I met Airto at Ronnie Scott’s after sound check, and stayed to see the gig, which was, needless to say, an extraordinary event. Airto himself was fantastic, very open, unlike the guarded, grumpy interviewee I had been lead to expect. I felt comfortable enough at the end to mention this to him, and he just said “Well, I like your questions!” Phew…!
‘Are we privileged or are we privileged?’ I ask Rhythm’s erudite photographer James Cumpsty after we’ve just spent a couple of hours with one of the percussive world’s living legends, the indefatigable Airto Moreira, who is in the middle of a four week sell out stint at Ronnie Scott’s with his wife Flora Purim and his band Fourth World. ‘Undoubtedly so’ replies James, and he’s not even a drummer. The thing is, I’ve seen Airto’s videos, I’ve seen him live, I’ve seen his CV (which includes being in the original line ups of Return to Forever and Weather Report, not to mention a heap of crucial work with Miles Davis), but I’ve never seen him this happy. He’s certainly having a great time playing at Ronnie’s.
“Very much so; actually I think it’s the best time that we’ve played here, because the band has been together for quite a while, and everybody was eager to play, and this is the third week already, so the band is sounding beautiful, and we’re playing most of the material that we recorded on the new album, Last Journey, and the attendance has been very good, you know. People have been dancing all over this place, (he seems almost incredulous). Like last night was pretty incredible. They had their security watching everybody very close, because people they just went crazy, they were nuts. We had people up on stage dancing, doing the whole Brazilian thing, it was like ‘What is this? Where am I?’ so I’m having a lot of fun.”
Having experienced the gig for myself, he wasn’t exagerrating, and what was interesting was how diverse the audience were, with a whole fusion of ages, colours and creeds, which undoubtedly has an effect on Airto’s performance.
“It helps my energy because when you play live, you play live for the people, and I always really like mixed audiences, because I believe in a mixture of elements and different energies and different cultures, you know I really like it when people mix together, and they feel the same thing together at the same time. And ages too. A lot of kids they’ve been coming to see us now, because of the re-mixes they’ve been doing, and sampling my sounds, and Flora’s and so on, so I think by now they are very curious about hearing us the way we are when we play live, so it makes us feel good.”
Whilst Airto might not quite be up there with Clyde Stubbelfield when it comes to being used and abused by samplers over the last decade, he’s certainly got plenty of justification to feel aggrieved by the process, but he’s become philosophical about it.
“I used to feel bad about it really, a few years ago when it started, first of all because they wouldn’t even give you credits, they wouldn’t even say ‘Thank you Airto for these sounds’ I think because they were afraid I was going to sue them or something, which you felt like doing, at the beginning I almost did it. But I decided not just to accept, but now I understand their point of view, and the way they make music today, and I am happy, I feel good that they chose me and my sounds, because that means that I communicate to them….. And I think these musicians, DJ’s, producers or whatever, I think they are the musicians of today and the future, and they are making music and I understand now, and I don’t even have to accept it because I understand. So I’m going for it.”
That understanding and ‘going for it’ has actually come through Airto’s musician daughter Diana and her rapper husband D:Factor, (“they made me understand better, because if I don’t listen to my daughter I don’t listen to nobody!”) Interestingly, when I talked to Airto about the new album, I mentioned that along with the version of Return To Forever’s Light As A Feather, my favourite tracks were the world music production numbers Terra Moia and Trip to The Fourth World. Airto’s mouth broke into a wide smile as he grinned with paternal pride.
“You’ve just mentioned two songs that were written by my daughter. Terra Moia is beautiful, man, and the lyrics, you know. She wrote it in Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, even though she was born in New York, she’s a New Yorker, and they arranged everything and I played on top, I played drums and then I played percussion, and Flora sung. it was a production and it feels great, sounds very good.”
He also laughed when I mentioned Snakebite, an incredible duet with Giovanni Hidalgo.
“Snakebite? Oh, boy! Well, Snakebite I could say was a rehearsed jam, but it’s not true! Snakebite is one of the tracks from the album, Fica Mal Condeius, without the music. Ha ha ha. Because when I was mixing, I said ‘Okay, just let me get the percussion track up,’ and then when we put up the percussion track it was like ‘Oh wow, this is great, wait a minute, maybe we’ll make this like an extra track,’ so that’s what I did, and up till now nobody knew that, even the label, they didn’t spot that!”
I mention that I don’t have to let the world know his secret, but he laughs again.
“No, go ahead man. You can explain for me if you could, when I heard that, which is true, without the music, it was so good I thought this has to be a track, like a bonus for the people.”
So there you have it. Airto is currently playing more kit than percussion in the live set up, (though there’s still plenty of space for his trademark seashore and wildlife sounds, not to mention the pandeiro solo), which I found surprising until he explained that he had actually started his professional career at the age of twelve as a kit player. So why has his name become so associated with percussion as opposed to kit over the years?
