Airto and Flora Interview
Edited from a conversation with Mickey Hart and Airto in 1988.
AM: I was born in 1941 in a small village in South Brazil.
When I was two years old, I used to crawl around, and when I heard songs that I liked, I’d sit on the floor and bang along. My mom thought I was acting weird, so she went from Ponta Grossa to Curitiba (Parana State in S. Brazil) to see my Grandmother. And the first time I started banging, my mom said, “Oh look, he’s doing it again! Isn’t that weird?” And my Grandma, she looked, and she watched me for a moment, and she said, “Oh my God! that’s another musician!”–just like that. But she gave me a toy tambourine.
You see, my Grandfather, her husband, was from Milan, Italy, and he was a semi-classical operetta singer. He was a night-person, a bohemian, he drank a lot, wouldn’t stay home for too long, and he used to just take off on his own. He was also a fine tailor. So he would take the train and go somewhere, get off at a town that he liked, and just stay there. He’d go to the best tailor in town, and say, “I’m from Italy, and I’m an excellent tailor, and I want to work for you, ’cause I need some money.” So he’d work and make some money, he was very good, and then he would use the money and gamble and put a concert for the city or whatever. He was crazy. That’s why my Grandma was so upset when she saw me playing.
So I play percussion. That’s my philosophy–that I am a percussionist, that’s the way I express myself, and the best way that I know to communicate with a mass of people.
I started out making noises. I couldn’t say that I’ve ever been to a big jungle, a real jungle like the Amazon, but I used to go and walk in the woods a lot when I was a kid, try to imitate the sounds I heard, like making bird-call noisemakers out of leaves. As a kid, I used to go to matinees on Sunday afternoons, but instead of dancing, I would go and check the band out, watch the drummers. And then I’d start singing with them, playing some tambourine, some shaker or whatever.
For a while, when I was about six, I played percussions with an old man who played button accordion. We would go by horse 5 or 6 hours from town to town, and play for a big Polish or German wedding. They used to barbeque outdoors 5 pigs & 3 goats & a cow or two and invited hundreds of people, make a big party! We used to be there & play, and you play about 5 & 6 songs or more, until you feel that people are really in a groove, dancing like crazy, and you just know that the shit is happening, the music is just happening. Then you stop, and I used to go with the hat “please, can you contribute…” and if the guy doesn’t give you nothing, you don’t say anything, you just pass the hat. And you go back, and start playing again. Meanwhile the old man had a drink, and I had a guarana–a Brazilian soft drink. Guarana is kind of a berry, like coffee, but much stronger, keeps you alert and awake. (They still have it today–it’s a natural thing, comes from the Indians a long time ago)
MH: eat enough of it, man, you can really rip on it–a natural speed. you can get it in a capsule called “zoom” or something like that. I ripped my stomach up on massive doses of ginseng and guarana & bee pollen–and A-Way, clear light, man.
AM: One day, when I was about eight years old, I went to a Carnival dance with my mother, father, and older sister. When we got there, they said that according to some new law, I was too young, and couldn’t get in. So I started crying at the door, so my father talked to the people, and finally they said, “OK, he can come in, but he has to stay with the musicians onstage–he can’t go out in the club.” Of course, that’s what I wanted. I knew those musicians–they were a father and three sons. (The old man, Senor Pedro, played accordion, his sons played tuba, trombone, sax doubling on clarinet and flute.) Edgar, the drummer was the only guy hired from outside the family. And Edgar didn’t show up. So they asked me if I wanted to play drums, and I said, “Well, I’ve never played drums.” “Well, you want to try?” “Yeah, sure.” So I sat down and they said, “Play marcha” (which is like march). There was a big bass drum with a little cymbal on top on a spring–there was no hi-hat in those days–and what we used to call cocos (some cocoanuts and some wooden blocks). And there were other things like on old trap sets, a bicycle horn and such stuff. So I played marcha, then I played samba, and I kept playing. The drummer never showed up, I played the whole night. Senor Pedro gave me 40 new pais (was the old money, before cruzeiros, cruzados–you know the money keeps changing names in Brazil, every three or four years they take two zeros out of the money). Afterwards Senor Pedro came to our house and he said “Excuse me, can I talk to you Senor Jose?” “Oh yeah, sure.” They sent me outside, and after I while when I came back, they had agreed that I could play with the band now and then, mostly during the day. That’s how I started playing drums.
