Cyro Baptista: Polyrythmic Supragenius - A PhreshWater Interview

I call the number from my Email print-out and my ears are met with indigenous percussion and what sounds like the undulations of a didgeridoo from the Baptista family answering machine. I speak into the phone who I am, prompting his wife to pick up and wish me a good morning. From the second we are speaking to one another there is a sense of ease and relaxation like we are good friends. He asks where I am calling from and I say ‘North Carolina’. He tells me he spent some time here, Wilmington in 1986, to shoot a film with Nick Nolte where he played a ‘Jailed musician’ and we both laugh heartily.

SR- When did you first realize that you would become a performing percussionist?

Cyro- … I was lucky when I was a kid. I had this teacher and she made us invent instruments. Because what they were teaching in the schools was really boring, you know? And she says ‘Lets do a band here. A percussion band. Let’s have everybody do an instrument.’ So one kid does a shaker and mine was a coconut. I cut the coconut in the middle and I sanded it and it had this sound. And it was fun because we started to play together and I realized that this is such a fun thing to do. Coincidentally, the band was kind of successful at that time and we went on to the TV and I guess that this was my first gig.

SR- Do you feel that everyone is a percussionist whether they realize it or not?

Cyro- Definitely….many of the instruments that I play I create or my friends have made them for me. Many years ago I would get really pissed when I would get finished playing people would come up to me and say ‘Wow, man! You played this….this….refrigerator! I can’t do that……’ But then I understood that everyone can do it and that is the message I am passing…it’s any easy thing to do and anybody can do it. That is what music is about in my perception…..I think that no matter if you are a dentist or an insurance salesman playing music is going to make you a better person…

SR- Can you tell me about the tall tower of drums that you were playing with the Trey Anastasio Band? What is it and where did it come from?

Cyro- That’s my ‘Tambourine Machine', that’s what I call it. It comes from Brazil. In Brazil we have these little drums we call ‘Tambourines’. What you call that here is something different. There was an old guy that I met in a remote place in Brazil, he was an inventor he had to show me his invention. It is great, really nice and it works well with the Rock and Roll. It is fun to play too. Percussion, especially in Brazil is for lots of people to play together, they are very easy parts, and then all those little parts make polyrhythm. And you know I’ve got this band called ‘Beat the Donkey’.

SR- What exactly is ‘Beat the Donkey’?

Cyro- …It is like a theater about percussion, my story about percussion since I was kid with my father playing the kitchen table before dinnertime. Like in Brazil percussion is part of your daily life and that’s what I want to show. In Brazil a lot of people play together. That ‘Tambourine Machine’ is like that; Each person plays one thing…there can be 200-300 playing drums….so when I play with Trey I can not bring all those percussionists so I just use that …When we played in Radio City I brought 50 people to the stage with Trey. We closed the show and we did a parade and we danced through the people and into the street, on 52nd street, we stopped the traffic, the police came…it was a big thing! We were in the headlines of the paper the next day!

SR- How did you become involved with Trey Anastasio?

Cyro- …You know this band Medeski, Martin, and Wood? Billy Martin, when he was young, used to be my student. Then many years later I bought this house in New Jersey and he bought a house near me, we are neighbors. I saw him after all these years and I said ‘What are you doing?’ and he says ‘..now I have a band and I’d like to have you sit in…’ I’m involved with a lot of music, you know, like Jazz or Classical and Avant Garde. I didn’t know about this new thing when I went to play with them. At this point I was playing with Herbie Hancock and Billy Martin said that they were playing at the Beacon Theater and for me to play with them….John Medeski who plays the organ is just amazing…the three of them together are just a perfect combination and the kids are going bananas. It was great for me because I was exposing the kids to all this crazy percussion. And it was a success…everything that I do they jump in the seats and I said ‘Whoa, man. These are the type of people that I want to play with. I’m sick and tired of playing with all these old jazz people…’ Then, they invited me to do this whole tour with them…and I said a whole tour I can not do but I will do a few concerts. And at one of the concerts, in Albany, Billy Martin comes up to me and he says .. ‘Cyro, today this guy is going to sit in with us and his name is Trey Anastasio.’ I’d never heard of this guy in my life. So, he comes to the stage and WOW! The people love this guy, they are jumping through the ceiling, you know? It was even crazier than with Sting or Paul Simon, I’ve never seen people go crazy like that. When he did leave the stage he came up to me and said, ‘Cyro, you are going to record on my next album.’……I’m so glad to know Trey. First of all because he is my friend and second the work that these kids are doing is exactly what I view is supposed to be done.

