The Portuguese percussionist has made an art out of creating unique hybrid sets for each act he supports—but sometimes a lone shaker is all he really needs.
During a recent phone conversation, Portuguese percussionist and drummer Iúri Oliveira was a beam of positive energy. Start him talking about the elaborate hybrid percussion kits that he crafts uniquely for each artist he accompanies, and his deep knowledge of the discipline flows in rapid, fluent bursts. His passion for percussion and the traditions behind the instruments has made him an in-demand musician in Lisbon certainly, but also drew the attention of Madonna’s music director, Kevin Antunes. In 2019 Oliveira contributed recorded backing tracks to her recently wrapped Madame X theater tour and also joined the legendary performer on a number of promotional performances that accompanied its announcement last February.
Oliveira was born in the small coastal city of Caldas da Rainha, about an hour north of Lisbon. His Angolan father introduced him to the African music and rhythms that ignited his abiding interest in percussion, and at a young age he joined the now defunct Gaieiras Jazz Orchestra and leveraged his talent into studies at London’s Rhythm Studio and the Netherland’s Drumdrumdrum school. Now living in Lisbon, Oliveira has established himself as a percussionist uniquely suited to the needs of the Lisbon music community, which often hires percussionists instead of full drumkit players. He spent the recent quarantine recording and producing music at his Lisbon home studio.
MD: I’d love to learn a little bit about your early years and your exposure to music in Portugal.
Iúri: Portugal is a small country, but we have a lot of influences. Before the coronavirus, Lisbon was one of the most visited capitals in the world, so the music scene here is really strong. Portuguese is the ninth most common language in the world and is spoken in Brazil, Mozambique, Timor, and a few other places. During wartimes, lots of people came to live in Portugal from Africa and Brazil. Of course, we are in the same region as Spain and also have a rich tradition of Portuguese music like fado.
There’s a type of drumming from the northern part of Brazil called maracatu, and the drums they play are actually Portuguese. Portugal colonized Brazil and took Africans to the Americas, where they adapted those drums to play maracatu.
MD: Is there a particular Portuguese drum you use a lot in your setup?
Iúri: There’s an interesting square double-skin frame drum with rattles inside called an adufe. There are two main craftsmen that make this drum: José Relvas and Rui Silva. Rui Silva developed tunable adufes.
MD: I understand that you left Portugal to study before you turned twenty.
Iúri: When I was eighteen, I needed more. People liked what I was doing, but I didn’t know the names of the claves I was playing. So I saved money as a lifeguard and went to London and studied Brazilian and Latin percussion for a year and a half at the Rhythm Studio. I took a plane and just went for it.
The first two months were really difficult. I had to unlearn my old technique. I learned a lot there, but I really developed my own language and style when I returned home and started playing with bands.
After three years I wanted to learn more and went to the Netherlands for five months to the Drumdrumdrum school and studied privately with Roël Calister. He opened my mind to hybrid kits and smaller percussion.
MD: In what way?
Iúri: Roël showed me a lot of music from South America—Peru, Argentina, and things from Spain, Iberia…like flamenco. I had a lot of method books, and he said, “Just let it go and play. If I give you a calabash and a cajón and a snare and a hi-hat, what are you going to do? If I put a clave on your foot, what are you going to do? If I put a hi-hat on the other foot, what are you going to do?”
In the Netherlands, I acquired more tools and I was able to adapt. Here in Portugal a lot of artists don’t want a drummer, but they don’t want a purely Latin percussionist either. They’re looking for a drumkit that can drive all the music—but something more soft, hybrid, or jazzy. That’s when I started to research hybrid percussionists around the world.
MD: Who were some percussionists who stood out?
Iúri: There are three people who are my main references for my hybrid kit. There’s a bassist named Avishai Cohen, who has an album called Seven Seas, with the percussionist Itamar Doari. He just had a ride cymbal, a cajón, and some rattles on his right foot, but when he played you felt an entire drumkit, with so many ghost notes, kicks, and snares.
I love Mayra Andrade, a singer from Cape Verde, and her percussionist was Zé Luis Nascimento. He’s from Salvador, Bahia, and he developed a kit with a cajón, a snare, a cowbell on the right foot, really crazy cymbals, with a calabash and udu.
And five years ago I discovered the amazing Turkish percussionist Yshai Afterman. He sings and has a few albums. He plays a lot of frame drums and has great, fast finger technique. He developed a kit with a deep, low Argentinian drum called a bombo legüero with a cajón and cymbals. I have a legüero, cajón, my crazy cymbals, my snares. I never use the same kit for any artist. I make a new kit for each group or singer.
MD: What would that look like?
Iúri: It depends on the sonority that the artist asks for. If it’s a Latin or South American singer, of course I’ll use a legüero, one conga maybe, or some bongos. If it’s a traditional Portuguese singer, I’ll add an adufe. Many jazz trios here only want a percussionist. A lot of drummers now, they want to play percussion because bands and artists don’t want the standard setup. There are not so many hybrid percussionists, maybe only ten here in Portugal.
