Legend Airto: Then & Now
By N. Scott Robinson
from Modern Drummer 24, no. 6 (June 2000): 68-72,
74, 76, 78, 80, 82.82.
Airto Moreira, one
of the most high-profile percussionists since 1970 in jazz
and other popular musics, has performed or recorded with
a diverse array of artists such as Miles Davis, Smashing
Pumpkins, Carlos Santana, Al DiMeola, James Taylor, Paul
Simon, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Cannonball Adderley,
Roy Clark, Amampondo, Average White Band, Ray Barretto,
Gato Barbieri, Brecker Brothers, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kenny
Burrell, Chick Corea, The Carpenters, Peter, Paul &
Mary, George Duke, Gil Evans, Larry Coryell, Jim Hall, Dizzy
Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Paul Horn, Keith Jarrett, Mickey
Hart, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, Babetunde Olatunji,
Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Tina Turner, and George Benson.
On over 400 recordings, Airto was one of the first "New
Percussionists" to combine percussion with drumset
in Brazil (along with Luciano Perrone and Jadir de Castro)
and use traditional percussion instruments from Brazil,
Cuba, Africa, and China in new ways in jazz and popular
music. His impact on percussion in jazz was so huge that
Down Beat created a category for percussion in
both the annual Jazz Critics and Readers Polls, which he
won first place in for nine consecutive years from 1974-1982
as well as eight consecutive years in the Modern Drummer
Readers Poll from 1979-1986, and topped polls in Jazziz,
Swing Journal, Drum!, and even on the
In the 1980s, Airto
began moving away from the kind of work he did with instruments
such as berimbau and cuica, and began
moving towards unifying his creative percussion with his
drumset developing a highly stylistic and personal approach
to the drumset/percussion table. In the 1990s, Airto featured
his drumset-percussion table setup with his band Fourth
World on seven CDs. Lately, Airto has been producing and
performing on recordings that feature remixes and samples
of his older work with a younger generation of European
DJs and musicians. Contemporary versions of his music are
topping the charts in England, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Italy,
Holland, Scandinavia, Portugal, Republic of South Africa,
Israel, Greece, France, Japan, and recently the USA with
artists such as James Taylor Quartet, Darius Brubeck &
Deepak Ram, Madala Kunene, Ricky Randimbiarison, Transglobal
Underground, Byron Wallen, Brice Wassey, The Bellini Brothers,
The Heartists, and Coccoluto.
Putting aside Airto’s
achievements in the USA and Europe, what of his accomplishments
in Brazil before leaving for the USA in 1968? Airto was
mainly a drumset player after his recording career started
in 1963 in Brazil and performed with top Brazilian musicians
such as Sambalanço Trio, Sambrasa Trio, Lennie Dale,
Raul de Souza, César Camargo Mariano Octet, Trio
Novo, Quarteto Novo, Trio Maraya, Geraldo Vandre, Edu Lobo,
Milton Nascimento, Hermeto Pascoal, Antonio Carlos Jobim,
Astrud Gilberto, Walter Wanderley, Raimundo Fagner, Eumir
Deodato, Flora Purim, Sergio Mendes, Jair Rodrigues, Antonio
Guimarães, Thiago de Mello, and Tania Maria. I was
curious about piecing together his early days in Brazil
in order to track down all of his recordings between 1963
and 1968 in Brazil. Studying his early recordings in Brazil
and comparing them to his early recordings in the USA shed
some light on his transition from fiery Brazilian drumset
player to an international creative percussionist . . .
NSR: Did you play percussion
before you played drumset?
Yeah, I started playing pandeiro
when I was four or five.
did you get involved with drumset, and what kind of training
did you have? What did you practice?
Well, I never really practiced that
much. I just kept myself playing all the time, and there
was no time for practicing [laughter].
were self-taught on drumset?
Yeah, definitely! I went to a dance,
a carnaval ball, with my father, mother, and my sister.
I was too young, about fourteen, and couldn't stay in the
ballroom. I had to stay with the musicians on this little
stage there. The drummer was late, so they asked me if I
knew how to play drums. I said, "Well, I don't know,
I never played." But they knew me because they used
to sneak me in on Sunday afternoons, and I used to sit in
with some musicians, and I'd sing and play some percussion.