“That was the United States of America. When I went from Brazil to New York, I had some percussion with me, it was about two suitcases full with little things and gadgets, rattles and shakers and things, and people were very curious about that. And there were many drummers in New York, they didn’t play Brazilian music, but they played some amazing stuff like I’d never seen in my life. And then people they start calling me to play percussion, because I was really the first percussionist in America that had something different rather than congas, bongos and maracas and timbales. So then I started getting some work, you know I was sleeping on Walter Booker’s floor at that time because I didn’t have any money, and so they start calling me. ‘Hey, there’s this Brazilian guy he’s got some strange stuff, let’s call him.’ So I start getting calls for TV commercials and things, and then I start playing with Cannonball Adderley and Lee Morgan and so on, and then I got a call from Miles Davis to play, because I played some different stuff. That’s it, I’m from Brazil of course, so I was not totally white, so I could mingle with them, because that time was kind of heavy, this black and white thing, very heavy in New York, the Black Panthers were really active, and I end up meeting all these people and hanging out, down the village I used to go and jam at Electric Ladyland studios. I didn’t even know that was Jimi Hendrix’s studio until he showed up. I never really got to play with them, but we jammed. Janis Joplin would visit, in San Francisco she used to sit in the audience and watch us with Miles at the Filmore, and we used to hang out back there, and all of a sudden it was like ‘Okay, I’m a percussionist now and this is it for me,’ and I stopped singing and playing drums.”
But he’s back on kit now, partly because he relishes it and partly because the current line up of Fourth World demands it.
“It’s the nature of the music I think, because …. with this band I am one of the driving forces and I have to keep things together. When I am playing I’m watching everybody and they’re looking at me and it’s really a big responsibility, because this band is really strong, it’s got an incredibly strong energy, and plus I love to play drums. Drums is such a beautiful thing man, it’s like being the driver or pilot, whatever you want to call it. And so I’m playing mostly drums now, I have some percussion on my right, a little bit more on my left.”
And, as I mentioned, he has his pandeiro, (Brazilian tambourine), though he’s been playing his trademark solo for so many years I wondered whether sometimes he felt like he was performing a circus trick.
“It’s true, sometimes it takes me a little while to really figure out what I’m going to do, and I always change a little bit, I never really start the same way. I might play the same things, but differently as far as order or intensity or intention, sometimes I sing more and I chant more, and sometimes I get into rhythm, sometimes in to sounds and so on. But I feel that the energy of that solo, it’s so good for the people, because when I finish it’s always like ‘Yeah’ so I think if I can still cause that nice effect in people I want to do it, so I’m doing it, I’m not going to stop.”
After the current gigs Fourth World are going on sabattical, with guitarist Jose Neto joining Harry Belafonte on tour and the rest of the band getting involved in a variety of projects. For his part Airto has got plenty to keep him busy. He’s developing a new line of percussion with Remo, (“It’s going to have the weirdest stuff that you can find!”), plus a portable kit with drums that fit inside each other, and he’s going online.
“I am taking some time to develop some stuff for the internet, I’m going to do like a very serious hi tech internet, it’s not just a home page or whatever, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff there where you can get rare things that you don’t find anywhere else, and information and my life story and so on and so on, and people can be in touch with me whenever they want. I decided ‘Man I’m fifty seven years old, and I want to have something like a network.’ Because we do have a network as far as energy is concerned because we play live around the world all the time, so we got that already, but if we can get that and people can have it even in their houses and get stuff, there’s going to be a fan club where you can get special things through, so I’m taking time to organise that.”
Throughout our meeting Airto spoke about energy and healing, and we spent a long time talking about his music and its connection with his spiritual side.
“People they’ve been talking about the healing powers of music. It sounds very corny and silly, but it’s nothing really…. to me it doesn’t make no difference if people they believe it or they don’t believe it, because this is up to us, to each one of us, what we want to believe, what is real, you know. And that’s it, because it depends on our state of mind and our goal in life, what it is. If it’s to make a lot of money, or if it’s to have a lot of power or if it’s to help a lot of people, or if it’s to stay home and do nothing, or just get spaced out, whatever we want to do, God gives us freedom of choice, and that’s the most important thing that we have. And in the music, the way it works for me, what I believe, what I feel really, is every time I play, I am helping people, and I feel there is an energy, man, that is going out to the people and they like it, and I feel that I was given the power of doing that. And from 99% of the places that we play we can generate that energy. Live music puts people in a state of mind, on an extra state of mind, that makes them much more sensitive than they really are in real life, and they love to be in that state, because it’s almost like a bath, a spiritual bath, and so they get clean, it’s a cleansing thing, and they feel great when they feel like that.
And people when they come in, if they’re not feeling very good, when they go out they’re feeling very good. Everybody becomes friends at the same time, even if they see each other tomorrow they don’t recognise each other, but at that moment they look at each other they are friends, that’s the best thing that music can do and that’s healing. So I’m doing my work, and I’m having fun at the same time.”