As Airto takes the stage, his presence fills the room. The large and powerful looking man appears almost gruff, unwelcoming, austere, intimidating at initial glance. But then the second glance, his eyes sparkling as he offers his first warm and gentle smile, and his sense of humor and charisma embrace the audience. For a brief moment, he takes in the crowd before taking it to a musical montage of magic.
At the crux of Airto’s philosophies, motivations and approaches lies the word “communication.” It sounds so simple, yet it pervades every aspect of what and who he is and does, whether it be a session or a live gig; whether playing a simple cowbell or his elaborate Josephina; whether performing, cracking a joke, or sharing, as he did here, his history, experiences, perceptions and emotions.
It is, therefore, my responsibility to communicate the musician and the man I’ve met, from the respect with which he speaks of his instruments and the making of music, to the laughter in his heart and his smiling eyes. Most of all, I must somehow capture on paper the warm, loving, sensitive and passionate spirit that lies within Airto.
RF: Tell me about your hometown.
A: It was very small and it was in south Brazil. I grew up in the woods and fields, in a very simple house with a very basic kind of living. I had contact with nature from the time I was very small until I was 14 or 15 when we moved to a bigger town.
RF: Your father wanted you to have a “sensible” career. Did you ever expect to make a living at music?
A: Actually, my father was not sure what I should be. I guess he wanted me to be a barber, like he was, and my mother wanted me to be a dentist. But I was involved with music from the time I was very small. Before I could even walk, every time I heard music, I would start moving and beating the floor with my hands. My mother was concerned that I was sick. One day when we were at my grandma’s house, I started doing it and my mother said, “Look, that thing is happening again.” So my grandma said, “Oh, look at his hands; look at his feet. This is a musician that is coming. Don’t you see that?”
RF: Musicians weren’t very well looked upon in Brazil, were they?
A: No. To decide to be a musician at that time was some kind of craziness, because the musician was associated with alcohol and prostitutes.
RF: When did you first start playing drums?
A: I was 13 or 14 years old. I went to a dance at Carnaval time with my parents. I couldn’t get in because I was not over 16, and I started crying at the door, so the guy said I could come in but I had to sit on stage with the musicians. That’s what I wanted anyway, so I sat down. The drummer didn’t show up and they asked me if I knew how to play drums. I said I didn’t know. I had never played drums, although at the Sunday matinees for kids I would sing and play tambourine or triangle. They asked me to play a samba, so I played the samba right away on the spot. I had watched the drummer all the time. Then they asked me to play a rhythm called marcha, which is like a march, and I played it. So they asked me to play until the drummer came, but the drummer never showed up, so I played until 4:30 in the morning. They gave me some money, and as we were walking home, I said, “Look what I got,” and showed it to my father. He said, “You got all this money from where?’’ I told him that they gave it to me because it was the money for the drummer and I played the drums, so I made the money. He said, “We cannot accept that.” We were very poor but my father was always very, very honest. So we went back and I explained that I had to give the money back because my father said we could not keep it. The leader explained to my father that it was mine, and finally he said, “You take the money or I’m going to throw it away.” We took the money and I gave it to my father, but he didn’t feel very good about it. It was a lot of money at that time, the same amount he would make being a barber in two busy days. Then about two days later, the band came to talk to my father, wanting me to play. Finally my father said okay and asked them to take care of me and not let me drink, and I started being a musician at that time, professionally. Even before that, I played percussion with some accordion players at weddings and things, since I was seven or eight.
RF: Where had you come in contact with percussion?
A: I don’t know. I always liked it. I would always go off in the woods and make little instruments to blow in, little whistles and things. I would get things that had seeds inside and would make little instruments to shake.
RF: Had you seen percussionists? Obviously there were drummers, but were there percussionists?
A: No, but sometimes I would see show bands from Spain because they used to go to south Brazil to work. They had bongo and conga players, the traditional, average kind of percussion with maracas and such, but I was never really into being a percussionist. I was a musician. I loved to sing and I was not into any particular instrument. The percussion was natural to me. Once I saw a woman playing percussion with Luis Gonzaga, who is a very famous singer. Her name was Zezinha and she was playing triangle and zabumba, which is like a small bass drum you hang on your shoulder and neck. It was the first time I saw a woman playing percussion and I thought it was incredible. I was just a kid, and it really impressed me because it was so beautiful. But I never decided to be a percussionist. I was a drummer mostly, even though I played percussion all my life. My first instrument was a plastic tambourine my grandma gave to me so I wouldn’t beat the floor. When I moved to Curitiba, I started playing more and more drums. I was playing with a big band for dances, but I knew how to play percussion all the way. Then when I moved from Curitiba to Sao Paulo, which is a big city like New York, I wanted to be a singer. I couldn’t get a job as a singer because they wanted female singers in the nightclubs. The females would sit down with the customers and have a few drinks, but nobody would invite me for drinks [laughs]. So then I continued playing drums for about a year and a half in a band that travelled all over Brazil, and we went to Argentina and Uruguay. After that, I played with a trio at the only bar in Sao Paulo that had jazz and contemporary music.
RF: What did you know of jazz at that point?
A: I met a guy, Raul de Souza, who came to Curitiba to play in the Air Force band. He was a great musician and he had a friend who used to buy arrangements from the States and play jazz. We went to this guy’s house and he said, “You have to hear jazz and you have to stop singing those sambas and boleros and things.” So I heard J.J. Johnson, Paul Desmond and Coltrane, which I thought was incredible. I didn’t understand anything, of course, but I was thinking, “Woah, what is this? Everybody’s playing whatever he wants.” But then he said, “You have to hear, be relaxed, listen and let the music flow through you.” So I heard it many times and I started liking jazz. That was the only exposure to jazz that I had at the time.
RF: How old were you?
A: Maybe 18 or 19. So I went to play with this trio and we were actually playing samba, but more like they used to call samba-jazz in Brazil, jazz things with a samba beat. It was beautiful, great for improvising, trading fours and everything, and I did that for almost two years. When the group broke up, I formed the Quarteto Novo, which means the New Quartet. It was a great musical experience to me because we were playing more original music. It was very modern because we would make incredible arrangements out of very simple songs. It sounded beautiful and was more acoustic oriented, so I started the new trend of percussion, which was, instead of playing the conventional things, I was using different instruments for different things. Suddenly, everyone realized you could play shaker with triangle at the same time, or two shakers instead of one.
RF: What made you know this?