So they asked me if I knew how to play drumset! I sat down,
and they asked me to play three different rhythms, which
are the main rhythms for the carnaval. I played them
on drumset right away because I used to watch the drummer
all the time. Then they said, "Do you want to play
until the drummer comes in?" I said, "Sure."
I played the whole night because the guy never showed up.
So then I was playing drumset!
you the first to put percussion and drumset together in
Brazil in the mid 1960s?
Yeah, I was the first. I could say that because nobody ever
played like that before. Percussionists, back then in Brazil,
were called rhythmists. So you were a rhythmist
if you played rhythm with a band on just one percussion
instrument. If you played with a symphonic orchestra, then
you were a percussionist. So I was always a rhythmist when
I played percussion, at that time. When I played drumset,
I felt like I was on a different kind of musical level.
At that time, I thought I should play more drumset but I
always wanted to incorporate drumset and percussion. I was
beginning to do it already because I used to work with Geraldo
Vandre and Trio Novo. Vandre was very good in putting things
together with a lot of soul; very Brazilian and very authentic
stuff. He didn't mind that we improvised and did all these
things. So one time he said, “I want you to play, definitely,
percussion and drumset in most of the songs.” Then I got
used to working with percussion around the drumset, and
I would just pick it up, play, and mix them. This was when
Quarteto Novo was his backing band but there was one single
with Vandre, Trio Novo [Airto on drumset/percussion,
with Heraldo do Monte and Theophile de Barros on acoustic
guitars], and the Trio Maraya [back up singers who
played some light percussion and guitars] in 1966. Trio
Novo became Quarteto Novo when Hermeto Pascoal joined in
about your work with the Sambalanço Trio?
Sambalanço Trio; that was before Vandre
and started in 1964 [Airto’s second recording; Sambalanço
Trio -Vol. 1]. We still worked a little bit with Vandre
at the end of Sambalanço Trio, whom were César Camargo Mariano
on piano, Humberto Clayber on bass, and myself on drumset.
We did three of our own records and then one with Raul de
Souza [Airto plays congas and drumset; his first recording
with percussion other than drumset] and one with Lennie
Dale. Cesar was a great arranger; I played on the recording
of his octet in Brazil. After Sambalanço Trio was Sambraza
Trio, whom were Humberto Clayber on bass, Hermeto Pascoal
on keyboards, flute, and harmonica, and myself on drumset.
We made one recording, Sambrasa Trio, in Brazil
for Polydor. Quarteto Novo did one album in 1967, Quarteto
Novo [the first recording where Airto simultaneously
plays drumset and percussion live on some tracks], and
one with Geraldo Vandre as the backing band with Trio Maraya
in 1968, Canto Geral. I left Brazil after that
What happened with
Sambalanço Trio was that César Camargo Mariano, the pianist,
quit because he was going to get married, and he didn't
want to go on the road. He was going to compose for TV so
he didn't want to stay with the group anymore. I called
Hermeto Pascoal, and asked him, "Can you stay and replace
César?" He said, "Yeah, I can do that; I would
love to play with you guys, but you have to change the name
of the band because we are going to fool the people. The
people are going to come and think that César is playing,
and it's me." So then we changed the name from Sambalanço
Trio to Sambrasa Trio. We rehearsed all new arrangements
and new music. It was a beautiful experience, a great band!
Flora Purim would sing with us sometimes, and she was the
only singer that could sing with that band [chuckles].
Vasconcelos, in the late 1960s, also mixed percussion with
drumset on his early recordings with Yansã Quarteto and
Agostinho dos Santos. Did you two ever meet, work together,
or influence each other at all? What about Dom um Romão?
Dom um . . . yes. Dom um is older
than I am, even though I am fifty-seven. I’m senior to Naná
and Dom um is senior to me. When I met Naná he was just
getting a job with Milton Nascimento in Rio because he was
just coming from Northeast Brazil, and then he started rehearsing
with Milton. I think we met at a show in Rio, one time,
very briefly. The next time I saw Naná, I was playing with
Miles Davis, and I was in the States. I saw him playing
with Gato Barbieri. We didn't really influence each other,
I don't think so.
did you get involved with berimbau, caxixi,
and the other instruments?
