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From Batucada to Modern Jazz
Carolina Amoruso talks with master percussionist Cyro Baptista

Photo: Rene Huemer


Upon touching down on the grounds of the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, Cyro Baptista began an ongoing adventure with jazz that changed him, not only musically, but as a person as well. It was 1980, and Baptista’s hometown, Sao Paulo, Brazil, was not yet percolating with the new explorations in modern jazz to come, and so this wildly exuberant percussionist set forth to chart new territory.

CMS was a melting pot for questing musicians, and Baptista found himself in the august company of co-founder Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Trilok Gurtu, John Zorn, Sun Ra, and his compatriota, Naná Vasconcellos. The Studio was a daunting challenge at first, but looking back, an ideal setting to energize and nurture his creative soul. Too, it was here where work and life became one, as Baptista experienced a profound commonality among his fellow musicians. “It was not like a school,” he told me in our April interview at his home in New Jersey, “It was a hang!”

He tells of his near-traumatizing first day when he was strong-armed into playing at a student recital: “The song was “Night in Tunisia” that I never heard in my life,” he says. “When I played it, I knew it was jazz. But something felt weird, and I saw that one [player] is making a mistake. And then I said, ‘Wait! They are doing the mistake all together!’”

The piece finally over, Baptista remembers retreating into a corner, humiliated, but soon to be rescued by an older gentleman who explained, “This song, it’s in nine.” 'I said, 9 what?’ The guy counted, ‘1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Nine beats to the measure.’” Then the fog began to lift. Baptista’s savior was Turkish jazz pioneer and reed player, Ismet Siral, who introduced him to time signatures from the Middle East and beyond. “Then he made me play drums in seven or nine (counts), like he was opening a door for me,” Baptista recalls. “I’m so blessed that Night' In Tunisia' is in 9,” he says today, “so that I could meet that guy, because he changed my life.”


Upon leaving CMS, Baptista was headed back to Brazil via New York City. But the vitality of the City’s music scene captivated him. And so he stayed. And stayed. Baptista had free rein to experiment and create here, to lead his own free-flying configurations (Beat the Donkey and Banquet of the Spirits are just two), and to collaborate with respected musicians of all traditions. He has cultivated this freedom, inventing exciting sounds and spectacles while finding the right players to explore with him. “New York gives me so much!” he exclaims, beaming forth gratitude.

Getting a toehold into the music mountain of the City back then was a forbidding challenge. That is, until Baptista and Pé de Boi came upon each other. Bursting onto the streets like spontaneous fireworks, Pé de Boi was a deafening batucada samba band comprised mostly of Brazilians, and included Guillerme Franco, Dudeka Da Fonseca, Jorge Dalto, Manolo Badrena and many more. Baptista was soon on board.

While playing an incongruous weekly gig at the Mudd Club, the City’s bastion of punk, serendipity stepped in. Pé di Boi was picked up by SoHo’s newly-minted club, Sounds of Brazil, and the Brazilian sound went viral. Taking sartorial and staging cues from Sun Ra, Pé de Boi was grooving performance art that blew even insouciant New Yorkers away. But, more, much more, Baptista adds, “We needed as a group to create the sound that’s much more powerful than the individual. We discovered that. We brought people to the ritual of music.”

Baptista’s instruments are the connecting tissue between the music of today and its primordial first notes. His studio walls, tables, floors are covered in them: you’ll find them large and small, found, purchased, or cobbled together from empty sardine cans, wine corks, pingpong balls, plus traditional flutes and drums sourced from the world over, not to mention the Afro-Brazilian panoply.

Baptista points out that his mini universe of sounds gives him currency, but different creds from those earned by the virtuosi he’s played with and adulates, most notably, Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock. “Whoaaaaaa! I could never be those guys,” he confesses. “They are from another planet! When they [and others like Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, and Caetano Veloso] see what I play, in the beginning they don’t understand the energy. But at some point they understand.” Baptista believes that with his outlier’s gift of “playing the environment,” he is returning people to the very wellspring of music.

Just as Ismet Siral led Baptista to new sonic territory, so Herbie Hancock has been a profound musical and spiritual force. He speaks of Hancock with gratitude, reverence, even awe and love. It was Hancock who introduced Baptista to Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism in the late nineties, which he practices to this day. And Hancock showed Baptista that jazz is about struggle, something he in turn learned from Miles Davis. Hancock told him, “Miles said, ‘don’t rehearse, don’t practice. If you don’t struggle right there in the stadium in front of all the people, jazz won’t happen.’ That’s what I want,” he says. “It is the most important.” And that is what he does.

Baptista and his latest crew, Chama, were superlatively funky and free-flying, yet masters of their footing, at Joe’s Pub in March. Chama’s drummer played fast and furious, eliciting exceptional enthusiasm from an already thrilled crowd. Baptista recounted how he found a young “newsboy,” Tim Kieper, on his porch one morning bearing the day’s Times. “‘Mr Baptista,’ he says, ‘my name is Tim. Could I be with you?’ And I say, sure, come on!” Kieper begged to learn to play every instrument from the maestro; he became his shadow, even wrangling his way into Baptista’s classes at the New School.

“One day,” Baptista says, “the drummer couldn’t come, and he says, ‘I can do it!’ And I say, ‘No you can’t. It’s a very important show.’” With no replacement in sight, Baptista relented, and, pausing to laugh out loud now, recalls exclaiming when the gig ended, “You did it!! You did it!! You’re better than the other guy!!’” For years, Kieper has been moonlighting with such super talents as Vieux Farka Touré, John Zorn, Hazmat Modine, and David Byrne. Reflective now, Baptista concludes, “I shouldn’t be, but I feel proud. It’s amazing what he does.”

Despite mentoring Kieper and others, including keyboardist Brian Marsella, to an outstanding career, Baptista protests he’s not a teacher. It’s a claim belied by his longevity at the New School and positions at other higher education institutions throughout the country, as well as by his work with his project, Sound of Community, where he works with kids from underserved areas of the Metro area who might otherwise not be reached.

Baptista tells of being on the road with Kieper and discovering a hunters’ gear shop—“The most Trump thing”—where they bought camouflage outfits and birdcall whistles. Soon after, Baptista was booked for a workshop at an elementary school in the Bronx. Entering the classrooms in full regalia and making a big show of the whistles and percussion “toys,” Baptista soon had all the students playing and wanting to form their own Bronx batucada.

From a percussionist closely wedded to the traditions of his homeland, Baptista has grown into a celebrated jazz musician, mastering its complexity and imbibing its soul. In fact, he seems to have absorbed into his very marrow the ethos of jazz, one based on boundless creativity through community.

Cyro Baptista's latest album is titled Chama (Ropeadope, 2024)
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