A: Creativity, inspiration. What I used to do a lot was sit at the drums and play the bass drum and the hi-hat with my feet and then play two percussion instruments with my hands. It would be the basic drums on the bottom and light sounds on the top. We did that a lot in that group, so I started a trend. In Brazil at that time, there was no such thing as a percussionist. Someone was considered a percussionist if he played classical music in a symphonic orchestra. Otherwise you were a rhythmist, and we were all rhythmists until we all began playing that style. Then we became percussionists.
RF: Any formal training in percussion?
A: No, I always just played. I was always in touch with my percussion. making instruments and trying to get new sounds out of them and things like that.
RF: You’ve said that you must have an awareness of your own environment. What do you mean by that?
A: You do not have to go somewhere to get creativity and inspiration. That’s yours; you’ve got it. If you are a musician, you can be creative anywhere in the world. People don’t have to run to Brazil in order to hear the birds because there are birds everywhere. It’s just a matter of getting inspired and getting your creativity working; drawing the energy that is in the universe that we don’t see but is always here. To draw that energy, you don’t have to go to Brazil or China. You can do that anywhere because you do that on your own.
RF: So back to Quarteto Novo.
A: The New Quartet was together for almost two years and it was a great experience. Even today, that group is considered one of the most advanced groups, musically speaking, ever in Brazil. But Quarteto Novo started to dissolve because of lack of direction, business-wise. We were playing on the TV and radio shows and everything, but we had to back up singers in order to play. There was almost no instrumental music on TV or radio, so we started to feel sort of depressed and started playing with different people because it became impossible to play together. So we decided to break up the group. Flora [Purim] and I were together by that time, which was 1967, and she was coming to the States, just to try. She wanted to be a jazz singer.
RF: Had you ever thought about coming to the United States?
A: No. I always thought I would never come to the United States. I was happy in Brazil.
RF: Did you think you could achieve the success you wanted, there?
A: I was not after any big thing. I just wanted to play, buy food, have a place to sleep, and that was it. But Flora came to the States and she was writing me letters, telling me how nice it was and about the respect the musicians have here for one another which is true and how people help each other here. Brazil is a very hard place because there are so many musicians and not too many places to play. Nobody invites you to sit in because you might play Better than they do. So she told me it was a whole different ballgame here. The musicians treat other musicians with much more respect. A singer would even tell another singer that she is singing good! That would never happen in Brazil. But I came here a month later to pick her up and take her back to Brazil. But then I stayed.
A: Because then I felt something else. When I came here, I saw some of the people who were like gods to me, like Miles Davis. I recorded with Paul Desmond and I met J.J. Johnson, I met Cannonball Adderley a beautiful man; an incredible person and they were all real people. I said, “Wait a minute, something is happening here that I don’t know.” I decided to stay a little more, and a little more. Flora started getting small gigs for us here and there, and so I just kept staying. When I met Miles Davis, it was like meeting God in heaven or something, and it was very different.
RF: Flora’s book (Freedom Song) indicated that you were very unambitious when you came here.
A: That is true, and I am still the same way. I have a lot of drive when I’m playing and when I’m creating, but I don’t have drive for putting things together and making plans for the future, getting musicians to rehearse and dealing with the whole bullshit. I don’t have drive for that at all, even though now, I do have some kind of drive, otherwise I wouldn’t be around. I was not ambitious. I never thought I was going to be playing with Miles Davis or Cannonball Adderley or anybody. This was not even a dream to me. I just knew that I loved to play the music and every time I played, people said, “Wow, that’s good.”
RF: Most of the articles on you make it sound like when you first came to the United States, the first person you played with was Miles Davis.
A: I spent two and a half years eating shit before I played with Miles. I used to sit in when they let me, but many times they didn’t know I wanted to because I couldn’t speak English. It was, “Me play.” And to them it was, “What is this?” It took me about a year and a half to start speaking English.
I used to sit in at a place called Lost & Found, which was in New York. Benny Aronov was playing there, with Reggie Workman on bass. I didn’t have any reality as to who they were, but then I started bringing a snare drum and a cymbal, and they wanted to play some sambas and bossa novas with me. Flora was singing there sometimes and then we started working there for food. We didn’t have money to buy food, so we would play the whole night and eat. Then I met Walter Booker, a bass player who was with Cannonball Adderley at the time, and he helped me a lot. I was living at his house for part of the year and eating his food and playing his drums. He had a studio there where I would play drums. Cannonball and other musicians used to rehearse there and I had the opportunity to play with them, so they could see that I was a good musician, even though I was from Brazil and couldn’t speak any English.
RF: Why did you say in an interview that Cannonball Adderley was your musical father?
A: Because he was the most beautiful human being I ever met that was famous, respected and a great player. I consider him my musical father because to learn to be a person with a great musician is very rare. A lot of the great musicians are assholes as people. You cannot even talk to them, but Cannonball was very, very human; a beautiful man. Anytime we needed something, we could go to Cannonball and he would do it for us, just out of love. We were foreigners.we are still foreigners, by the way and I could feel that. I still feel that sometimes. On the phone, if you have an accent, you don’t get across as good.
RF: You speak English beautifully now, though.
A: I have an accent anyways, and on the phone it’s harder. When I can use my eyes to speak, that’s different. When I cannot do that, they think, “Oh, this guy doesn’t know.” So there is that kind of prejudice and I feel that sometimes, but it doesn’t really bother me.
RF: And you felt that within the music industry when you came here also?
A: Oh very much so, because it was, “What does this guy want? He wants to play? Play what?’’ Things are changing for the better, I think, all the time, because that’s why we are here, to be better people than we are.
RF: When did you become a percussionist in your viewpoint? When you came to the U.S., you were a drummer and percussionist, weren’t you?
A: I started getting calls just for percussion after Miles Davis. Then I was a percussionist. It was a change in this country, too, because when the U.S. and Cuba cut their relations, politically speaking, the percussion, that was mainly Cuban and Puerto Rican, went down the drain and great percussionists were out of work. Percussion almost disappeared at that time. When they found out that they could play other things besides congas, bongos and maracas, everybody started gathering a lot of little things to play. People saw me with Miles Davis and started calling percussionists again and they knew a little more could be done with percussion, so percussion became percussion again. Even rock ’n’ roll bands have a couple of percussionists. I feel responsible for that, which is great.
RF: How did you finally get with Miles?