It was with Geraldo Vandre. I was
playing with Quarteto Novo, and I was also working with
Vandre. He asked me to put a band together for him to back
him up. So the band became Quarteto Novo with Hermeto Pascoal
on piano and flute, Heraldo do Monte on guitars, and Theophile
de Barros on bass and acoustic guitar, with myself on drumset
and percussion. There were some arrangements in which I
had to play the berimbau, so I learned, and I played.
I never went on
a journey around Brazil collecting instruments [laughter];
someone wrote that in a book somewhere. I had no time to
do that; I've got to go play, you know? But what I did do
was travel a lot when I was living in São Paulo, Brazil.
I was in São Paulo for three or four years, and I used to
play with a dance band there. I always played with dance
bands. In São Paulo was where I developed the jazz thing,
and I was a little bit more interested in jazz than other
kinds of music. I used to play Brazilian dance music and
all kinds of dance music all the time. Doing that, I used
to travel all over Brazil for years playing music. Of course,
everywhere you go if you are a percussionist, you can't
help it . . . you see somebody playing something, or you
see an instrument. I always got the things that I liked.
do the songs and the things you sing come from?
I travel a lot, like everybody else
that really plays for people, and I get influenced by everybody,
and every kind of sound that I hear. I always sang, since
I was five years old. I think we are individuals, and we
develop certain things through years of experience of living
on this planet. So we gain certain knowledge, and we get
different kinds of information in our minds. This information
that we get, it's from everywhere.
you came to the USA, and played with Miles Davis, you worked
a lot in jazz as a percussionist, and in many different
styles of music; you were constantly in situations where
there had never before been a percussionist. How did these
experiences influence you to develop a new way to play percussion?
I think a percussionist is part of
music, with colors or rhythm. If you're not playing rhythm,
then you play sounds; then you're playing colors. So you
listen, and you play, and you listen, and you play and that's
the system. If you don't hear anything, then you stay quiet.
When you hear something, you play. You look at your percussion,
and pick up the sound that you think will be the right sound
for the moment that you want to play.
NSR: So you
didn't have any problem when you'd play with a rock or jazz
No, but I liked to know who I was
going to play with before the gig. That's why I don't do
that many sessions anymore because I'm kind of picky. I
ask who’s playing, and what kind of music it is. They have
to send me a tape because I make an effort, and try not
just to be a worker in music. I like to play what I like
to play, and I like to fully participate in the music. I
think every time that you play, you have energy with you,
what’s called the universal energy, o energia universal.
It's the energy that keeps everything together . . . that
keeps all the planets in balance, and all the galaxies,
everything. When you play, you are in touch with that energy
if you are open; if you are not thinking about, "I've
got to play real good," or, "I'm going to play
rhythm right here," or, "I'm going to play this
and that." If you just let go, and listen and play
. . . that's the process. Then you get in touch with and
inside of that energy. Then it becomes much bigger than
the stage. It's really nice to play like that. For the people
who are listening, it can be very healing; and as a player,
it's also very healing. It's a totally positive experience.
I don't like to
be a specialist on anything. I play everything okay but
I don't think I play anything really, really well because
there are certain things that you have to spend years and
years studying, and practicing, and doing it. I'm not that
kind of musician. I like to play, and I like to practice
sometimes [laughs]. I’m not recommending this to
anybody, you understand? I grew up like that; I grew up
playing. A long time ago, I used to watch some drummers,
when I was between fourteen and twenty-five, and then that
was it. When I came to the States in 1969, I saw Jack DeJohnette
playing drumset, and I said, [chuckles], "Oh,
my God! What am I doing? Am I really a drummer," you
know, I was wondering? But I was a good drummer, and I play
my style. Fortunately, I have a style that I created, and
now I play my style. Otherwise, I would be in trouble these
days because everybody is playing really, really good drumset!
The new generations of musicians, now, these musicians play,
they practice a lot, and they all read and write music;
it's very beautiful, what is happening now.
studio work, do you have any kind of process for deciding
what to play when you do work with artists that you are
not familiar with?
