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"Rhythm 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 Internet.

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?

AM: Yeah, I started playing pandeiro when I was four or five.

NSR: How did you get involved with drumset, and what kind of training did you have? What did you practice?

AM: Well, I never really practiced that much. I just kept myself playing all the time, and there was no time for practicing [laughter].

NSR: You were self-taught on drumset?

AM: 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!

NSR: Were you the first to put percussion and drumset together in Brazil in the mid-1960s?

AM: 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 1967.

NSR: What about your work with the Sambalanço Trio?

AM: 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. César 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 in 1968.

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].

NSR: Naná 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?

AM: 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.

NSR: How did you get involved with berimbau, caxixi, and the other instruments?

AM: 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.

NSR: Where do the songs and the things you sing come from?

AM: 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.

NSR: When 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?

AM: 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 band?

AM: 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.

NSR: For 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?

AM: 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?

AM: 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, José Neto 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."

NSR: That's 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?

AM: 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.

NSR: What influence have other kinds of music had on you as a percussionist?

AM: 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!

NSR: What about your work with the pan-African group Amampondo?

AM: 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 is about.

NSR: Do you incorporate any kind of influence in your playing when you're around these kinds of Indian and African musicians?

AM: 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.

NSR: What kind of non-musical influences do you have?

AM: 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 happening now.

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:].

For more, please see Robinson, N. Scott.  "The New Percussionist in Jazz: Organological and Technical Expansion." M.A. thesis, Kent State University, 2002.

Airto Moreira Selected Discography:

His Early Drumset Recordings in Brazil

Geraldo Cunha (w/Sambalanço Trio)
Quem tem bossa faz assim LP 1964/1965 Audio Fidelity AFLP-2012

Lennie Dale
Lennie Dale e o Sambalanço Trio LP 1965 Elenco ME-21

Raul de Souza
Raulzinho e o Sambalanço Trio: À vontade mesmo CD 1965 BMG/RCA 74321883682

Antonio Guimarães
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 BOM22057

Quarteto Novo*
Quarteto Novo CD 1967 EMI Brasil 827 497-2

Altamir Penha and Edison Penha
Violoes em Hi-Fi LP 1965 Farroupilha LPFA-423

Jair Rodrigues (& Trio Novo)
O Sorriso do Jair LP 1966 Philips P 765.004 P

Sambalanço Trio
Sambalanço Trio Vol. 1 CD 1964 Bomba Records BOM554
Sambalanço Trio CD 1965 Bomba Records BOM22015
Reencontro Com Sambalanço Trio CD 1965 Bomba Records BOM22042

Sambrasa Trio
Sambrasa Trio/em som maior LP 1965 SOM/Maior SMLP-1507

Sansa Trio
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

Various Artists
III Festival da Música Popular Brasileira—Vol. 1: Realização da TV Record de São Paulo LP 1967 Philips R 765.014 L (Edu
SPACE Lobo backed by Quarteto Novo on live track "Ponteio")

I Festival Universitário de Música Popular Brasileira da Guanabara: TV Tupi Canal 6. Secretaria de Turismo GB LP 1968 SPACE 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 & SPACE SPACE SPACE 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.

*Quarteto Novo 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 "O Cantador."

**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 in 1997.

©1999 - N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.


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