Volume #19, Issue #5

By Toni A. Brown

            A solitary figure steps out onto the stage. Dressed as a hooded monk, his chants fill the arena. As he prowls the stage, Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann begin overlaying rhythms and, soon, all the remaining members of the Grateful Dead have returned to break into the New Year with a resounding “Not Fade Away”.

            Airto Moreira, with whom many may be familiar through his work with Planet Drum and the many projects he has participated in with Mickey Hart, was born in Brazil. While he was still crawling, his mother became concerned over occasional jerking movements he would make. She took him to her mother who observed the seemingly involuntary movements of the boy. When the radio was switched off, the “seizures” immediately stopped. Airto’s grandmother said, “Oh, can’t you see? He’s a musician!”

            By the age of 2, Airto was playing the tambourine and by 5, he was singing and playing percussion on a local radio show. When he was 12-years-old, his first gig was as an accordion player.

            Airto’s grandmother was a nomadic spiritual healer who traveled through the forest helping to cure the sick. She used herbs and natural medicines, but as herbs are usually more effective as a preventive, she would also resort to “the white man’s medicine”.

            Airto adds, “She used to deal with the spiritual world a lot, with vibes—with energy. My father was also a spiritual healer and I grew up watching him help people his whole life, so I understand about that side of life—there are two sides of life”.

            Airto would accompany his father on his healing journeys and although his father couldn’t read or write, he could channel the spirit of a doctor. Airto remembers him quickly writing notes and prescriptions in a neat script. Knowing that his father was illiterate, this left an indelible impression on the young percussionist. Airto’s father’s colleagues all said that Airto also had the makings of a great medium, but there were other forces behind him—the forces of rhythm. He would often talks long walks in the woods to listen to the many sounds around him. He would try to imitate those sounds, become part of them. Airto eventually committed himself to a group of musicians and the band became one of the best in Brazil. With the success of the band, he felt very caught up in playing music for his people. “I didn’t realize at that time that music is for the world”, Airto said.

            Airto eventually made it to the United States to visit his love, Flora Purim, who had left Brazil and found work as a jazz singer in California. With the thought in mind to bring her home, Airto visited the United States at Flora’s urging. He himself was quickly caught up in the burgeoning music scene that was happening then. His break came when he joined up with Miles Davis. At the same time, Jimi Hendrix also infused some inspiration into Miles’ sound. Hendrix and Miles spent a lot of time together and Miles bought a wah-wah pedal and started experimenting with electronics on his trumpet. There was a lot of music merging on the scene: jazz, blues, rock, country…but free-form percussion was still new to the American sound. Airto was instrumental in bringing percussion into that sound. And Miles Davis was innovative enough to welcome this Brazilian talent.

            “I didn’t play any conventional instruments and I think Miles hired me more for my very different sounds than for my musicianship”, Airto said.

            Once Airto realized the musical potential of the 1960s California music scene, it was hard to return to Brazil and leave those nights at the Fillmore East and West behind; opening up for bands like the Dead, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and Jimi Hendrix. The incredible array of talent that surrounded him made him realize it was an important time musically and Airto easily became a part of that era.

            In recent years, Airto has been performing in jazz clubs with Flora Purim and has been part of numerous Mickey Hart projects. He recently won best live album at this year’s Grammy Awards with Dizzy Gillespie, as well as best World Music album for Planet Drum with Mickey Hart.

            Airto fondly remembers the Planet Drum tour that brought together the finest percussionists in the world: “The band was the strongest ever assembled as far as percussion and natural sounds are concerned. The energy that we generated with that band was pretty heavy. Players like Zakir—he’s so electrifying. Getting players like Vikku [and] Babatunji with his spirituality—he’s the daddy of the drummers because he doesn’t play the drums, he plays his soul through the drums. He respects the drums—he talks to them. He plays drums made of one piece of wood, not of 10 pieces. He’s a serious master drummer. And Mickey behind everyone, making things work and using the right sound effects at the right time. And Giovanni Hidalgo is the most incredible conga player that I’ve ever seen in my life. Amongst the Spanish-speaking world, when they talk about congas, he’s very special. Vikku, with that energy that’s so sweet and so nice, he plays and smiles and the people just love it. And Sikuru giving all the support with all those drums and the talking drums; Flora making the balance, the only female, almost representing the mother contributing the first human sound—the voice. It was so easy to play with that band—a very enlightening experience. Also a sharing of our heritages. We had great respect for each other—it was…Planet Drum”.