A: I had met Joe Zawinul, who was also playing with Cannonball Adderley, and Joe was friends with Miles Davis. One day, Miles said, “Hey Joe, I’m looking for somebody that plays percussion, but I don’t want a conga or bongo player. I want something different.” And Joe said, “Well, there’s this guy from Brazil and he’s got all kinds of weird things. He plays good drums too, but he’s a percussionist with some good sounds I think you’re going to like. Give him a call.” So Thanksgiving day, I was by myself at Walter Booker’s pad because Walter and his family went to Washington to be with their relatives. Lee Morgan called and said he was coming over to pick me up and bring me to his house because his wife was cooking some great food. He came, and while he was there, Miles Davis’ manager called and said, “I am Miles Davis’ manager and he wants you to record with him.” And I said, “Hey, what kind of joke is this? Bullshit,” and the guy said, “No, I am Jack Whitmore and I am Miles’ manager,” and I said, “Hey man, don’t play this joke on me,” and I hung up. Lee Morgan asked me what happened and I told him some guy was playing a joke about my playing with Miles Davis. So Jack called back right away and Lee picked up the phone and said, “Oh, hey Jack, how’re you doing?” And I thought, “Wow!” And he said, “Okay, he’ll be there.” He got off the phone and said, “Miles wants you to rehearse at his house and go to record with him at CBS on Monday.” I went to rehearsal and rehearsed a little bit and then recorded with Miles.
The music he was playing was so alien to me because it was jazz, but it wasn’t jazz; it was much more advanced than jazz. He was beginning to use the wa-wa with the trumpet and everything. It was some kind of crazy thing, it was two basses.an acoustic bass and an electric bass. with two keyboards, and people like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Davey Holland, Wayne Shorter and Jack Dejohnette. I was thinking, “Whoa, what is this?”
RF: What was wrong on that session where Miles walked out and said, “This is shit”?
A: The music just didn’t come out. Today I can analyze it a little better. I think there were too many musicians there playing where there wasn’t that much music to be played. The parts weren’t really fitting together and it was a very experimental kind of thing. Everybody was going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and then Teo Macero asked, “Hey Miles, how is it?” And Miles said, “It sounds like shit. I’m going home,” and he left. I got very hurt because I thought I didn’t make it. I put everything on me, of course, but about three days later, they called me again. On that first session, there had been another percussionist playing tablas, sitar and some other things, but when they called me again, I was the only one. There was just one bass and less people, and then it was nice. I didn’t even know how to think about those sessions because I didn’t understand the music at all.
RF: How do you play on something where you don’t understand the music?
A: You listen and you play. You just have to be careful that you don’t play too much. If you don’t feel, you don’t play. It is better not to play than play too much.
RF: When you were young, did you find that you were anxious and overplayed?
A: Many times bandleaders told me, “Hey, shut up,” or something like that. So I had learned that, but not to the extent that I learned that with Miles Davis. Miles is the best for learning to play the right time, the right note, the right space and everything.
RF: In interviews, you always say that you learned to listen with Miles, but it’s never taken further in those articles. Can you describe how you learn to listen?
A: Listening is the one most important thing in music besides playing your instrument. Nobody can teach you how to listen because all musicians think they’re listening. There is a way, though, when you are home in your livingroom and you put a record on, you’re relaxed, and you lay back and listen. Then you can focus your attention on the bass player or the drummer or the piano player, individually, but at the same time, you’re listening to the whole thing because you have the relaxation to listen like that. Then you know everything that is happening all the time. That’s the same way you have to be listening when you’re playing. The only difference is that you are one of the musicians.
RF: Are you saying to listen as if you aren’t playing?
A: Yeah, you are a complement of the music. You are not a soloist unless you are taking a solo. But you’re not supposed to develop the solo for the saxophone player because he has got to develop his solo and you have to back him up. It’s got to do with respect for other musicians and people generally. You have to respect what they play and you have to enjoy it. Another thing is sometimes the music drags a little bit and we want to make the music happen right away, so we push and push. That’s not the right attitude because sometimes, if the music is dragging a little bit, let it drag a little bit. It’s okay. It doesn’t have to be you that is going to lift everything. Don’t put it on yourself. Just keep playing because that’s the music right there that is happening.
RF: You don’t see that as the drummer’s responsibility then?
A: No. Even though you kick ass a little bit sometimes because you have to make your presence known and give it a little push, you have to come back to your place again. It’s to inspire the other musicians and give them a little lift, but then you have to go back to your place, the way you were playing.
RF: If you go sit in with somebody or do a session, you don’t have that time to sit back and listen to what everybody is doing, like you do at home. You have to be able to pick it up instantly and not play too much.
A: But that’s automatic. It’s just not getting in anybody’s way. The biggest problem is playing too much. Sometimes it is much more important what you don’t play than what you play. I don’t want to mention names, but I know some musicians who play so busy all the time, that to play with them, you have to be like exercising all the time. playing like crazy, and that’s not music.
RF: You’ve talked a lot about communication in music. Sometimes I feel that jazz players are more interested in playing for themselves than they are playing for an audience.
A: That’s kind of true, but I think that’s an old way of thinking. I don’t think that is happening as much anymore.the closing your eyes and playing. You have to look at the other musicians, you have to look at the audience, and you have to communicate. You have to look at the musicians who are playing with you, otherwise it’s like you’re playing by yourself, just for the music. Playing just for the music is beautiful, but then where can you go? Then you’ve got to live on top of a mountain and play in a cave everyday.
RF: We were talking about improvisation before and you have said that sometimes music goes too far out. Where do you draw that line between too far out and appropriate improvisation?
A: I think the line goes back to the listening. When you are listening to each other, each musician plays off each other. Let’s say we’re going to play a free-form music no song, just sounds and whatever comes out. That doesn’t mean that everybody is going to go there and just start playing, although a lot of bands do. I don’t like it. Everybody is screaming at each other and nobody is playing, actually. Somebody has got to start free music. Let’s say the bass player plays one beautiful, fat, nice note and the piano player plays a chord that comes from that note. Then the drummer makes a sound and the percussionist makes another sound. Then the bass player makes another one and it goes like a conversation, which has got a lot to do with the listening and the respect you have got to have for people. Then everybody likes it because something is happening there. It isn’t just a bunch of guys banging around or screaming at each other. Somebody takes off in some kind of pattern, and everybody jumps on that pattern. They play that pattern for a while until it breaks up or dissolves, naturally. Somebody has got to start all the moves, but it doesn’t have to be you, even though sometimes it is you. Just when you feel very strong about it, you suggest something. You don’t break the music up like that; you keep on that track and then you suggest a break, and then by the second time, if nobody goes, you come back. Sometimes the first time you suggest, everybody goes with you and that’s a new thing that you are playing right there. That’s the way I explain free music. You don’t have to draw a line. The line is that everybody has got to be listening and everybody has got to respect each other, that’s all.
RF: Why do you say that Return to Forever was the greatest musical experience you ever had?