MD: When did you start creating a different kit for each artist?
Iúri: At first it was a necessity. I wanted to be a normal Latin percussionist with timbales, bongos, etc. My references were Yaroldi Abreu, Giovanni Hidalgo, Angá Diaz, Sola Akingbola, Pedrito Martinez—all those percussion monsters. But when I started in Portugal, people were asking for percussion but not always Latin. So I thought, what am I going to do? I got the cajón because it can be really versatile. And the artists didn’t want the normal 4/4 bars like a drummer; they wanted something more creative. I got all my school notes with Argentinian rhythms, Peruvian and flamenco charts, and I started to adapt those rhythms on the cajón in the styles that the artists wanted. That’s when I started to incorporate different percussion into other traditional contexts.
Tools of the Trade
While every drum setup by Iúri Oliveira is different, a typical kit includes a Sonor 10“ Jungle snare; LP Classic 11″ quinto, 11 3⁄4″ conga, and 12 1⁄2″ tumba congas on three LP Conga Sound Platforms; and a set of LP Generation III bongos with a stand. He also uses an LP 12″ Stanton Moore pandeiro with a Remo Bahia head, and an LP 12 1⁄2″ djembe. His LP Percussion Table includes LP cowbells, shakers, triangles, chimes, a rainstick, blocks, tambourines, a shekere, and bells.
Oliveira plays Turkish cymbals, and his collection includes an 18″ Sirius crash, an 18″ Comet Spiral, a 17″ Jarrod Cagwin Water crash, a 14″ FX crash, a 7″ Jarrod Cagwin Löß splash, and a 6″ Jarrod Cagwin Gamma splash, all mounted on Gibraltar stands.
Oliveira uses Innovative Percussion sticks, including the Legacy series 5As and Luisito Quintero and Lalo Davila series timbale sticks. His cases, stick bag, and drum mat are by Protection Racket. He uses Remo Nuskyn or Fiberskyn heads on his congas, djembe, and bongos.
MD: What are some examples of this?
Iúri: If I’m playing Portuguese music, I use an adufe of course, but I’ll also use the Argentinian legüero. People like it, even though it’s a different context.
I made a system with a shekere using a remote hi-hat pedal on my right foot. I took the metal wire of the remote system and put a shoelace on the top of a boom stand like a pulley. When I step on the pedal, it pulls the shekere and it’s like a hi-hat. Here in Portugal no other percussionist or drummer has this.
There’s also an LP rebolo. It’s from Brazil and is usually played with samba. I made two holes and attached it to a normal stand like a floor tom. It has the sonority of a Brazilian surdo.
MD: Do you play it with your hands?
Iúri: No, I took the LP skin out and replaced it with the Remo Bahia skin, and I use sticks with that drum. I never use a kick pedal on the cajón. I have one hand on the cajón and the other hand on cymbal, snares, and the rebolo. Or I use two hands on the cajón without losing the groove.
In one setup, I use an udu, a tambourine, a pandeiro, and that crazy cymbal as well. But in other kits I use a legüero drum. I use normal hi-hats with other setups. Depending on the context I’ll use a different cajón as well. I use one for flamenco music and one for more Latin and Peruvian music.
MD: Tell me a little about the Madonna gig. How did that happen?
Iúri: She recently moved to Lisbon. She has a house, and her kids are living and studying here. She was doing some promotional gigs to announce a new tour. Her musical director, Kevin Antunes, did some research about local Lisbon musicians, and he reached out to me.
He had spoken with Damon Grant and Marcus Torres from Discussions in Percussion and asked if I wanted to bring my rig along on some Madonna shows. Are you kidding? We went to London to rehearse and played at the Billboard Music Awards in London and Las Vegas. I didn’t play on her tour, but I went to New York to record a lot of percussion backing tracks for the tour.
It was a crazy transition from a normal life here in Portugal, playing small concerts, big concerts, and suddenly you jump into the Madonna spaceship. It’s another world.
MD: Can you talk a little about your philosophy for accompanying musicians?
Iúri: You have to always give the music what it needs. Of course, you can play really fast with a big set, but sometimes music just asks for a shaker.
All musicians should embrace the music and listen. It’s important to listen and study. Never stop studying! Music is infinite. In our area, in percussion…oh, my God. It’s important to study a lot of instruments and search for more music.
When I moved to Lisbon and started in the music industry, I was replacing a percussionist for a show. After the concert, three managers approached me: “Hey, do you want to play with these artists?” After that I was booked for a lot of the concerts, and after one month I was traveling in Africa with an African artist. I started traveling in Europe. Just because I played as a sub at a big concert and was exposed. I always tell my friends that we have to support each other. We are a small country but a big community of artists. If I need someone to replace me for a gig, I can trust that they will make good work and just go for it. It’s a chance for other musicians.
by John Colpitts