What I do is I ask for a tape. I want
to make sure that I can contribute to whatever the project
is. I listen to it, and I figure out, "Okay, I'm going
to play this over here, and this I'll play over there."
Then I take those specific instruments, plus some of my
favorite sounds or something that they might ask me to play,
like a triangle, or a small ganza, and that's the
way I do it [chuckles].
NSR: In your
early work, you did a lot of very interesting things with
berimbau and voice, hand drums, and percussion colors.
Now it seems there's been a shift where you've really incorporated
the drumset and a percussion table as one instrument. Is
there a reason why you've made that shift?
There was a reason, actually. Since
1975 or 1976, I always had percussion tables made by Peter
Engelhart. He's a sculptor, and he works with metal. He
made this percussion table, and I asked him to make a bigger
one that I could put a small bass drum under. Then I was
standing up playing that bass drum--sometimes, sometimes
not, and having my percussion all there. Then it grew. I
used to have a pair of congas on my left, and then
I added timbales, and some cymbals, and eventually
the rest of a drumset when I formed Fourth World.
In the early 1990s,
Flora and I formed Fourth World. Flora was the singer, myself
on drums and percussion, Jose Néto on guitar, and Gary Meek
on keyboards, saxophones, and flute. There was no bass player
so I thought, "Okay, I'm going to have to make a little
taller table, because I need a bigger bass drum, and I want
to incorporate some tom-toms, floor tom, and a snare, and
I'll play everything."
why you play percussion with your right hand and the toms
and snare with your left hand when you play with Fourth
World . . . it's like a bass?
Right, but recently I changed my setup.
Now I have two small tables, one on my right, and one on
my left, and I play drumset like that [laughs]. I
used this set up on Fourth World’s CD, Last Journey.
influence have other kinds of music had on you as a percussionist?
They have different kinds of influences.
Like Indian music, the popular Indian music, for the people,
they play it in India all the time, and it’s simpler. But
then, when you're getting to the classical Indian musicians,
a little higher level in society, they are finer musicians,
and they have been in school studying, and everything. Then,
to me, Indian music becomes very complicated. It's more
like a "head music" than a "body music." I like body music
better. I don't like head music that much; it's not that
I don't like it but then it makes me start thinking. Then
if I start thinking, I'm not playing.
But people like Zakir
Hussain, for instance, Zakir is one of the greatest players
in the world, if not the greatest on tabla. He's
just so, so incredible. His head is so incredible; the way
he perceives rhythm is just mind-blowing. When I was with
Mickey Hart in a bus, we'd play on a drum. Zakir and Vikku
Vinayakaram, they used to get into this game in the bus.
They would start playing a pattern of twenty-three beats.
Twenty-three by eight, or by four, or by whatever you want
[laughter]. Then they would break it down from twenty-three,
to twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen,
sixteen, and then go all the way down, and then they would
be trading ones! And then they would be trading halves!
I swear! And they’d repeat the other guy's phrases. If I
play one phrase, you'd have to repeat my phrase. After you
repeat my phrase, then you make a new one. Then I have to
repeat your new one. That was some incredible stuff!
about your work with the pan-African group Amampondo?
Amampondo is different. Amampondo
are great players and they play for dancing. Three of the
guys are descendants from royalty in Africa. One of their
grandfathers was a king of a huge part of Africa. They have
a great show, and they're very, very strong players. Amampondo
plays all kinds of African percussion and marimbas . . .
all different types of big, huge marimbas-from East, West,
and Southern Africa. They dance and sing really well; they
are very energetic and have girls who sing, dance, and play
percussion also. It's some incredible band! They're very
good, and I love their energy. That's what the whole thing
NSR: Do you
incorporate any kind of influence in your playing when you’re
around these kinds of Indian and African musicians?
No; I think I just add my energy to
it because I go pretty much for what they are doing. To
be honest with you, I don't try to change the music anymore.
Whatever they are playing, I just go with it. I fit in with
what they are playing, and I put some energy on it, and
I look at them, and we exchange that energy. It's just beautiful
when it works.
kind of non-musical influences do you have?