            Airto has never forgotten his heritage. He has recently released a dramatic percussion album, The Other Side of This (Rykodisc), which features the fine sounds of such musical friends as Kitaro, Olatunji, Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram, Sedonia Cahill, Giovanni Hidalgo, Flora Purim, daughter Diana Moreira and many others. Each song was done in one take at Mickey Hart’s studio and is reminiscent of the Planet Drum tour in the indescribably complex sounds that are achieved through seemingly simple, natural instruments.

            In describing the healing nature of this album, Airto says, “Someone recently asked me why I was calling this recording healing sounds, healing music. What’s the difference between thus and music? This [music] was especially recorded with that [healing] in mind and before we went to the studio, we got prepared. We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but we had these instruments all over the place in Mickey’s studio. We looked at them and just kept saying, ‘Wow’. And then, an idea would come and I would say, “You play that and I’ll play this one here.’ So, when it was good, it was good, so we worked it on those basics.

            “The energy that’s around us, to tap that energy through sounds, these sounds help you. So, if you do what the instructions in the liner notes suggest, in reality, you are tapping that energy that’s out there. When you close your eyes and you think of something that you really like, or someone that you really love, you close your eyes and picture yourself in that place. So, you are actually spiritually transporting yourself to that place.”

            In the liner notes, Airto instructs the listener to use certain visions and position to invoke meditative states in some cases and to become involved elsewhere. The album is an uplifting spiritual experience. Of its transcendent imagery, Airto says, “If you close your eyes and let go, you can see yourself walking through a door, then closing that door behind you. You can find yourself anywhere you want to be—on the beach, flying or swimming with mermaids.” The rhythms of The Other Side of This can actually help cue the mantra to start the listener on a meditative journey—an ideal solution to the stresses of today’s world.

            We spoke briefly about Airto’s involvement with the Grateful Dead: “The band was discussing the production of what they were going to do at midnight on New Year’s Eve because Bill Graham always came from somewhere—from the ground or the sky. But he wasn’t going to be there physically. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but they all agreed that they should dress me as a monk, that I should go out there at midnight and do the “Endless Cycle” chant and I thought they were crazy. Me? I’m going to go out in front of all these people and do this thing dressed as a monk? I’m not a monk. And they said, ‘No man, it’s gotta be you. You just gotta go there and just do that for a minute and the people will feel this energy and then we’ll cut to the drummers and then boom, midnight, and that’s it.’ And I did it. It was very special to me. I was scared and thrilled at the same time. And it went beautifully.”

            When asked if he felt the audience distracted the band by singing along or clapping during a show, Airto was adamant in his statement. “I think we’re all individuals,” he said. “If someone wants to cheer and applaud, they should cheer and applaud and leave each other alone because everybody’s there to have a good time. I think this kind of thing creates a lot of bad energy. So, if you want to dance, you dance and if you want to listen, you listen. If you’re close to someone that’s clapping or screaming too much, go somewhere else. I don’t think it affects the band at all. They love it, so I don’t think they’re affected by that at all.”

            While discussing music, he hesitated briefly when asked about his favorite time musically. “There are special occasions sometimes that something happens when you play. It might be the best band around, but that energy clicks and the music becomes real good for 5 minutes. Then there are memorable occasions. But if I have to say one, it would have to be Miles David back then. Of course he’s not with us now, but it would be different because that time as a special time. Music and people were getting together and mixing together. It was incredible, especially the Fillmores, and I remember that as the best time I had. Everybody was the same,” Airto said.

            With the many instruments Airto plays, he admits that the rattle is his favorite. But he can do things with a tambourine that makes it sound like a dozen instruments never before heard. And when he infuses his whistle into a song, the alarming sound is more of an effective crescendo than the sound one might hear in gym class. Airto has the gift of coaxing sound from enchanting places. His live performance is exhilarating. His band, Fourth World, includes his wife Flora on vocals (she has just released Queen of the Night on Sound Wave Records), Jose Neto on guitar (a guitar made especially for him in Switzerland with a bass booster that enables him to play bass and guitar at the same time), Gary Meek from L.A. playing keyboards and saxophones and Airto’s daughter, Diana, singing background. They have recently completed a 3-week stint in London, which was recorded for an album.

            With the possibility of another Planet Drum tour, Airto will also be busy as he continues to play with many of the musical friends he has made throughout the years. Watch for Fourth World in a club in your area. And always remember—where there’s sound, there will be rhythm. Where there’s rhythm, you’ll find Airto Moreira.

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