SR- You’ve played with such an impressive list of musicians and I was wondering if there was one in particular that has had the most impact on your music?

Cyro- Many. Every time I go into a situation to play music I think, ‘Why do these people call me?’ But, I need to always be learning. Like with Herbie Hancock. It was amazing when we were playing on his album about Gershwin’s music, we got a Grammy and then I toured with him for 2 years. It’s not just about the music but when you become involved, even as a side-man, it becomes a family thing. Herbie turned into my good friend….then the music comes together in a different way. This is very important when you play music…. You see kids nowadays watching the TV, playing video games, the computers, the Internet; a lot of things that you do alone. And music is something you do with other people together.

SR- Music brings together people in harmony…

Cyro- Yes. When I started to get together ‘Beat the Donkey’ I had this idea and I call this percussionist and I say, ‘I want to have music and dancers all together and do this….’ And he says, ‘Man. Why do we need ten people to do that? Me and you, we can do this with machines…’ In a time like we are passing now we need to do things together …… to see if we can transform the energy…. I wake up now and I see this stupid man who wants to have a stupid war and I think ‘What the fuck…Why?’ This guy is wasting his time…I barely have time to do things during the day like composing, doing this and that, taking care of the kids, and how does this guy have time during the day to make a war? Does he not have anything else to do?

SR- I think he’s very bored

Cyro- Yes! He’s Bored!

SR- Do you think if George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein got together and played some drums that they could work things out?

Cyro- No doubt! Maybe they would find out about themselves a bit. Maybe about sexuality or something…they must have a problem!

SR- I was wondering what is the strangest instrument that you have played before an audience?

Cyro- That is a hard question! I play some weird things…but more so in recording…like the cellophane that comes around the cigarette [pack]? You can use that and make it sound like fire but if you go to the audience its not going to have the same effect….One day I played with a guy from North Carolina, and he was crazy…he put a bird cage on his head and he played this bird cage and made amazing sounds! That was the craziest thing I ever saw but it’s not something I will try to copy! In ‘Beat the Donkey’ we have developed a lot of instruments. Some with PVC pipes and we play some signs- like a Coca-Cola sign – and parts of a refrigerator…When I teach I say to my students, ‘When you go to the store, you find instruments there…’ I think today you need to be more creative and find new sounds. The subway, it has it’s own sound and the lights on the street they have their own rhythm when they go on and off….you need to get your inspiration from other things and other sounds from nature. I have instruments that I made from the branches of trees or seed pods or made of bamboo and other things that I make from recycled material or from the junkyard. I go to the hardware store and I find a lot of things, enough to get an endorsement from Home Depot!

I really enjoy conversations and this is one of the most memorable that I have had to date. As a percussionist and avid music fan it was easy to be in awe of Cyro as a mentor and hero. His brilliance and vitality are present in every thought and delivered with such a great sense of humor. What else will this master of percussion accomplish in his lifetime? I’m sure that it will be plenty and it will always be in the spirit of bringing people together.

By: S. Remington Article originally appeared on PhreshWater.com 01/03


Dark Star Orchestra: The Music Never Stopped

When Jerry Garcia passed away on August 9, 1995, it signified the end of one of the most successful, durable bands in American music history. To the bands fanatical followers or “deadheads” as they have been affectionately called, and music fans alike, this brought a heartbreaking end to the exploratory, improvisational touring musical mecca that was the Grateful Dead. Since ’95, the surviving members of the band have regrouped under different identities attempting to recapture the spirit of the Grateful Dead, which they have in a sense. But gone forever is the band that developed the song, “Dark Star,” into a springboard for some of the most imaginative improvisation during the late 1960s; discovered their musical inventiveness in Europe ‘72; explored uncharted improvisational territory in May of 1977; realized new musical heights at Alpine Valley in 1989. Gone forever, that is, until you listen to the Dark Star Orchestra.

