4.08.2004

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

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Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)