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Published: 2005/05/09
by Holly Isbister

‘Why You Beat The Poor Donkey?’ An Interview with Cyro Baptista

While the name Cyro Baptista might not spark instant recognition in your brain, the artists that he has performed with – Sting, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock and Trey Anastasio to name a few – surely will. But Baptista's chops aren't just the backbone of his more notorious colleagues' music. He currently leads his own band, Beat the Donkey, whose 8-piece percussion orchestra is challenging contemporary views of music across the country. The show is a spectacle to be seen – almost more circus or performance art that merely music. I had the good fortune of catching up with Baptista prior to a recent Beat the Donkey gig in Chicago at the Hot House. On a personal note, he is one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever met. In this interview, he discusses not only his music career, but a philosophy on life that is both refreshing and moving. At 55, Baptista is sage, but still full of youthful energy.

HI: You grew up in Brazil, how old were you when you moved to the States and how was that transition for you. How old were you when you decided to go and why was it that you decided to go? And what happened when you got here?

CB: I came here in 1980. I came to the States because I had a scholarship to study in a place in Woodstock, NY. It was a creative music school (CMS). It was incredible. Once again, I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It was a farm in upstate NY and this farm had all these international jazz musicians. These were people that would come there when they weren't touring. People from all over the world went there – people from Africa, India, I came from Brazil. Amazing American and European musicians as well. And that place was one of the first places where world music started. And it was incredible because I saw it start. You get someone from Austria who is going to play with an African and an Indian and I mean, the language is the same – it's music. But different cultures. Now, 25 years of world music means something. But that's the way I came here, then I stayed there for a while – for months. I learned so much there that until today I'm trying to figure out what I learned there (laughs). Then I had 70 dollars and I said, "Oh you know what, I go to New York City before I go back."

HI: With 70 dollars?!

CB: With 70 dollars! And I'm there for 24 years now.

HI: That was your first trip to New York? What was your first impression when you got there?

CB: Yes, I loved it. It's incredible, because now I've lived there for so long and it has people who know. People get picked up at the airport and go there and they hate it right away. And then there's people who just really love it. And I was one of those people, I just felt like it was my home. It was like an extension of this farm that I was living on because there were people there from all over the world. It was a school for me, I learned so much being there.

HI: Looking back to your years growing up in Brazil, how old were you when you first started playing music. Describe to me one of the first times you ever sat down to play.

CB: I was really lucky because I went to an elementary school and I remember the music they were teaching in the school was really boring and there was a classical music program which to me was very old and you had to sing these songs. But I had this teacher and she said, "Oh, to hell with these songs, let's do a percussion group!" And we got to invent our own instruments because she really didn't have a lot of instruments for us to play. And I remember my first instrument was a coconut. You cut it in the middle then you sand it and then take the white part out and you can put them together. It was my first instrument and I was really happy and it's incredible because nobody was doing that kind of thing at that time. And we went to TV doing kids programs. And I think I was very blessed to have that. Music was something fun, it's something that we did together and it was great.

HI: Do you still play the coconut shells?

CB: Oh yeah. I recently did a soundtrack for Nickelodeon, actually Nick Jr. We did sound bytes, 30 or 60 sound bytes. And I had to use many different sounds and one of the sounds was a coconut (laughs)..

HI: You’ve played with a who’s who of the music world – Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Trey Anastasio, the list goes on and on. But Beat the Donkey is your project. What has the experience been like, leading a band. Do you enjoy it more, or is it more stressful?

CB: It's funny. Yesterday I was talking about this, some of the time it's like you are in the heavens, in these pink clouds with the angels. And then the next moment you fall and you are in the middle of hell fire. It's a lot of pressure. Really hard. I've learned so much, especially with this band. We have spent seven years together and during these seven years so many things have happened. People suddenly became professional musicians then other people left music forever or other people married, had babies, got divorced, got their green card. And also there are so many different nationalities. Americans, Africans, Austrians, Germans, Israelis, Japanese. And it's really beautiful. It's like a United Nations.

HI: It has to be somewhat taxing for all of you to get on the same page, with such diverse cultural and social backgrounds.

CB: It is. If I bring an idea to the band. And I show a Brazilian, they say "Oh that's AMAZING, that's fantastic!" and the Japanese say, "oooh…yeah…" Then in a week the Brazilian's mind is already somewhere else and the Japanese say "Oh that was GREAT!" They take different times to react. The only thing that really gets us all together is the desire for making music. And that's the bottom line.