The Dark Star Orchestra may initially appear to be a Dead cover band, playing Grateful Dead songs with similar jams and segues. But upon further examination, one realizes the Dark Star Orchestra (or DSO) is much, much more than a Dead cover band. The band is so familiar and knowledgeable on the Grateful Dead and their structure, styling, and tendencies that on any given night it’s nearly impossible to distinguish their sound from the actual Grateful Dead’s. DSO differs from other bands in that they play entire Grateful Dead concerts from start to finish, copying the setlist song-for-song and vividly reproducing how the Dead sounded on that particular night. One night, fans might be treated to a show from Winterland ’72 and the next night, Hartford Civic Center ‘83. Curiosity and questions about what show the band will play leads fans to speculate before and during the show. But to the veteran fan, there are clues… DSO set’s up their stage and uses similar equipment as to how the Dead did for that particular show. Is Kevin Rosen, DSO’s bass player who plays Phil Lesh’s part, standing far stage left, in what’s commonly referred to as the “philzone?” Phil and Jerry Garcia switched spots onstage on April 2, 1982, now putting Phil on stage left, or the “philzone,” where he remained onstage until 1995. Or is there an extra microphone set up onstage? If so, Lisa Mackey will be performing with DSO as Donna Godchaux, who was with the Dead from 1972-1979. These are only two of many clues fans have in guessing when the Grateful Dead originally performed the show.

The idea of Dark Star Orchestra came while guitarist John Kadlecik was paging through Deadbase, a book that documents Grateful Dead setlists. “I played in different Grateful Dead cover bands, and each had different approaches to Dead songs,” John said in a recent Phreshwater.com interview. “I wanted to play the style the Dead created it in.” Kadlecik’s original interest in the Dead goes back to a friend turning him on to Dead music many years ago. “My first show was Rosemont ’89,” he says. From there, John, who had played guitar since he was a teenager, started playing in various Grateful Dead cover bands. “I had always been interested in jazz,” he claims, which obviously helped in his learning to emulate Jerry Garcia’s guitar style. “The first solo I learned note-for-note was on the Dead’s Europe ’72 version of “China Cat Sunflower.”

Reproducing a Grateful Dead concert musically is no easy task, however, since Grateful Dead concerts varied considerably during the band’s 30-year touring career. There were up to 120 songs at one time in the Dead’s live performing repertoire. Each era of the Dead’s performing career had “different unique terms,” Kadlecik affirmed. When examining Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing throughout Dead’s different “eras,” one notices a vast differentiation in how effects, pedals, midi effects, and developing technology all influenced his playing. Out of all the shows they play, Kadlecik feels he “has the flexability to interpret the late 1980s styling of Jerry’s guitar playing.”

But how does the band choose what show to do and avoid replaying the same show? “Scott Larned (keyboards) does show picking through Deadbase,” Kadlecik states. The band keeps track of shows they have already done. Interestingly, the band also occasionally performs original setlists, which gives them the capacity to try new things like playing songs that normally wouldn’t be played in a particular order or segment of a show. DSO has recently begun performing Jerry Garcia Band concerts. This becomes more challenging for Kadlecik because he must then do all the singing, in addition to the “busier guitar work and more solos,” he said.

In June of 2003, DSO released their debut album, 'Thunder and Lightnin', an original recording from the Oregon County Faire on July 12, 2002. The album was recorded and mixed by Betty Cantor-Jackson, known for her renowned Grateful Dead “Betty-Board” live recordings. 'Thunder and Lightnin’ is a brilliant example of DSO at their creative peak, replicating the Grateful Dead sound through an original setlist, including absolutely stellar versions of “Estimated Prophet", "Terripan Station", “Saint Stephen”, among many others. “The DSO live series is something the band hopes continues,” guitarist John Kadlecik said.

For someone who never was able to attend a Grateful Dead concert, DSO is a fantastic opportunity to witness what the Grateful Dead were capable of in concert. I’ll never forget the first time I saw DSO and heard John Kadlecik singing the Garcia coda during “I Know You Rider.” This brought chills to every bone in my body and a sense of joy in that I was able to experience this music live in person. Dark Star Orchestra will continue to tour, with each performance extraordinarily portraying one of the giants in American musical history, while at the same time adding their own fresh imprint on the music. As Bob Weir proclaims in the Grateful Dead classic, “The music never stopped,” and surely Jerry Garcia is smiling and watching over the Dark Star Orchestra in delight.

By: Peter Kolesari Article originally appeared on PhreshWater.com 09/03