A: Well, I don’t. You see, when you do an interview, sometimes you say something and the person, instead of asking a little better, just says something wrong. I was quoted saying things I have never said in my life, many times, by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Let me put it this way: It was a beautiful experience. It was actually the most valuable experience I ever had as a drummer, but not as a group. As a group it was actually Miles Davis, Quarteto Novo and the music Flora and I play all the time. I love to do that. With Chick Corea it was good. The music was good and I learned to be on time, to rehearse a lot and get all the parts memorized and everything, so I learned a lot. I said that Return to Forever was a great experience because I got to play some jazz with American musicians who are great players. Quarteto Novo, creatively speaking, was actually probably the most creative musical situation I had ever been in, and Miles Davis, as far as learning good and bad things. Playing for Miles Davis, this great master, this great musician, is an incredible experience for anybody.
As far as what makes a great musical experience, I think it is a matter of moment.
It’s not really something that you do that makes a terrific experience, because sometimes you play with the best musicians and the music doesn’t come out that great to you, personally. Everybody likes it and everything is fine and you know it was good, but what makes an incredible experience is the moment the present time. The inspiration you have that moment and how much you can express yourself, is what makes an incredible musical experience to me. Sometimes you are playing with musicians who are not that great, yet the moment was right and the vibes were right.
RF: Why did you leave Return to Forever?
A: Chick wanted to go into a different kind of music. I didn’t want to play the kind of music he wanted to play, so I left. Also, I was with CTI records and Creed Taylor said, “Why don’t you have your own group and I’ll back you up?” So I saw an opportunity to have my own group and to play the music I really wanted to play, and play with the musicians I thought would be good. I had met some musicians like Hugo Fattoruso, Ringo Thielmann, Jorge Fattoruso, Hugo’s father, and David Amaro, so I put together the group, Fingers. Flora was performing with us then and things were good. I couldn’t really divide myself in two and play with Chick and play with my band.
RF: The solo venture wasn’t something you really preconceived, so was that the direction in which you were moving in your own mind, or did it just happen that way?
A: We all move towards that direction anyway, I think, because musicians all have that dream about playing their own music, even though nobody owns any kind of music because music is everybody’s. We all want to experience our own stuff and I think one of the reasons a musician is a musician is because you are your own boss and nobody tells you what to do, or when and how, and that means freedom. We all want to be free and say, “Okay, let’s try this song or this sound here,” and spend three, five or ten days rehearsing one song and getting it really right. So I wanted to do that, plus, the situation I had with the record company at that time was very rare. Nobody backs anybody up anymore. That’s a dream today.
RF: What is the difference between what you do and authentic Brazilian music?
A: Right now, the authentic Brazilian music is actually very rare, even in Brazil, because everything that happens in the States happens all over the world. In Brazil, there is lot of disco music, and great musicians and composers in Brazil were very influenced by the Beatles. Even though they have their own personality, the real authentic Brazilian music is very rigid and it is rare to hear even in Brazil. You have to go to special places to hear it. I have lived in the States 15 years and I have played all kinds of music with different musicians. When you play with different people and different kinds of music, that’s an influence on you. When you put your own songs together, you put a little bit of those spices in it.
RF: A lot of jazz people think the bossa nova is such a hip thing to play, yet you call it “apartment music.” What do you mean?
A: We used to call it “apartment music” long time ago in Brazil when the bossa nova first started. The bossa nova was created because in Brazil, everybody loves to play, especially percussion. A bar in Brazil is great because everybody is singing and banging the glasses and it’s a very happy scene, instead of the U.S. where a bar is very sad because people are all watching TV or feeling bad. So in apartments in Rio, they wanted to play, but they would make a lot of noise, and the neighbors would complain and call the police. So they started turning the volume down and the piano and drums weren’t played anymore. It was just a matchbox and acoustic guitar and then everyone would enjoy themselves and it was called “apartment music.” The bossa nova was big in the U.S. in the ’60s, but in Brazil it was called “apartment music” because they had to restrain themselves.
RF: Do you not like the bossa nova?
A: It isn’t that I don’t like it. If I have to play it, I’ll play good, but it is the same way with casuals. If the only thing I have to do is play a casual, then I will go and play casuals really well, because when I play, I can make everybody dance. But I choose other kinds of music instead of bossa nova.
RF: Do you ever get frustrated that you are at the top of your field, respected as one of our most important percussion influences, and yet you reach such a small audience?
A: I used to get very, very frustrated. I used to think that nobody knows anything, they just know what other people tell them, until I realized that it’s not the people, that’s the industry; that’s the system. Just like any other system, the music business tells the people what is good and what is not happening, so if they don’t want to tell people that I am happening, too bad. But I don’t feel frustrated anymore.
Flora and I have a group and everywhere we play, we play for packed houses. They like the music very, very much, so that’s a very good indicator, which means what we do is very good. So that’s the way it is. Someday, somebody is going to realize that there are other kinds of music that could sell too. Once, a long time ago, I thought there would be a way to play for a lot of people, sell a lot of records and everything, if you really wanted to do it. But then I realized that there’s no middle. You have to do one thing or another, which means you sell out totally or you don’t. Unless it’s a very rare case like George Benson, who never sold a lot of records until he recorded “Masquerade” and boom! So that was the right time for him and it just happened. If it doesn’t happen like that, then it’s because it’s not to be. Then you have to keep doing what you’re doing and feel good about it. There’s no way you can change your whole self. I have seen people do that and they didn’t make it. On Touching You, Touching Me, an album I did for Warner Brothers, I had a product manager who was almost dictating what he wanted to hear. Everybody was telling me I had to do something like this. I gave it a good try. It was the biggest effort I ever made in order to reach the record company people. There were a couple of very commercial cuts, and when I played it for Mo Austin at Warner Brothers and my product manager, they loved it and said, “You should go in the studio and cut a single on this and do this and do that.” We did cut a single, but they only pressed 500 copies and never sent it to the D.J.’s. What else is new, right? So I feel like I did it. They got it. Maybe they were busy promoting Rod Stewart, because that’s what they do. They promote the English, Europeans, but the South Americans have to wait a little bit. That’s the way I feel sometimes about the business, and that’s what it is.
RF: You’ve played with some incredible drummers. What to you is a good drummer who complements what you like to do?
A: Ideally, I always look for a drummer who plays drums and percussion. He doesn’t really have to be a percussionist, but he’s got to be a good drummer, sensitive, and has to know how to cook on a low a fire and also to explode at the right time and then go back to his place again. He’s got to be listening to the music all the time, he’s got to be a good person to deal with, he’s got to have some kind of musical conception about percussion and of course, he must have good time. If the guy rushes or slows down, that’s no good for me. I also look for a player who is solid, day by day; consistent. I think if you play good today, you have to play good, or better, tomorrow. I don’t accept that somebody plays good today and bad tomorrow. That is bad news to me. If someone just plays good every night, that’s enough. They don’t have to be great or take great solos or play swing or samba really good, just consistent.
