Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cyro Baptista

I don't know why, but something in Joe Germuska's "Conference of the Birds" feature on CMS sparked a memory of Cyro Baptista. Cyro is a Brazilian percussionist who first came to the USA to study at the Creative Music Studio.

Since then, he's played with "David Byrne, Kathleen Battle, Gato Barbieri, Dr. John, Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Robert Palmer, Melissa Etheridge, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Michael Tilson Thomas, Daniel Barenboin, Bobby McFerrin, Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo-Ma, Medeski Martin & Wood, Spyro Gyra, Trey Anastasio from Phish, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Santana and Sting. He has also played with many respected Brazilian artists such as Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Ivan Lins, Marisa Monte, and Nana Vasconcelos" (from ).

I absolutely love Cyro's own account of his arrival at CMS, which he submitted to me for the email-newsletter version of the CMS Update, back in 2001. In his own words:

"In July 1980 I came to America arriving at JFK with a Berimbau and a cracked conga. I waited in front of the airport for a van service that picked me up and after two hours of driving on the highway, it delivered me at a Howard Johnsons. At that time it looked to me like an incredible piece of Swiss architecture. Karl and Ingrid Berger came to get me in an Oldsmobile and we stopped to get a six-pack of Michelob.

"Everything was so incredible. I was so nervous and I didn't have any clue of what would happen in this new situation. Also, I had no idea how CMS would be.

"Well, we arrived, and the place was really beautiful. It looked exactly like the Hollywood idea I had of Woodstock. They showed me my room in a little chalet, where I would stay with other students. In no time people started to arrive. I remember a guy with very nice long hair who came to me and said, 'Hey man you are the Brazilian percussionist. Yeah man, you guys are the

"I, with my Tarzan English, could barely understand what he was saying, and I just said, 'Yes.' Then he continued, 'Man you are going to play at my presentation tonight.'

"I told him that I didn't even speak English, and that I had just arrived. He replied, 'No man, I'll see you later, it is going to be very easy.'

"I went with my cracked conga to this big room. Students and teachers sat waiting for the presentation. The tune was 'Night in Tunisia,' a song I had never heard of in my life, and what was even worse, he arranged it in 9, which I didn't even know existed (In Brazil we mainly play in 2 or 4, sometimes 3).

"We started to play. The drummer was playing swing. I told myself, 'This is going to be a piece of cake, just do pa pumpum pa pumpum.' But then, suddenly, something different happened in the tune. I thought maybe it was an American thing . But it happened again and again. I knew I was playing right and they must be totally wrong. But the incredible thing was that they were doing the same mistake together at the same time. Then I started to get really paranoid, I kept thinking, 'Why is this happening to me? On my first day at school, in my first day in America, and in front of everybody.' I remember thinking, while I was playing, that maybe during the trip, when I crossed the Equator the magnetic fields took my rhythm away. I was totally destroyed and wanted to cry.

"Finally the torture ended. I went to a corner trying to recompose myself when this guy came to talk to me. He was one of the teachers. His name was Ismet Siral, an incredible musician from Turkey .

'You was lost there, eh?'
'The tune was in 9.'
'Nine what?'
'1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9, 1 2....' He showed me, counting on his fingers.
'Why somebody would do something like that? To make other people's life miserable?'
'In my country they do that, and they even play that on the radio. They also
play in 11, 13, etc.'

"The late Ismet. What a guy he was. He told me, 'When you don't know what they are playing, just play what you know and wait with patience, because eventually you will play the 1 together.'

"I always tell this story to the students. It is easier to tell than to write, especially with my third-world English.

"I came to do the summer course at CMS. I stayed over there for a month, then, on my way back, I decided to stop in New York City for a week, and I ended up staying here for over twenty years.

"Eventually I came back to Woodstock to record and play some concerts with Karl and Ingrid. Sometimes I go to Woodstock to record at Bearsville Studios and I feel a lot of nostalgia.

"During the month that I lived up there I learned so much, not just about the art of making music, but also the art of living."

If you ever have a chance to check out Cyro's band Beat the Donkey, I think you'll find it to be pure fun, pure energy, and pure excitement. I haven't seen them except in video. When I see them it makes me think, "man, that's what I want to do when I grow up!"

Check out this brief YouTube sample:

And here's a little more seriousness, with Yo-Yo Ma:

See Cyro's website at

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