I became interested in drums, or traps, rather than percussion. At that time in Brazil, they called a percussion player a “rhythmist,” you weren’t really considered a musician, and got paid less than the drummer. Things have changed. Now we’re fucking musicians, know our way around!
I never got into the street-band samba school sort of percussion, because I’m not from Rio de Janeiro, so I didn’t grow up with that stuff. Carnival is really street music and a lot of craziness altogether. In Bahia it’s better, but in South Brazil, where I grew up, Carnival is not so strong in the streets, but is stronger in clubs.
When I was 16, I moved to Sao Paolo. I was a member of a trio called “Samba Lance” playing in the only jazz club in Sao Paolo, backing up singers. Flora came as a singer from Rio, that’s how we met. I thought it was a great thing when I met her–a musician always thinks how wonderful it would be to meet a partner who is a good musician, at least you can share that, and you can feel music together, and discuss something, talk about it, and she would know what you’re talking about. That would be a very good relationship.
I didn’t come to the States as a musician–I came to get Flora. She was here for a month, so I decided I would go and get her and come back, maybe I’ll stay two weeks or whatever. I brought an old leather suitcase full of percussion instruments. I played small gigs whenever I could, but couldn’t speak the language.
But we stayed. It was two-and a half years before I really started playing here, though. I first recorded with J. J. Johnson, then with Paul Desmond. I stayed in LA for about a year, then went to NY–Flora was there, singing background with Miriam Makeba. At that time percussion was not an instrument, it was just a fixture, nothing creative or interesting. So things started. When I started playing with Miles [Davis], people started noticing–they’d say “wow, what was that-was that a pig?”–it was the cuica, but I was the first asshole that went down and played cuica with Miles–you know Miles could just nail the shit out of you onstage for that, just kick your fucking butts, physically, onstage, and you wouldn’t say anything–you leave, or you just keep quiet. He never did that, but he can do it with his eyes. I first recorded with him on the album “Bitches Brew,” and then I sat in once at the Village Gate, and Miles said “you wanna go?–it’s 2 weeks, 1 week in Boston, one in Washington.” I said, “sure.” He said, “but you’re not going to make any money.” I said, “well, it’s ok with me, because I’m not making any money for 2 years already in this country, so it’s not going to make no difference in my life.” He said, “OK, 10 o’clock, the bus goes…” So I went to the Jazz Workshop in Boston for a week, then the Cellar Door in DC for a week, and after a week he gave me like $600–was a lot of money for a week! I said, “wow!” He said, “what? Don’t you want it?” I said, “Sure I want it! Thanks, man”–and that’s it, I was playing with Miles.
And then one day I had a call from a very important Brazilian band leader here in the States, he said “Listen, you wanna play with my group,” & this & that, “we’ll get a house for you in California, a car, everything you need…” I said, “oh, ok, I don’t know, I have to think about it.” You know, when you don’t have money enough to eat, that sounds pretty fuckin’ good.
So called Miles and I said “Miles, I want to talk to you, it’s very important” And he said “When?” “Now?” And he said, “OK, come over.” So I went to Miles. I knew I had to be fast, and then wait for the feeling–he works by feeling. He might say “Ok, thank you, I’ll see you later, bye-bye,” or he might say “Ok, you want some wine, I want you to meet my new cook–she’s from Brazil” (an old lady, a nice black lady). So I said “Miles, so-and-so he made an offer to me, he’s gonna give me so much money, a house, a car, and I’m gonna be ok for at least two years, and I don’t know if I am working with you… am I working with you?” We were in New York, playing uptown at the Club Barnes in Harlem, and he said, “Well, did you play yesterday?” “Yeah” “Are you playing tomorrow?” “Yeah” He said, “So?” So I called back the bandleader, and I said “Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m playing with Miles Davis right now.” Shit, man, I felt very good! I thought, “I’m BAD, man, I’m playing with Miles Davis!” I mean, man, it was like a dream! At that time NOBODY ever thinks about playing with Miles Davis (unless you’re Herbie Hancock). I played with Miles for 2 and half years.