RF: I would love to hear you talk about some of the drummers you have worked with.
A: Jack DeJohnette is my favorite drummer because I know exactly how he plays. I liked playing with him very much with Miles Davis. I learned a lot, just sitting close to Jack DeJohnette and playing percussion with him. Everything he played made a lot of sense to me, after I started understanding everything. He blew my mind right away the whole group actually, the way they were playing. Jack respects a soloist and if you are taking a solo, he will back you up, and he kicks your ass sometimes and then goes back to his thing again. I think he’s one of the most musical drummers ever.
I admire, very, very much, Art Blakey for his consistency over the years and he’s still a giant. He’s incredible.
And I love the way Billy Higgins plays. I played with him at the Keystone Corner a few times. I look at his hand and it is so beautiful, so light, and he’s playing very fast. He’s so sensitive to the music. He can play a trio situation and he’s burning, playing fast, playing everything you can ever think that a jazz drummer would play and the drum stick looks like he’s not even gripping it. He’s burning and there’s no effort. He’s smiling, he looks at everybody in the band and he has a very good communication on stage with the other musicians and he’s very musical.
Of the other kind of drummers, the heavy-weight drummers who play the Weather Report and Mahavishnu kind of music, Billy Cobham is my favorite and nobody can play like him.
RF: Let’s talk about the studio for a while. When did you get involved with commercial studio work?
A: For about two years in New York, I think 1971 to ’73, because of my unique sounds and that I had played with Miles Davis, people started looking at me like the new thing, new “thing.” So they started calling me for all kinds of recording. First it was musical, albums and whatever. and then producers of TV and radio commercials started calling me a lot. I thought it was great because I was making a lot of money. I enjoyed it in the beginning because it was very, very different and creative. After I started doing a lot of those things, I stopped, because I realized I was becoming a real “thing,” instead of being a musician and playing for the people, which is what I do. There were some serious situations, like the United Negro College, which I did with Herbie Hancock. The situations ranged from that, which I consider a very, very valuable and serious commercial, to a sausage commercial. One day I went to the studio and there were many people there, big producers, and it was a big thing. They were all just there for me because the thing was all done. It was a sausage commercial. The scene was morning and the mother says, ’Hey kids, time for breakfast,’ and the kids run into the house and say, “What’s for breakfast?” She says, “Oh, we have sausage,” and there’s a close-up on the sizzling sausages. They stopped everything and said, “Stop. Roll back a little bit. Here. Right there! You are going to do the sausage sound.” And I said, “Okay, great,” and we experimented with that a little bit.
RF: Where in your mind did you find a sausage sound?
A: I picked up a piece of paper that was in the studio, a clear cellophane, and I played with it and they said, “Great, that’s it!” So I made the sausage sound with that on the commercial.
RF: What happens if you go into a situation where the producer or the artist suggests you do something that, in your mind, you know won’t work?
A: Right now, usually I say, “Okay, you want me to try that? I don’t think it’s going to work, but I can try that if you want.” So I try it and if they think it works, it’s fine with me. If they think it doesn’t really work, I’ll try whatever I have in mind.
I have something to say about recording: I am not really thrilled about studio work, even though the pay is real good. For somebody who is a beginner, it’s good to be on as many records as possible so you get yourself well known and you gain experience in recording. But studio work, to me, is very, very heavy, mentally speaking. You have to think much more than you have to play. Even though I can play parts, I don’t like to, but I do that if the musical situation is so great and the musicians are so good and everybody knows what he is doing, especially the artist. I prefer to just have them play the song for me, once, twice and sometimes three times and I write down on a little piece of paper what I will play on the intro, the verse, the bridge, and I make my whole percussion arrangement.
RF: And you’re allowed to do that in most situations?
A: No. Nobody is in most situations. Most of the time, when you come to overdub, they already have an idea of what they want to hear and it is not particularly what you hear.
RF: I would think people would request you for your creativity.
A: No, they don’t. That is why I rarely record today for other people. If they just want a percussionist to play parts, I’m glad if they call somebody else. I used to ask for a lot of money to play certain situations, but then I stopped doing that because it is better to keep a relationship and say, “I’m sorry, I’m busy,” so you don’t get into bad feelings. So I agree to record now in only certain situations. With George Duke, for instance, I will go in and play parts because George Duke knows what he wants and when I go there and he says, “Play this or that,” I play it and it sounds good. That’s a whole different situation. Mainly his ideas would be the same ideas I would have.
RF: And he’s probably taking your abilities into mind when he’s creating that part.
A: Definitely. That’s when I say yes, when the people call me and they say, “I want you to come and play here.” Then I make sure they want me and not just my name so when I get there they don’t want me to play something that is not creative or is not what I play. It’s not that I can’t do that. I did it for many years in New York.
RF: But after a while it can feel like prostitution.
A: Definitely. I admire very much those people who can do that. There are great percussionists who record with everybody today. They are very well requested and very busy all the time, jumping from one studio to another, but they grew up with that. That’s what they do. They are not players. They are recording musicians and that’s fine with me, but I’m a player and I like to play.
At the beginning of the year, I spent three weeks recording with Paul Simon, which is another kind of situation which is very experimental. The way he records is that first, everybody plays and then we decide you play that; you lay out. Let’s change this verse here, because it doesn’t sound the way I thought.” Even though it is not just going into the studio and burning and playing like I would like to do, I understand very, very much that his music is very well elaborated and when it comes out, it’s great. Sometimes you don’t believe that that song became so good. All of a sudden, that song that was not sounding that great, sounds beautiful. And then he’s not happy yet, so he’ll say, “Okay, tomorrow we’ll continue with this song.” But he knows what he’s talking about; that’s the way he is and he knows exactly what he wants. Instead of telling you exactly what he wants right away, though, stopping you from the beginning, he doesn’t like to do that. So little by little we musicians understand what he wants. Instead of playing this beat which is a great beat, but it’s all over the place, we play a much more simple one which is exactly what is needed. It is almost like getting the gold from the mine. It looks like dirt, but then little by little it becomes gold, and that’s the way I see recording with Paul Simon.
RF: With someone who you haven’t played with before, how do you determine what it is going to be like?
