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Cyro Baptista: The Benefits of the Struggle

AAJ Staff By

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I began to imagine that maybe, during my trip, when I crossed the Equator some magnetic field did something with my rhythmic senses.
By Cyro Baptista

In the summer of 1980 I was living in Rio de Janeiro when I got the news that I was awarded with a kind of scholarship to go to the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock because of a cassette that I sent to them. My English at the time was like Tarzan English (not that it has gotten any better). I didn't know where I was going, I was terrified, but to my surprise I arrived in a fantastic farm in the middle of the woods. It was just like a dream, considering the confusion that my life was by then.

On my first day, one of the students, a young fellow, approached me: "Hey are you a percussionist from Brazil? You guys are the best! And you know what? You're going to play with me at my recital in the main room tonight." I tried my best to say "no, no" but he understood "yes, yes" and finally he told me that I shouldn't worry and that it would be a piece of cake, which made me wonder what cake had to do with music. Well, suddenly I was in front of the entire school, students, teachers and the whole shebang.

The song was "Night in Tunisia," which I never heard in my life, and on top of that, he did an arrangement of this song in nine! I didn't even know that such a thing existed, even in my wildest dreams. When the song started, the first thing that came to mind was "this is going to be a breeze, it's just a jazz groove" and immediately I started to play the usual pa..pum..pum swing on the congas. But suddenly something very strange happened; At first I thought they made a mistake, but this weird thing continued to happen again and again, I couldn't understand. "How is it that they are making the mistake together?" After I tried everything and nothing worked, the situation started deteriorating rapidly. I began to imagine that maybe, during my trip, when I crossed the Equator some magnetic field did something with my rhythmic senses. A mix of despair and paranoia descended into my mind. I literally began to feel, like we say in Brazil, "the shit of the bandito's horse," but finally the song ended. I quickly ran to a corner. I wanted to cry or disappear. My first day in America was turning into a catastrophe of immense proportions! By then, an older guy showed up and asked me:

"You were kind of lost, weren't you? Did you know that the song was in nine?"

And I said, "nine what?"

Then the man counted out loud, gesturing with his fingers, "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and then you start again until the end of the song."

At that point I started getting really pissed off. "Why would anybody in this world do something like that with music? Just to make people's lives miserable?"

Well the name of this man was Ismath Siral, an amazing multi-instrumentalist from Turkey. He told me how in his country even songs that were played on the radio could be in nine, ten, or thirteen-and-a-half, just like samba in Brazil. Very quickly I learned a lot from him, even how to avoid infamous situations like those.

But, the best lesson of all was to let yourself just play what you feel from your heart. Don't worry. Be patient, because it might take a long time, but you can be certain that one day, during the song, you will fall on the "one" together, no matter what.

Cyro Baptista is both an accomplished leader (Beat the Donkey) and a first call percussionist for a wide range of performers (Geri Allen, Trey Anastasio, Gato Barbieri, Bobby McFerrin, Tim Sparks and John Zorn to name a few). Since arriving to the States in 1980 from Brazil, Baptista has been able to both take advantage of the rising interest in his native percussion as well as make strides in its development.


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