Well, I like people. I like to be
influenced by people's energy; by people's feelings. I like
the same thing that everybody likes. I like to communicate,
and when I speak, I like to be heard, and I like to have
good conversations about good things. I've been influenced
by my travels all over. I think that's what really influences
me. Plus, life, I mean life is very incredible right now;
all the technology. When I was younger, I never thought
that I could see some things like the things I see these
days like the Internet. There are so many things that are
The electronic music
by the younger kids in Europe; they sample these sounds
from my music from years ago, and they make their own songs,
and they are musicians but they are the musicians of the
future. It's really incredible to see that. On my new album,
Homeless, I took things in that direction. It’s
a dance album, and it has electronics in most of the songs
but it's real playing. I'm playing, and we sample my sounds;
me, my daughter Diana, and her husband. Right now they are
influencing me a lot. We are exchanging a lot because I’m
influencing them too, and we're exchanging really strongly.
I am experiencing a new thing now. I'm getting together
with the kids, and rappers, and so on. They listen to my
album, Homeless, and they go [as if "blown
away"], "Oh, my God, oh, my God!" You
know, they all want to sample everything [laughter].
Every beat, man. It's pretty incredible!
[For a complete discography,
bibliography, and videography on Airto Moreira, see: http://www.airto.com].
Drumset Recordings in Brazil
Quem tem bossa faz assim LP 1964/1965 Audio Fidelity
Lennie Dale e o Sambalanço Trio LP 1965 Elenco
Raul de Souza
Raulzinho e o Sambalanço Trio: à vontade mesmo
CD 1965 BMG/RCA 74321883682
O Fabuloso Guimarães: Guimarães e seu Conjunto em Ritmos
de Dança-Vol. 1 LP 1963/1964 Chantecler CMG 2.216
César Camargo Mariano
Octeto de César Camargo Mariano CD 1966 Bomba Records
Quarteto Novo CD 1967 EMI Brasil 827 497-2
Altamir Penha and Edison
Violoes em Hi-Fi LP 1965 Farroupilha LPFA-423
Jair Rodrigues (&
O Sorriso do Jair LP 1966 Philips P 765.004 P
Sambalanço Trio Vol. 1 CD 1964 Bomba Records BOM554
Sambalanço Trio CD 1965 Bomba Records BOM22015
Reencontro Com Sambalanço Trio CD 1965 Bomba Records
Sambrasa Trio/em som maior LP 1965 SOM/ Maior SMLP-1507
Sansa Trio Vol. 2 LP 1966 SOM/ Maior SMLP-1515
Geraldo Vandre (&
Trio Novo with Trio Maraya)**
20 Preferidas CD 1966 RGE 5613-2
Geraldo Vandre (&
Quarteto Novo with Trio Maraya)
"Rosa, Hortencia e Margarida" & "Feira
do gado - Asa branca" 45 LP single 1967 7B-234
Canto Geral LP 1968 Odeon MOFB 3514
III Festival da Música Popular Brasileira - Vol. 1:
Realização da TV Record de São Paulo LP 1967 Philips
R 765.014 L (Edu Lobo backed by Quarteto Novo on live track
I Festival Universitário de Música
Popular Brasileira da Guanabara: TV Tupi Canal 6. Secretaria
de Turismo GB LP 1968 Philips R 765.061 L (Jair Rodrigues
backed by the Quarteto Novo on live track "O Violeiro").
III Festival Internacional da
Canção Popular: Rio - Vol. III LP 1968 Philips R 765.064
L (Trio Maraya & Quarteto Novo on one studio track, "Oxala").
All recordings originally
released in Brazil. This discography contains original recording
dates but label info for current CD reissues.
was reissued on LP and CD in Brazil in 1993 but only the
CD Quarteto Novo / Radames Gnattali contains two
extra Quarteto Novo tracks that were originally released
only as singles in Brazil in 1967, "Ponteio" and
**Contains the track, "Porta-Estandarte"
by Geraldo Vandre with Trio Novo and Trio Maraya, originally
released only as a single in Brazil in 1966, CD reissue
N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.