A: I ask who is playing the session, what kind of music it is, which studio and how will it be, overdubs, live, or what kind of situation it is going to be. I gather as much information as I can. The last thing we usually talk about is money and sometimes some people will say, “No thank you Airto,” and then I know they didn’t want me. They just want a percussionist but they want my name and I don’t want to do it. Some people say, “Airto, that’s too much money. We really want you because you would sound great with us.” And we talk about it and compromise and I play because they want me to play. I know when I get there, I’m going to be playing. That’s usually the process, although I am now telling my process for all to know, [laughs]
There was one session where the people called me and said, “Bring everything.” I said, “What do you want me to play?” I have a truck full of percussion. I got to the studio and it was pretty commercial kind of stuff. I had called my friend, Laudir de Oliveira, so we could do some real playing, but we heard what they were recording, and in about 15 minutes, I managed to tell the guy that I didn’t want to be part of the session and we left. I recommended somebody else and even lent my percussion to this guy to play the session.
RF: How do you usually know what to bring on the session?
A: I ask what kind of music it is and to explain the session. If I know that it is more Latin oriented, pop, jazz or whatever, I figure out what I am going to bring. Some people say, “You’re not going to be playing any heavy sounds. Bring all the small stuff.” So then I know pretty much how it is going to be and what I am going to be playing.
RF: Do you have a standard set-up for your live performances?
A: I have about four or five set-ups because I cannot carry all my stuff. So what I do is figure it out by what kind of places we’re going to play, and what kind of repertoire we are going to be doing. Flora and I talk about the musicians who are going to be playing with us and that way, I kind of know what I’m going to take. I like to vary it. I take a slightly different set-up on each tour. There are certain things you have to have all the time, but the things that are more as a complement, for the other sounds, I can change.
RF: What are some of those basic things you have to have with you all the time?
A: Tambourines, cowbells, congas, shakers, the basic sounds: wood, metal, wind and skins.
RF: What makes an instrument worthy of your collection?
A: If it’s a sound that I don’t have yet.
RF: I find it hard to believe there is such an instrument.
A: There is no end to sounds. There’s always a new sound.
RF: There is a game you play to guess what something would sound like if you hit it.
A: That is just something I like to do. Basically we all know how an object is going to sound when we hit it. You see a piece of wood and you know what kind of sound it will make if you hit it, and a piece of metal will be different, and so on. But many times, you look at something and you think of a sound and you hit it and it’s a whole different thing. I think it is very good training for the percussionist’s ear. This way, when you see an instrument, you can know the way it’s going to sound. Sometimes, even if you are aware, you look for a particular instrument, but you don’t find it, so you pick up something else. If you don’t find it right away, it’s better that you don’t play than to play a wrong sound, just because you thought you should play there. Let it go. Somebody else will play there.
RF: So, back to what makes an instrument worthy of your collection.
A: Well, first of all, it is getting a new sound, second how much fun it is to play the instrument and then the third, where the instrument comes from; if somebody gave it to you with a lot of love and a lot of good feeling. It could be even a little shaker, and you have a hundred shakers like that, but that one is a very good one. I have instruments I don’t even play because they mean so much to me that I don’t want to touch them. I touch them, yes, in very, very special situations, but they are important; they have a great feeling and when I touch them, I remember where the instrument comes from. It’s part of me, part of my life. I am attuned to that instrument. I cannot just take an instrument like that on the road to play for anybody or any situation. I have a lot of respect for some of my instruments. I have two instruments I have never played, except in private. The owner of the Keystone Corner went to Africa and asked me what I wanted him to bring me back. I told him not to buy anything new, but if he found something old to bring it to me. So he brought two trunks of instruments and told me to pick out two of them. He said, “Wow, those are exactly the instruments that I thought you were going to pick out.” I smelled them and I just touched them, they were so beautiful. There’s an old black kalimba that was hanging in somebody’s house. He went to this little hut to visit some people and there was this whole family living in there and they cook there, they sleep there, they have their incense burning there, they pray there, they cry there and this instrument was hanging on the wall. It smelled like people living together. They told him it belonged to their great, great, great, great whatever, so he brought the instrument and I picked it up.
The first day I got it, I didn’t even touch it that much. He tried to play it but he pressed a little too hard and it made a little hole in it, maybe because he was not meant to play that instrument I was meant to play it. I believe in that. So then I looked into the hole and I could see two or three cocoons inside. Something had been born inside that instrument. What a beautiful thing! The first time I tuned the instrument, I spent five or six hours and it poked my fingers there was blood all over the place but it has beautiful vibes and I respect that instrument so much. I’m not going to take that on the road. Some very special situation is going to come where I’m going to say, “I have just the instrument for that.”
RF: Have you spent time getting to know the instrument?
A: Oh yes. Almost every day. By myself. A cuica was the other instrument that I picked up. It is a very, very old instrument and I have a lot of feelings for it. The other is my berimbau. I have four or five berimbaus, but there is one that I rarely play. I take it on the road with me sometimes, but if it is not the right situation, I don’t play it.
RF: There is an incredible sensitivity here.
A: I have been a percussionist all my life and I have to be like that. Well, not that I have to be like that. I don’t make an effort to be that way. I feel it. It is very important. This way, I feel I have my vibes together with my instrument. And then there are some that I break on stage. I get a new tambourine or something that I think is great. It sounds beautiful in the store but then it’s time to perform and the thing is falling apart and ruining my solo and I just throw it on the floor, and it breaks into thousands of pieces. And the people applaud. So I have two different kinds of sensitivity [laughs]. But that’s the way I feel.
RF: What about those instruments you’ve developed?
A: I haven’t made an instrument now for quite some time. I used to walk in the streets looking for things all the time. You go down a little alley while you’re walking and see little things people throw away. You see a hose or something like that and you blow in it and some kind of a sound comes out. Or you see a grill from a refrigerator and you know pretty much how it is going to sound and you have a box at home that it might fit right on top of, so you just put those things together and you have an instrument right there.
RF: Tell me about Josaphina, Geronimo and the armadillo. How were they born?
A: I have a good friend who lives in Berkeley, California, and his name is Peter Engleheart. He is a beautiful, crazy man; very creative, and he makes things out of metal. One day we were talking and we came up with this idea together to make like a robot that you could play with all kinds of songs. It was 100% creativity, we just went off with it and he built Josephina and it was beautiful. I don’t know why we named her Josephina, but she just looks like a Josephina. When you beat her real hard, she moves all over the place. And then about a year or two later, we came up with the idea of having a big bird with big legs, which is Geronimo because I think of the great American Indian. And then we built the fossil. The fossil is just like a giant armadillo the head looks like something from way before, so we decided to call it the fossil. Now we are thinking of making another one. It’s going to be like a skeleton and he’s going to have pedals, so if you step on the pedal, then the arms start moving and making sounds. The head will turn and make some kind of a noise. We are going to have to get together to design it.
