Airto Moreira’s musical career has taken m the Brazilian jazz sound of Quarteto Novo, ‘Bitches Brew’; work with Paul Simon and his own projects such as Fourth World. Whilst in London promoting his wife Flora Purim’s new album, UK Vibe met with him and discussed traditions, tambourines, and the role of music.
I am currently wandering through Soho hoping that Airto got the message I left for him at Ronnie’s. Whilst considering the various methods of contacting him, if he hadn’t, I’m slightly taken aback when I glance up to see the great man, enjoying a cup of coffee with his guitarist José Neto, on the other side of the street. I decided to not let this opportunity pass by, so I wonder over and introduce myself. It all goes well. Naturally, he hadn’t received the message.
Two weeks on and I’m talking to him again in an empty Ronnie Scotts. To the left of us is his percussion set-up, not, I might add, consisting of a nice chrome-finished table with various manufactured bells, shakers, and rattles, but an intriguing mass of blocks, beaters, tambourines, bird calls and what looks like a plastic chicken leg!
“When I look for sounds I ‘m not particularly looking for instruments, I’m looking for sounds, and I will pick up whatever has a sound that is interesting, a piece of refrigerator or a car hub cap. I’m always looking for new sounds which is why I perhaps have such unconventional stuff.”
He talks in terms of creative percussionists, and conventional instruments. In this day and age, the manufacturing of percussion has become a lucrative business, and this, in turn, has meant an increase of both professional and non-professional players. Because so many of these instruments are born directly from different cultures – should players from a different background adhere to the tradition or reinterpret?
“I think they should play any way’s that they want because tradition exists in that country, in that village, with that people. So if you want to be traditional, you should stay home with your our Grandparents, you should get old there in that little village, you should go to the forest and choose a very nice tree, cut it down and carve your very own drum and be a traditional person. To be honest with you, I was always against that. I ‘m not against tradition believe me because I think culture is a very, very important thing to be preserved and passed on so that people in the future, at least they know what they are talking about if they are playing something but just as information y‘see. If you look at my table you can see that I mix everything. I just separate a little bit let’s say metal from wood and shakers from bells. I separate my percussion as sounds. I can play anything I want and I think that’s freedom and the way it should be. Everybody should not really be hung up in tradition ‘cause tradition exists and is beautiful but then you have to go back to your own place.”
Were you ever criticised for this approach to playing?
“Yes, in Brazil, before I left, which was almost thirty years ago. I started using instruments differently and just the fact that I was playing conventional drums with percussion, musicians would come to me and say ‘Are you a percussionist or a drummer – what is this? Are you trying to do everything’? I would explain and say ‘Well no, I know how to play this and I like it, and I know how to play that and I like it and I also sing and they would go ‘Well you must be a genius‘ and some of the guys they never really liked that as they were more purists and I think they were jealous as they couldn’t play like I could and so they had to say something, But those same people they are now doing it and they have been working with everybody. People they now understand that things have to he mixed, y‘see. You have to do whatever you can. If you can play ten different instruments then you should play ten different instruments, that’s my opinion.”
Although Airto went on to play this variety of instruments, his musical beginnings were playing the tambourine (pandeiro) from the age of six. Graduating from this instrument to the drums is not such a strange step, as the tambourine has the tones of the bass drum when hit in the middle of the skin, the snare when tightening the skin with your forefinger, and the hi-hat via the continual jangle of the small cymbals that encircle it,
“It was the first instrument that I ever played, my mother gave me a plastic one and then I started playing, I used to sleep with my tambourine under my pillow and everything ‘cause it’s so great man! Then I had an argument with one of our neighbours and he broke it over my head ‘cause he was bigger than I was (laughs) and I was like crying for three days. So my Grandmother, she decides that I really was a tambourine player and bought me a nice one that I could tune and everything and so when I was six years old I was already playing really well and I have been developing different techniques, my own things, all these years. It’s one of those things I do that people really like, even though this time in England I’m not doing it ‘cause y‘know, we played here already three or four years in a row and I don’t want to come every year and do the same thing ‘cause my music doesn’t work like that. I like to change things, give people some new stuff. It’s an instrument that I could say is really part of me. When I hold it and play and sing some chants I really find myself at home.”
The desire to mix and cross-match instruments is perhaps due to the cultural mixture of Brazil itself, of the Portuguese, Indian and African. In the I500’s the Portuguese imported many Angolans who brought with them their own culture and with it their own instruments which included the berimbau.
“The berimbau looks like a bow, without the arrows! And it’s got a gourd, y’know, which resonates the sound. And the people from Angola they used to play this instrument to communicate if the police were coming, or if the white mass was coming to check up on them or whatever. And they’d be training for war or for fights with like two or three berimbaus and some percussion and somebody was on look out and they’d whistle when the white man was coming and then they’d change the rhythm and the children would come out and start dancing and so the people knew and they wouldn’t have to talk. That was a form of martial art which is a dance today called capoeira.”
Religion was another area that was affected, and various syncretist groups emerged, fusing Catholicism and traditional African beliefs. Is there any religious significance to your music?
“Well no, not the music that we play. For me, there are two worlds right now and they exist simultaneously. There is the material world which we can see touch and smell and then there is the spiritual world that is around us all the time. There are more spirits in the world than bodies and they have a very strong influence on the material world. And there are two levels of spiritualism, one is more primitive and takes care of you materially like protects you when you‘re travelling or protects you from other people that they want to hurt you or things like that. What I was talking about is a different kind; it’s called the Alain Kardec who was a man who discovered that the spirits do exist. He was from Paris and was very famous all over Europe in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. But I’m familiar with the other one. I have some protections that were made for me and have got to be on my table always when I play ‘cause when you play you’re exposed to all sorts of energies as sometimes the audience is sad or rowdy, and you have to have almost like a shield.”
Talking of different audiences, in Europe music seems to be more a form of entertainment whereas in other parts of the world it’s much wore central to day-to-day life. How have these different approaches to music affected your own playing?
“Audiences are audiences. When we ‘re playing on a Friday night the audience is very different to the Wednesday night audience. The people who come at the weekends, generally speaking, go out just because it‘s the weekend. They just come and they have a bunch of beer and get a little drunk and talk real loud when you’re playing. They’re not interested in your music at all. During the weekdays we get much more musical people and they check us out like ‘Let’s see how Brazilian music goes’ or ‘Percussion! What is percussion? I want to go there and see’ ‘cause they’re curious. In Brazil and other places where the music is more a form of living, well I think that exists everywhere, because to be honest with you I consider London now, at this particular time, the best city in the world for music. The music is really mixed here, young people they’re interested in music, they have many clubs and they have acid jazz that they can just dance to and their own mixes and it’s really a very interesting situation.
Also, people are mixing with other races. They are not so racist like their parents and are much more open, so you see a white guy with a Chinese girl and a black guy with a white girl and it’s something normal now in London. In other parts of the world, people are still very prejudiced. In London, I think it’s really open for that and that’s why the music is so strong.”
Positive music affecting social situations is common and for Airto, the energy he feels when he is playing is something he can give out to the audience to make them happy.
“I like musicians who are very loyal to their music and their audiences, and musicians that are aware of what they are doing. They go for the positiveness, they don’t go for the big stuff like some bands. I don‘t even want to mention these bands ‘cause they are very famous all over the world but they’re still drinking a lot, using a bunch of drugs, they’re still beating girls who talk to them and they trash hotel rooms. I’m totally against that, ‘cause they promote the wrong thing. I think music is to make people feel good and if I can do that I am happy and don‘t mind travelling so much and getting tired and not sleeping or eating right as I’m spreading some good feelings around.”