THE RHYTHMIST’S TALE
Excerpted from the book
DRUMMING AT THE EDGE OF MAGIC
A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
and with Fredric Lieberman
© 1990 Mickey Hart All Rights Reserved
I first met the great South American drummer Airto Moreira while I was working on the score for Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Anyone who has ever seen that movie knows that its centerpiece is the trip the character played by Martin Sheen makes up the river in search of the renegade warrior played by Marlon Brando. Francis had transposed Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War, and he wanted to create a soundscape that would accompany this river journey, gently drawing the filmgoer deeper and deeper into the surreal and dangerous world of the jungle. He wanted to create sounds nobody had ever heard before and tune them to a precise emotional pitch.
I love gathering sounds. For years it had been one of my deepest private passions; now Francis was pushing it public and I felt that rush of panic and excitement that is the adrenaline of art. The first thing I did was scatter monitors all over the Barn and screen Apocalypse constantly. For weeks it was going all day long, always in the background, just the footage and dialogue, until finally I began to dream about it, the movie entering my dreamtime; after that it was with me constantly.
As I assembled my soundscape it began to bother me that none of the percussionists I had in mind to play the score had ever been to the jungle. When it came to understanding the spirit of the place, we were tourists. It was then I thought of Airto.
Airto was South American, a Brazilian. I’d first seen him years before with Miles Davis. He had played like a man possessed, so intense and serious that he made Miles, who isn’t exactly passive, look like a man out for an afternoon stroll. Airto stalked the stage, a hungry animal foraging for sounds, ringing bells, blowing whistles, and occasionally emitting barking guttural chants, usually in Portuguese.
I was expecting the jungle from Airto. What I got was a mirror image of myself. He arrived with a working kit of his own devising, lots of whistles and strange little buzzing devices—small, discrete sounds that were the opposite of the big, loud, overpowering noises that I favored. It was characteristic of Airto that he had always known what had taken me years to learn: that if a drummer needed a special sound he either makes it himself or goes without. Airto even had a pair of wooden shoes from Holland that he’d clap together whenever he needed a really solid thunk. Airto was into it like I was into it.
He lived with me for the three weeks it took to record Apocalypse. I was fascinated by him. He was so there as a drummer, so conscious of the rhythm, yet it was a completely natural attunement, not a highly educated one like Zakir’s or Olatunji’s. Airto had an ability to give himself to the act of playing and to the rhythmic possibilities that were always unfolding. He was magnetic to watch, and powerful, for me at least. He was dealing with a much darker palette than I was, exploring a different emotional family of sounds than the one I was familiar with.
I’d been collecting and playing drums long enough to know that this wasn’t solely a function of Airto’s temperament; the instruments played a big part. Airto’s instruments—the wood block, the whistle, the bullroarer, the berimbau (or musical bow) were so much older than any of the instruments I’d ever played. Particularly the berimbau, a single vibrating string that runs down a long stick neck attached to an open gourd. The left hand balances the long neck of the bow, while the right hand, holding a stick and a rattle, strikes the string, producing a droning, throbbing buzz whose pitch can be changed by manipulating the open part of the gourd against your stomach.
We used to stand around the fireplace in the Barn, Airto playing the berimbau, I the tar, telling stories. I told him about the damaru, about the rudiments, and slowly, as the weeks passed, he told me who he was:
THE RHYTHMIST’S TALE
I was born in 1941 in a small village in southern Brazil. When I was only a few months old I began making erratic physical movements that alarmed my mother. Concerned that I might have some strange disease, my mother went to grandmother, and while they were discussing me I suddenly began twitching and rocking. “See,” my mother said, “there, he’s doing it now.” My grandmother watched me intently and then she stood and crossed the room and turned off the radio. I immediately stopped rocking. I’m told my grandmother then turned to my mother and exclaimed, “Oh my God! We’ve got another musician in the family.”
My grandmother’s exclamation was not a completely happy one, though it was she who later gave me my first drum, a toy tambourine. You see, her husband, my mother’s father, was an Italian immigrant from Milan, a crazy man, I’m told, a night person, a bohemian, a drinker, never at home much or at work much, though when he was he was a fine tailor. Only one thing consumed him—the opera. My grandfather lived for the concerts that he put on out of his own pocket. Whatever extra cash he had was spent on his art, not his family.
