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Published: 2011/05/06
by Tom Volk

Cyro Baptista: Caym and Abel, Shapes and Sharps

It is truly astonishing to try and wrap your mind around the number of irons that Cyro Baptista has in the fire. Baptista, who will turn sixty this year, just released Caym, The Book of Angles Volume 17, a collaboration between John Zorn and Banquet of the Spirits. He is also wrapping up no less than two albums with his other outfit, Beat The Donkey, just finished a tour with Banquet of the Spirits, is presiding over the start up of the Sound of Community, a outreach organization with the goal of bringing music to underserved populations and, finally, he recently acquired a 30 acre piece of land in his native Brazil with the goal of establishing a musical center in the rain forest.

For a man who is so forward in his thinking and approach to music, Baptista had no problem honoring the past and our recent discussion touched on everything from the sounds of the rain forest, building your own instrument, recording for Nickelodeon and exactly just what a ngoni is.

So let’s starts with Caym and then work around from there. I’m interested in how the collaboration works between Zorn, who wrote the Book of Angles songbook, and the performers. How does each individual piece get shaped?

Zorn just gave us the songs he thought would be appropriate. About how John Zorn shapes his musical pieces, you got to ask him, because it is a mystery for all of us how he does it. It just like the pizzas that he makes, each one is a surprise with different shapes and tastes!

Is there a give and take between Zorn and the musicians or, are the pieces set in stone?

John Zorn just handed us the compositions, and we had total freedom in terms of transformation – to add or subtract elements to any of the songs. That’s how our album Caym was conceived. The son of the serpent, and the serpent is the symbol of life. Otherwise the album would end up sounding just like any of the projects that he has, like Masada, Bar Kokhba Sextet, etc

You have been collaborating with Zorn for so long, how has that relationship evolved over the years?

Probably, right now, I am the musician who is working the longest with Zorn, about to complete 30 years, I am not sure maybe a little less. We are good friends and, definitely, we are brothers, and, like Caym (the namesake for our album) and Abel we already killed each other many times over the years and we keep coming back stronger and stronger. Maybe, that is the invisible concept behind this album “the archetype of fratricide” a concept that persists in numerous references and retellings, through medieval art and Shakespearean works up to present day fiction.

When you were approached to do the album did you know instantly that this would be for the Banquet of the Spirits?

Tim Keiper, Brian Marsella and Shanir Blumenkranz are, in one way or another, involved with the “Planet Zorn,” making the decision about the Banquet of the Spirits execute this album inevitable

That’s funny, when I try to describe Zorn to uninitiated friends I say “You’ve probably listened to many of the people in his orbit just not the man himself.” I was really impressed with both the playing and arranging of Shanir Bluemenkranz. Can you tell us about how it was decided that he would arrange the album and about his contribution?

There is only one Shanir Blumenkranz and he came up with many of the concepts and forms for all these compositions, We incorporated the input from Tim Keiper, Brian Marsella, myself and tempered by Justin Bias, who patiently engineered and edited the whole album.

Justin also added an amazing visual dimension to the music. For each track on the album, he created a separate video that incorporates footage from the rehearsal and recording process. Each tune on the album is so unique – it’s kind of a glimpse into the creative process and the inspiration behind each of the tracks.
Probably better you just watch them for yourself (see above).

Tim orchestrated the rhythmic landscape of this entire album and also played ngoni. Brian’s solos are deep stories that kept us together sitting around his fire. Believe me this record is not one of those “made in two days” – we worked our ass off from beginning to end! If you listen something there, probably is not what you think! Everything is in its place and nowhere at the same time. Caym is the result of a true anthropophagic effort.

I was struck by how the album felt concise and expansive all at once, almost like the 6th draft of an essay. At the same time it didn’t feel like the pieces were overdubbed a bit which, I would think, they had to be. What did it take to achieve this? Careful editing?

Many, many studio session under my belt…. lots of experience!

Can you describe some of the more exotic instruments, such as ngoni or oud for the uninitiated?

I’m probably not the person to ask about those – probably would be better to ask those guys. But the ngoni is a really amazing instrument. The one Tim plays he got in Mali while playing there. The instrument is made of a piece of bamboo and a huge calabash. It’s actually the same gourd that I use on my berimbau – but they grow it ALOT bigger in Africa than Brazli! Then he takes fishing line for the strings and the sound is just amazing!!

You have collaborated with so many artists over the years, how has that shaped you as a band leader?

I am so grateful to have played with tremendous musicians, and had the opportunity to extract from these experiences the ingredients that I put it in a blender to make this juice that keeps me alive. But before being a musician I am a human being, and that is what shapes and sharps.

Has there been anyone in particular who changed your perception of the role of a bandleader?

Nana Vasconcelos was very generous friend and mentor, and gave me many tools and opened for me a door with infinite possibilities to develop my perception. Also Herbie Hancock and John Zorn were a tremendous source of encouragement and guidance so I could go on with my own projects and also, they showed me, that music can be something else than just entertainment. They taught me that it’s ok if you like my music, but if you don’t like it – that’s ok too.

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