RF: How much time do you spend with an instrument when you get it? How do you develop a rapport with it and know it intimately like you obviously know your instruments?
A: It depends on the instrument. Some instruments I get, I play once or twice and I lose interest, even though I play them sometimes. Some instruments require more research, like you can never stop playing the berimbau, and the same thing with the drums and some other instruments where you can get all kinds of sounds. But if I play with a woodblock for ten minutes, I kind of know how hard I can hit it and where to hit it to get the best sound, because they are all pretty much the same. And the cowbell, the same thing. If it’s too loud, I put some tape on it to make it sound a little rounder instead of too metallic. There are some cowbells I like to be metallic because that’s the way they sound the best. But it doesn’t take that long, while some instruments take longer and much more playing them. There are some instruments I have never tried to play really well, like the tablas, because that’s a whole different thing that is alien to me, even though there are some American percussionists who play that very well. Nana Vasconcelos plays tablas very well, even though he is a master on the berimbau, which is his main axe. He can get sounds out of the berimbau that nobody else can. That is because he spent a lot of time with it. That is his instrument; he built that one. Even congas, I don’t play that well. I know how to play them, I get the sound but I never really got into the congas because Patato Valdez and Mongo Santamaria are still alive and they are the real thing. In order for me to play the congas, I have to play just congas, because you use both of your hands. The way I like to play percussion is to play two or three different sounds at the same time. I also lose the touch for the small instruments the very sensitive things that I have to play. When you are a conga player, you are a conga player. You aren’t kidding about it.
RF: You mentioned the woodblock that you might spend ten minutes with. I think what amazes me about you is that you can take the most simple instrument and get the most intricate sounds out of it, an instrument someone else would spend two seconds with and think they had it explored. So when you spend ten minutes with a woodblock, there’s obviously more that goes into it than just spending ten minutes with a woodblock.
A: When I say I spend ten minutes with the woodblock, it is because I am only talking about today. I already spent my life with wooden blocks and cowbells, so I know basically how they sound and where to hit them, although some of them are slightly different because each instrument has its own little thing going. So some of them, you hit a little bit on the right and they sound best, or the left, or the middle. Some wooden blocks you have to feel them, touch them and look because some of them are thick so you can hit them harder and they won’t break. Some of them you have to be careful with.
RF: How did you develop your tambourine technique?
A: Playing. A plastic tambourine was my first instrument. I learned the basic beats you play in Brazil and when I came to America, I was just playing the tambourine well. But there was more to it. Then I had to take solos and I had to choose an instrument to take a solo on. Instead of just playing the drums or the congas, I wanted to play something else, so I spent more time with the tambourine, finding tricks and things you can do to make it sound like a whole different thing. Sometimes people tell me my tambourine playing sounds like a whole set of drums, but that is mainly because of the way I put the tambourine on the microphone and the way I tune the tambourine really low. If I am going to play a tambourine solo, then I have to play a tambourine solo that is going to make some sense; that is going to be something that is going to make some difference, not just be an average tambourine solo.
When I came to America, I met, for the first time, the tambourine without the head. I said, “Hey, what can I do with this?” I saw other people play it and I have my own things that I can do with the tambourine without the head too, even though it isn’t a big thing. I have my own beats that I developed for that kind of tambourine because I use it when I play certain kinds of music.
RF: When you play, how much of your show is improvisation and how much is rehearsed?
A: I like to have arrangements in my group. The first few times I play a song, it varies because I’m still looking for it, even though it’s very close every time I play it. The instruments might even be the same, but the approach, the intensity and the beat I might play changes time to time; day by day, actually. Tonight I will play a song, say “Light as a Feather,” which we’ve been playing forever now, and I will play the same instruments. Then tomorrow night I will play the same song with the same instruments and it will sound totally different because of the energy that is there in the place, the size of the place, the intensity, how the other musicians play that night, all depending on the present time. Every time you play, it is new, even if you play the same song ten times in a row. It’s got to be a new unit of time, otherwise you are not playing, you are just reproducing whatever you think is good, cool or hip. That’s why I like to change my set-up. To morrow when I play the same song, I will play it slightly different and it’s a big difference to you and the people too, even though, if you go back and analyze what you played the night before, it’s not that much of a difference. In reality, it is, because every time you play, you play for real and you play for that unit of time.
RF: There was a point when you felt that you and Flora needed to have separate musical experiences. Why did you feel that?
A: I probably said that because of management and record companies who always thought Flora could do much more for them as a singer than I could as a musician. Second, the real reason is that, even though Flora and I both come from Brazil, we come from different backgrounds. She is from Rio de Janeiro which is a very sophisticated city. She likes electronics and has a degree in electronic music, and I don’t mix electronics with my percussion. She likes the music I like and I like the music she likes, but if she were to pick a repertoire, it would be 80% different songs than I would choose. We are individuals, and strong individuals. Flora Purim is Flora Purim and Airto is Airto, even though we live together for 20 years. Also, the musicians we like to play with sometimes aren’t necessarily the ones the other needs. I look for a good soloist who has solid back-up, and she needs more of a sensitive player who will listen to exactly what she is doing and who backs up really well, which is one of the hardest things to find. If it’s not an older guy who comes from the old jazz school of backing up people like Billie Holiday or Carmen McCrae, they don’t know how. They think you look at the charts and play bar by bar. That’s not the way it is at all. Backing up is a whole different ballgame, and you have to feel good in making the singer feel good. That’s another reason of having two separate bands.
RF: How is it to work with someone you are that personally involved with?
A: For many years, it was very hard because when I was happy, she was not to tally happy and when she was totally happy, I was not totally happy, so it was always a compromise. It’s still like that a little bit, even though now, we have learned how to deal with it. We have to understand certain things and contribute the things the other person needs, and that takes 100% of you, even though on stage it looks like 50% and 50%. In reality it is 100%. Still, sometimes we have to discuss a lot about a song we want to put in our repertoire. I have to consider why and how good it will be for Flora and she has got to do the same thing. Then as soon as it is decided, we give 100% to making that song the best it can be.
RF: Can you separate the business from the personal?
A: I don’t know if we do that totally because we still bring the music to the house anyways. We discuss the music in the house and we make plans. One of the hardest things, actually, is when Flora is happening a lot and I am happening a little bit. That’s very hard on me and it is very hard on her if I am doing a lot of things and she is not. But then I have to accept if Flora is happening a lot and I am not. Then I just have to do something with my ego, go out in the street and cry or have an argument with my friends or have an argument with Flora whatever it takes and try to work it out. It’s not easy. Usually, one of the parts feels sacrificed even though the other part, sometimes, tries to explain real hard, “I’m doing this for us.” I know it’s for us, but I’m not part of it. This happens time to time on both sides. Then is when you have to put the relationship in first place and this is personal. Is the personal thing good enough for me to sacrifice for it or not?” We had to find out that it’s good enough, so far, and if one day it is not going to be good enough, then we won’t sacrifice anymore. That’s the best way I can put it.