When I was a few years older I used to go to the dances on Sunday afternoons. I never danced, I always watched the drummers. Sometimes they would let me play a shaker or a tambourine. I got my first regular job as a percussionist when I was six, accompanying an old man who played button accordion. We would go by horse, sometimes five or six hours from my town, to play at big Polish or German weddings. The bride’s family would host a big barbecue to feed the hundreds of guests. The cooks would roast a half dozen pigs, a couple of goats, and maybe a cow. We’d play five or six songs, get the people really in a groove, dancing like crazy, and then we’d stop and pass the hat.
When I say I played percussion I mean that I played the gourd rattles. At that time in Brazil a percussionist was called a rhythmist and was paid much less than an actual drummer.
I didn’t play my first real drum, a drum set actually, until I was eight. That happened at carnaval. My mother, father, sister, and I had gone to a dance, but I was so young they didn’t want to let me in. I began crying and finally they said okay, I could stay, but I would have to remain up on stage with the band. They thought I’d be safe up there. And the band’s drummer didn’t show up. He missed his bus or something. Now the band leader knew I was a rhythmist so he asked if I wanted to try the drums. I remember well, there was a big bass drum with a little cymbal on top on a spring, plus some coconuts and wooden blocks, and an old bicycle horn beside the traps. The band leader said, “Play a march,” and I did. I played a march, then a samba, and that was the start of my career as a professional drummer, because when the night was over the band leader gave me forty new pais and then went and asked my father if I could come work with his band as their drummer.
I found the drum set very interesting. Instead of holding and playing and moving, I found myself sitting and beating with two things I held in my hands, the sticks, and I was amazed at the number of different rhythms I could get going. It struck me as very odd and I had to try hard not to listen to what I was playing, because whenever I did, the strangeness of it would make me forget what I was playing and I would get confused.
I do not mind playing drum set but in some sense it is too rhythmic for my temperament. You have to sit there and play rhythm and you have to stick with it because if you stop there’s a hole in the music. Percussion is more my style, colors and effects. If I had to choose I would play very little rhythm and lots of other stuff. I like to be on my feet and move when I play. For this reason my favorite drum early on was the pandeiro, the tambourine.
We did not have many hand drums in Brazil, just the pandeiro and the atabaque, which is a drum like a conga or a bata, straight and much bigger on top than on bottom. I didn’t get in touch with the atabaque until I was almost twenty, when I was playing in the Quarteto Novo in São Paulo. Even now, though I play atabaque, I think of it mostly as a spirit instrument.
The atabaque and the berimbau, the bow—for me they represent the wonderful culture that was brought to Brazil by the black slaves of Angola. They brought us umbanda and candomblé and with these they taught us patience and how to be strong. How to take pain, without complaining, how to be patient with people who have no consideration for you, for other human beings. Insensitive people.
The berimbau, you know, was used in the slaves’ martial art, capoeira. The slaves were not allowed to practice capoeira openly or it would have seemed to the plantation guards that they were practicing for war. So while they fought they played the berimbau in a particular rhythm and whenever anyone spotted a guard the rhythm would change and everyone would start dancing. The guard would come and look and say, “Oh, good. The slaves are happy. So let’s leave ’em alone, let’s get out of here.” As soon as they were gone the rhythm of the berimbau would change and they’d start fighting or training again.
We play the atabaque in candomblé and umbanda, in the times when a medium is present. I myself belong to what in English would be called a chain. This is a group of people, friends and family members, neighbors, who get together to think the same thoughts. We sit in a circle and there are drummers playing certain rhythms. The Orisha—the spirits—come down into the body of the medium and you can talk to them. You might say, “Well, what should I do about this and what should I do about that,” and usually they will give you advice. And they know all about you. You can’t fool them. They might come back at you and say, “Well, what about this, what about that.” And then everybody will know about this and that.
You can’t leave your body too open during one of these sessions. Sometimes spirits will get into somebody beside the medium. If you’re not keeping your mind clear on what is happening, if you’re thinking about problems, then sometimes bad things can happen. Because the spirits are like us. Some are on a very high level of awareness and some are on a very low level. There are bad spirits and good spirits, just like us.
Shango is supposed to be my half father because he was the one who baptized me. I was baptized in the spirit by Shango, so I am a son of Shango. But there are thousands or millions of spirits who belong to the Shango level. Otherwise Shango couldn’t be in Brazil and Cuba at the same time, so when we say Shango we mean all the spirits around the world who are on that level.
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.
“DRUMMING AT THE EDGE OF MAGIC” may be purchased at mickeyhart.net/store
Visit Mickey at mickeyhart.net
© 1990 Mickey Hart All Rights Reserved