One of Brazil's leading percussionists, Cyro Baptista is best known as a jazz musician. But, in common with many artists coming to maturity in the last quarter of the twentieth century, he declined rigid categorizaiton; he has also appeared in pop, rock, avant-garde classical, and more standard classical performances in concert and on record. He is also an accomplished and in-demand studio and touring artist, the leader of his own percussion ensemble, and a solo percussion performer.
Growing up in Brazil, Baptista was strongly affected before age six by the sounds of bossa nova, the gentle, subtle Brazilian jazz that gained worldwide fame in the 1960s. He began to reproduce the rhythms he heard, using a coconut shell as his first instrument. After developing his skills as drummer and percussionist in Brazil, he moved to New York, which he has maintained as his home base the early 1980s. He worked in the busy New York jazz and recording scenes with such artists as Herbie Mann, Brian Eno, Robert Palmer, Melissa Etheridge, Sting, Carly Simon, and James Taylor. He also collaborated with musicians of the New York "new music" scene (which often straddles the line between popular and classical), such as Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, and others. But he also continued to work in the field of contemporary Brazilian music, accompanying Tom Zé, Milton Nascimento, Nana Vasconcelos, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte, and others. One of his best-known popular/rock collaborations was with Paul Simon, for whom he played on the 1990 Rhythm of the Saints Tour and in the famous Concert in Central Park. Baptista has not confined his interest to Brazilian music. As his own music has evolved, he has added elements from southern Africa, from other countries of the Americas including the United States, from India, and from the gamelan music of Indonesia.
One of his CDs that transcends genre and category is Vira Loucos, a solo album (with a few guest appearances) released on John Zorn's Avant label. The disc had its genesis in 1996 when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas called on Baptista for help in preparing his New World Symphony Orchestra recording on RCA of music of Villa-Lobos. That great Brazilian composer notated his percussion parts and other parts using Brazilian percussion figures in very detailed fashion, often splitting them between instruments. Thomas asked Baptista to help him understand and interpret these Brazilian rhythms. Baptista read and deciphered the rhythms underlying an orchestral score so complex that on paper it looked like "thousands of dead flies lying on the music sheet," as he later described it, then played the rhythms on his birimbau while singing the Brazilian folk melodies that inspired Villa-Lobos. From that experience came Baptista's idea of returning the composer's music to its percussion-oriented roots and interpreting it in the manner of the street and countryside musicians who originally inspired it. The result, in 1997, was the creation of Beat the Donkey, an eleven-man ensemble using instruments and elements from nearly every major stream of world musical culture, including Western Classical music.
Baptista joined Herbie Hancock in 1998 for Gershwin's World, a Grammy-nominated album, and in the summer of 2000 traveled on a "Gershwin's World" tour with Hancock. In 1999 he recorded, with Argentine-born classical conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim, the album Brazilian Rhapsody, drawing on classic Brazilian compositions, and in September, 2000 toured with Barenboim and four other musicians to Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Paris, and Chicago to play its music. The first half of 2000 was devoted to Beat the Donkey, as he prepared the tapes of the ensemble's CD and traveled with the group on a European tour that began with their debut at the Big Bang Percussion Festival in January in the Netherlands.