MH: Yeah, the first time I saw you were at the Carousel Ballroom, we had invited Miles to open for the Grateful Dead. It was a psychedelic crowd–they didn’t know a thing about jazz–and there was Miles in his silver suit, laying the shit on ‘em. It was spellbinding.
AM: The music was so intense, so fast–not in tempo, but in reaction. To play that kind of music is almost like driving a fast car on a road that you don’t know–if you stop to think, you’re dead, you’re gone. A lot of things going on, very little space. I would wait, sometimes like three bars, and then just put in a little lick, repeating it several times. At first I would look at Miles, trying get the vibes. Sometimes he was looking at me like I was from a different world or something, I swear, man, he had that look like “what the fuck are you doing?”–Maybe it was just me thinking that, but anyhow I decided I’m not going to look at this guy anymore, this motherfucker, I’m not looking at him. I just sat on the floor with my instruments and played.
The group included Jack DeJohnette on drums, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Chick Corea on keyboards–later Keith Jarrett. But we all played off the pulse–the most important thing that is happening, no matter what instrument it is–and the pulse came from Miles. Any one of us would have the power of change, but just when everybody agreed, they’d lay back a little bit and say, “OK, you’ve got it!” That was a very great experience. To me, that’s the ultimatum of playing music, being transported by that pure energy. The highest state I ever got to in music was when playing so spontaneously. You play because something is there to be played, and if you don’t hear anything you can stop if you want. Doesn’t have to be jazz or rock or reggae, you know, it’s just “OK, shit, I don’t hear anything now, so I’m quitting a little bit–you guys, you got it.” And so you have a drink, or you just don’t do nothing, and then you take a listen again and you say “OK” and then you start playing. But we had that situation in very fast speed, so it was a bitch, man.
Later I recorded for Cree Taylor (CTI Records), he backed me up. I got a group together called “Fingers”, we travelled for 2 years, it was beautiful. I was doing a lot of TV commercials, and radio spots. I did that one of the bubbling coffee pot, imitating the bubbling sound in my mouth.
There were times when my musical knowledge, and even my ability to understand and to feel changed–first when I was very young, then in Sao Paolo, then in New York, then that’s it. After New York, that was it. Even though things happen all the time, nothing equaled that. Soon there will be another change, I don’t know when. We are progressing, most of the time, in everything, but at some times you’re not just progressing, you’re completing a cycle and you’re going to another cycle–I think there’s another cycle coming for me very soon. And it’s coming through creating music. I have some things that I’m going to do and that I’m doing, and that keeps me out of trouble!
Memorable Airto Quotes:
“Listening is the most important thing, but nobody thinks about it. If you can’t listen, you’re not playing nothing, you’re just banging shit around.” — Airto
“The berimbau is a very special instrument, you don’t play when you’re not inspired. Only when the vibe is there, otherwise I don’t take a chance, because I got beaten a few times by the vibes of the berimbau. If the time isn’t just right, the instrument can defeat you. It’s a good instrument, it has both melody notes and rhythm, and I like it because I can chant with it and enjoy it a lot. You have to respect the instrument.” — Airto
The Mickey Hart Collection albums, including the “Airto: The Other Side of This” and “The Apocalypse Now Sessions: Rhythm Devils Play River Music” recordings may be purchased at Smithsonian Folkways.
Visit Mickey at mickeyhart.net
© 2011 Mickey Hart. All Rights Reserved.