HI: Do you find you play differently when you’re the band leader, when it’s your project, than when you’re performing with a band leader like Trey Anastasio?

CB: It is a special situation for me to play with my own project, and there are other responsibilities involved but this band is like a mirror of what my career is.

HI: In what way?

CB: Because I play with Herbie Hancock, Sting, Paul Simon with Trey. And that's how I learned music. For me, again, I'm so lucky that my telephone rings and every time it's been a completely different musician and person. Herbie Hancock is really "jazz" jazz music, Paul Simon is like Pop American music, then I play here with the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I did an album with him. Classical. Then I go with Trey Anastasio and the jamband and the hippies. I mean, it's so different. I think that's what kept it fresh for me, because it's a big challenge. I'm on the road with Trey Anastasio and people are smoking marijuana and with jeans and then I play classical music and the people are wearing ties. I never wear ties. It's a struggle that I need to grow and learn. And I think this band is just that. It's a great thing in the one hand, because it's such a variety of music that we play. But in the other hand, it's what kills us a little bit because it's so difficult to categorize what I do. We don't have a booking agent, because people are scared of what it is we do. People ask me what kind of music do you play? And I really don't know how to answer. Because it's my life, it's what I do. And how am I going to explain why these people call me? I don't know why they call me!

HI: In your opinion, what is it that an excellent percussion player does that a more mediocre percussion player doesn’t do? What separates the pros from the amateurs?

CB: I don't know. People ask me these questions. It's very delicate, it's a fine line. Because you say "amateur." In Brazilian it's "amador," if you translate it, it's a guy who makes something for love. And there's not much wrong with that. And so you know, like, what is the professional? The one who makes more money? It's funny with Beat the Donkey this happens a lot. I bring instruments – parts of refrigerator. People see the show and they come to me and say, "oh refrigerator parts! I can do that too!" I used to get kind of pissed off, I wouldn't say it, but I work my ass off to play this refrigerator! But this is the fantastic thing. If you play with Yo-Yo Ma, or Herbie, or these real virtuosos. And the people go to the theater and watch that amazing situation for two hours and they leave the theater thinking "Wow, that guy is superman! I can't do that!" I like this other side. That somebody can go and say, "Yes, I can do that!" Because I think that it was not long ago that humanity, people, would go and sit around the fire and play music. Music was part of a ritual, it was part of the day. And now we watch TV and computers. But I think everyone can do it. The important thing is that you play. Make something happen.

HI: You mentioned fate, and how you think that fate is what determines how a person can rise to a certain level in their career. Do you think that your life has been fated to be the way it is now? How much do you think was your own hard work, and how much do you think was just pure luck, or fate?

CB: I think 99.99999999% was hard work. I think you're born with a certain fate, but it is up to you to discover that. And I think this has a lot to do with transformation. Like with Beat the Donkey, people say, "Oh the poor donkey, why you beat the poor donkey." But it's an animal you know? And beating, and movement and transformation that's what creates good things. I think that everybody needs to believe in transformation. You need to struggle. That's how I think your fate is drawn, when you pass this hard moment and a stage where you ask "what am I going to do now?" And that's the best moment, that's the best music you can create.

HI: Can you give me an example of when that happened to you?

CB: Oh you know, it's funny, with Herbie that happened. Because I went to play with Herbie and I went to do this album with him called Gershwin’s World. And it was a great album, and it got a Grammy. And then it's oh, let's do a band and go over the world. We toured for 2 years. Herbie is somebody like that – you never know what's going to happen. We played together for a while. I remember we were in Japan and after we finished the first part of the concert, he came back and he said Cyro, "You're just great. What you play is beautiful and people love you, the band likes you. Everything is so nice. But I think you're not taking chances enough. And I want you to take more chances. In this band, you're never going to be fired for making a mistake. But maybe you will be fired if you don't make a mistake." And man, when he said that, I was so mad, I told my wife, "I don't want to play this jazz anymore!" Then we went back and I said, "You know, you want me to be crazy or what?" You know, when he was playing with Miles, Wayne Shorter was a great saxophone player and Miles came to him and said, "Oh you're great, and everything is right, but I want you to play your saxophone like it's a plastic saxophone." And that's what made Wayne Shorter to come up with the sound that only Wayne Shorter has! So I came back and decided to take more chances with what I was doing. And the results immediately started to happen. That's what I mean by transformation. It's like making poison into medicine. You can do that. It's that. You create something and you think that's the end, but no, there will always be another way.

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