RF: Although each of you have appeared on the other’s albums in the past, this new album (Flora Purim and Airto Live and Hot in Santa Fe) is technically the first joint project.
A: First of all, we never did an album together because of the record companies’ conceptions and the individuality that we have. We never felt that the situation was right for us each to give that 100% that is needed to have a good album together. But this time the situation happened to be right and all of the elements went together, so we did it and it feels very, very good.
RF: What about future plans?
A: Of course we are going to keep playing and improving our music the best way we can. We now have a band made up of all Brazilian musicians. They are called the Steps of Imagination, and we met them in New York. This is the first time we have worked with an all-Brazilian group since we left Brazil. We will be making a studio album with them soon, and also doing a video. And then we have plans to do a worldwide tour at the end of 1983. We will be going to Japan, Europe and Israel. And in December I will be taking part in a special project called the Brazilian Spiritual Mass. There will be a 60-piece orchestra, a 24-voice choir, and Gil Evans will be writing the orchestra parts and conducting.
We now have a very nice man as a manager whose name is Monte Kay. There’s no bullshit with him and he loves talented people. He opened Birdland and was the first owner, so he had dealt with people from Charlie Parker to Coltrane, everybody. He has managed many artists before but for a few years he was doing something else, and then he decided he wanted to do this again. He thought the live Flora-Airto recording was a terrific idea, which is something new to me. He’s going to make sure everything is going to go right. We are just going to keep doing what we do, which is go on the road and play for the people with the difference that there is an album out there that people can buy. I think people are going to be very, very pleased to see our show and then buy the album and get the real thing.
RF: What about the fact that you are always on the road? That’s an awful lot of wear and tear on a human being, isn’t it?
A: Yes. In order to do that, you have to love the whole thing so much that it is ridiculous. I’m not getting tired, because every time I play, I feel that it is rewarding, but sometimes I fly ten hours to Europe and I go there and play three concerts and come back. Then we go on the road for three weeks and every day is a different city and a different place and a different sound system, a different audience and a different kind of treatment you get from the club owners or concert promoters. I am beginning to feel that I don’t want to do that for too long anymore, even though I want to play. But I don’t just want to go on the road and go on the road and go on the road and then go on the road again. Cannonball Adderley died on the road. I do not want to die on the road. I am sorry to say that, but… I feel like I have died on the road so many times already that when I die for real, I want to be somewhere else, at least at home.
RF: What about keeping the family going?
A: It’s hard. It’s very hard. That takes a lot from all of us. I used to really love being on the road. I would come back home, stay home for three days and be itching to go on the road again.
RF: What changed?
A: I have changed, first of all. I like the house we live in. I like to sleep in my bed. I like the vibes in my house. I like the friends I have here. The road is becoming harder and harder to make it because the money is still pretty much the same, but the general cost of living has gone up. Actually we must be very lucky or very good or some thing like that, because the people come to see our show every time. It’s almost like a family thing. They come and they want to check us out because we represent some kind of example for a lot of people. But the world is becoming harder and harder because the people don’t go out that much. There are more and more artists every day and some of them have big corporations backing them up, so people are very choosey now, unless they have a lot of money.
But it’s hard to keep the family together and keep yourself together. When my daughter thinks about me, I want her to think about me at my best, not the worst of me.
RF: When you come home, you’re always probably exhausted.
A: But it is always good. I am not really exhausted, but it is a whole different kind of reality. You are dealing with a whole different thing. It is a different world and when you come home, you have to make the change and the change cannot take that long, otherwise you have to go on the road again and it’s too late. But we’re still making it and it still feels real good, so I’m not going to quit now.
Eventually I am going to be on the road less and less and do some special projects, not particularly big things, but beautiful things.
I play a lot of rhythms on the tambourine using five basic strokes, which I call Thumb/open, Thumb/closed, Fingers/up, Fingers/down, and Slap.
With both of these strokes the tambourine is struck with the thumb of the right hand. The “open” and “closed” designations refer to the sound of the head, which is controlled by the left hand.
Right hand: To make the thumb stroke, you need to keep your right hand fairly loose because you want the sound to ring; you do not want to choke the head. Keep the thumb extended when making the stroke. As your hand turns, your fingers will pass the head and your thumb will strike the instrument about two inches from the rim, with a fairly hard glancing blow. Volume is controlled by the distance from which you strike. The motion is mostly of the forearm and wrist.
Left hand: The “open” and “closed” sounds are controlled by the middle finger of the left hand. For Thumb/open, the middle finger is away from the head, allowing the head to produce a tone. For Thumb/closed, the middle finger touches the head, muffling it.
Fingers/up: In this stroke, it is the tambourine which strikes the right hand, as opposed to the hand striking the tambourine. The top part of the tambourine should strike the three middle fingers of the right hand. To do this, with your left hand, turn the tambourine toward your right hand in a sort of pivoting motion. (The movement of the left forearm is similar to the movement made by the left-hand traditional grip stroke.) The movement should be fairly quick, so as to produce a sharp sound when the tambourine strikes the fingers.
Fingers/down: This is the exact counter motion to Fingers/up. As the tambourine is being returned to its original position (again, with a pivoting motion of the forearm), strike the bottom part of the tambourine with the three middle fingers of the right hand. The right arm should not have to move; only the wrist.
Both of these strokes should produce the same sound. Remember: Fingers/up—strike fingers with tambourine; Fingers/down—strike tambourine with fingers.
The tambourine is held in the same position as the Finger/down stroke. The right hand simply slaps the head. The hand should be absolutely flat, and the sound should be sharp, with no ring.
In the following examples, the five basic strokes are notated on a regular five-line staff as shown:
Samba: This is the most important Brazilian rhythm. Each instrument has a specific part to play, and this is what the tambourine player does.
Xote: (pronounced “shotie”) There are two kinds of Xote in Brazil; this one is from south Brazil, and there is a dance that goes with this rhythm.
Shuffle: This is a rhythm I first used with Gatemouth Brown, and then I used it when I toured with the Crusaders. This beat is good to use in shuffles, or in certain funk tunes that are based on Gospel music.
This material is excerpted from Airto’s forthcoming book on percussion, to be published by Modern Drummer Publications.