.
There was a moment in humanity when people used to sit around and make a fire and do some sound together and doing that kept them together. I think that’s how music starts: music as survival.
My sister was a biologist and went to a research program in the middle of Brazil, where [indigenous peoples] live. I said: “anything that makes sound, you bring back to me.” And she brought back a little piece of wood with a little gourd attached to a string and a piece of tooth from an animal. I said, “Ok, but this thing, you know, it makes this little plink, plink, plink … it’s kind of stupid” (laughs). I was expecting something that would make a big noise (makes “big noise” sound). She told me: “I was in a place with 2,000 people and every day at 6 pm, all the people would get together and bring these out and start to make the “plink, plink, plink” sound (Cyro mimics the sound, rising to a crescendo).
Then I got it. That’s it! The noise they make together.
[In the workshops] I start to do a rhythm and say to the group: “Let’s do it together.” Someone always says: “Oh, I can’t do that.” But how can a person say he has no rhythm? How are you going to walk on the street with no rhythm (Cyro gets up and walks around, at first a-rhythmically and then in rhythm). You can walk. That’s a rhythm (laughing)!
Kenny Wollesen, a great drummer, and I went to Aguascalientes, Mexico and used bottles for people to blow on, tuned to high, middle, low … very simple. They saw how I was doing it and when I said: “Now you do it,” they started to do it — not how they thought a musician should do it, they were just doing it.
So, suddenly they are making music …
When I did Beat the Donkey, we were playing buckets and PVC pipes and a few people would walk up to me after we played and say, “Wow, man, this was amazing! You change my life. I can play cans at home. Can I play in your band?” But I still had my ego and I would get a little pissed, because they had no idea how long it took me to learn how to play that bucket (laughs). But then I thought, “No! It’s amazing that I’m doing that.” I inspired someone in the audience to come up to me and say, “Can I play in your band?”
And why is the collaboration with many different types of people important?
Music is something you do together. And even a bad person, could have music in him! I would like to have a show where I have the policeman and the bandito on the same stage! And also children and older people. Older people play music, too. And it is amazing how important it is for some of them. And people who have disabilities.
So, I’m going to be at Artpark for 10 days trying to excavate a situation like this (laughs). I don’t know if I’m going to succeed, but it’s about how they speak this language together, at least for that moment. Find a common language: sounds.
Something tells me you can be inspired by any number of things …
With percussion you can emulate the sounds of the environment: the sound of the subway or even birds or the wind. You can orchestrate the environment. And sometimes i am even walking in traffic and all the car horns go at once and I want to record it, because it is the most beautiful chord.
A Bb9 or something …
Yeah! Something like that.
Tell me about Artpark’s Percussion Garden. How did you become involved and what, exactly, will you be doing there?
I was playing a concert in Buffalo [Ed. Note: in Sept. 2016] and Sonia (Artpark Executive Director, Sonia Clark) called me and said, “Oh man, please, you must come see, we’re doing a percussion garden.” And that got my attention. So I said, “Yeah, ok.” And actually, they didn’t have much of a percussion garden, at the time, but I saw that she wants a percussion garden there, you know, and I liked that! I felt attracted to that.
So, then we found Shasti (multi-disciplinary artist from Buffalo, Shasti O’Leary Soudant), who builds metal sculptures, and I said to Sonia: “Why don’t we build some kind of metal thing that many people could play … something that could produce sound.” And we could write a piece for that, but then it would still be there after and people could just come and play it.
And if you make something of metal, well, it’s just going to sound like that same metal. You need to need to have a resonator.
[As he says this, Cyro gets up and starts hunting around his workshop. He finds a carved, silver disc that produces different metallic pitches when struck with a mallet. When he places it over a floor tom, though, the pitch becomes deeper and the tone resonates with harmonics and overtones.]
And so, I’ve been working through this with Shasti.
Also, we’re being funded by the University of Buffalo and we’re going to write a piece for the percussion department and students to come play the sculpture.
I want people to come and, I don’t know, feel horny to play this thing (laughs)! To feel like they are doing something together. And also I want things to happen around this … maybe someone playing djembe, for instance.
And it should incorporate and acknowledge the history of that area. This park was once an area where there was industrial waste. Of course, going way back, who were the people who lived in that region? Native Americans. So I want to invite some of them to open this sculpture and, hopefully, to give it a blessing.
Sort of aiming to be as inclusive as possible?
Yes. People should feel that the park belongs to them. That’s the idea, anyway. And it may look amazing, but I’m scared shit! I hope it works! (screams and laughs).
But when I played with Herbie Hancock, I learned something. He said, “Cyro, it’s not only about [the fact] you played and were successful in pleasing people. No, the good thing happens when you play and maybe you are struggling. And then you have a lot of struggle, but the result will somehow be better … more rewarding.”
And Herbie told me that when he played with Miles Davis, Miles told him, “Don’t practice! I pay you to practice on the stage!” He wanted people to come on the stage not knowing what they’re going to do and to play like a child figuring it out. That is when amazing things happen.
Tell me about your upcoming show at Artpark with Ziggy Marley.
Well, I’ve never played with him and haven’t even met him, but I am getting myself familiar with him and his music. It’s another risky thing, because our bands are different, but I said, “Let’s do it.” And I hope it will be cool, too.
Everything is going to be a big challenge, but I think we’ll do well.
What else is on your musical horizon?
I’ve been playing with Trey Anastasio (guitarist for Phish).
It’s funny, because I play a lot of avant garde music and I play jazz, but when I play rock and roll for about 10,000 people, I’m the oldest person in the band … and in the audience and probably in the blocks around, too (laughs)!
But I feel incredible, because I come from rock and roll, you know, when I was a kid in Brazil. And it’s so funny because now people say: “Oh! They’re stealing Brazilian music!” But c’mon, man, the whole world stole rock and roll. Rock and roll changed the planet!
And it’s great because I’m playing with this band and they’re incredible. They can play anything. And every town we go to, we do a cover song of an artist with a connection to that area. We went to Dallas and did a Willie Nelson song. We went to Tulsa and played Leon Russell. I love Leon Russell! And we went to Detroit and played “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and this is just such an amazing song— so beautiful. But then you see how tragic the lives (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) were and how they ended and it was like a Greek tragedy!
But it’s great. I learn so much and it’s a different kind of audience for me, so I love it. They are like the new hippies. It’s funny, I say: “You’re not the hippie, I am the hippie. I am the original (laughs)!