Thursday, September 03, 2009

Mover & Shaker

I’ve been in Rio this month, sitting in on samba and chôros gigs with some great musicians: Gabriel Improta, Andrea Ernest Dias, Zé Paulo Becker, Sheila Zagury, Yamandú Costa, Daniela Spielmann, Tomás Improta, Itibere Zwarg, and many others… My first week it rained steadily, so I hibernated indoors and practiced. Between tunes, my mind drifted to thoughts of my friends up north in Salvador da Bahia – a rhythmic paradise and cultural crossroads of Brazil.


In 2003 I traveled to Salvador at the behest of Lucas and Pedro Robatto, who had invited me to teach composition and clarinet during seminários at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. While there I was determined to improve my caxixi playing, so each day after teaching I would trek to Julio Goés’ house to take lessons. It took about an hour to walk there from Pelourinho in the town center. I’d arrive in his front room, a starkly empty chamber save for a couple of chairs and a rug with percussion instruments laid out: caxixi, shekere, double-bells, berimbau, and small drums used in candomblé – a Yoruban ritual ceremony (overlaid with a Catholic veneer) that permeates the Northeast coast of Brazil.

Julio was a superb craftsman, and musicians from all over Brazil – Recife, São Paulo, Belem, Brazilia, Porto Alegre, Rio, Manaus, Belo Horizonte – placed orders on a regular basis. All except one of the instruments in the room had been hand-made by him; the oddball was a tabla drum from India, his preferred toy of the moment. Often, as we concluded a lesson, Julio would grab the tabla and we’d spend half an hour or more jamming. It was a study in innovation to witness a Brazilian traditional musician inventing rhythmic patterns on a watery, lush tabla. “I love the subtlety, the flavors…” he would kvell, coaxing bubbly tones from the drumheads.

Julio was perhaps best known for his sonorous caxixi, which he manufactured in an abundant variety of shapes, sizes, and sounds. Though hardly the most renowned of Brazilian instruments, caxixi occupy a central place in capoeira; during expositions of this dance/martial-art tradition, a berimbau stick is grasped in one hand, and the bow-shaped frame – along with one or more caxixi – is held in the other. In this role they serve an accompanimental function, akin to the West African rattle, from which they are descended.

More recently, virtuoso percussionists like Airto Moreira and Naná Vasconcelos began experimenting with caxixi as expressive instruments, featuring them in solos, designing and executing complex rhythms and backbeats, and dramatically raising standards of technique. It was this newer tradition – along with the caxixi’s handy portability (they can be played while sitting, standing, or walking) – that inspired me, at age 21, to purchase my first pair at Drummer’s World in New York.

My first teacher, Nadav Serling, demonstrated a series of exercises – accompanied by textural swishes, shakes, and swirls of sound – that allowed polyrhythms to flow between the two hands; he dissected complex beats into basic rhythmic cells of twos and threes. As I improved, I began to diverge from more traditional grooves. I enjoyed recreating typically American beats, in addition to the samba-inflected ones. I found that caxixi could provide a funky, gritty complement to singing or rapping, and I used them as teaching devices when working with kids, as well as in my band Peace by Piece.

In Brazil I also learned that playing two caxixi could be a full-body experience, in harmony with the natural rhythm of walking. In Salvador, I took lessons with Giba Conseção, who insisted that playing caxixi was a form of dancing. If one did not move vigorously while playing – he cautioned me – the inflections would be weak, the articulations insufficient, the accents unfocused. Watching Giba play was indeed like watching a dancer, and imitating him was an athletic undertaking. After an hour my arms were raw and sore, my shirt soaked in sweat.

Upon leaving Bahia, I bought six of Julio’s caxixi as parting gifts for my friends in the Robatto family: two large caxixi for Silvio and Lia, two medium-sized ones for Lucas and Pedro, and two for Pedro and Sandra’s kids, Paulo and Lara. The largest ones looked like skinny buckets and couldn’t be played using traditional wrist motion; instead the player had to hold the handles, allowing gravity to pull the weight of the dried beans earthward until they finally crashed on the gourd bottom.

At my last lesson, Julio brought out a pair of what he called caxixi rodas or ‘wheels’. They appeared glorious, colorful, and rather unwieldy. He grabbed them by the inner ‘spokes’ and swished them around rhythmically. The effect was hypnotizing, but I couldn’t fathom how their donut shape facilitated any technical mastery; their real purpose, it seemed, stemmed from a visual inspiration on his part.

“Has anyone bought a pair of rodas from you, Julio?” I inquired.

“Not yet, but they will,” he replied. “It is such a pleasure to make them,” he added, proudly admiring his creations. “I want a whole family of these, in three or four sizes! Can you imagine?” I wasn’t sure I could, but I enjoyed his fanciful detour; Julio was a dreamer.

Four years later I returned to Bahia, this time for a residency at the Fundação Sacatar in Itaparica. One weekend morning I took the ferry-boat across the bay and decided to stop by Julio’s house to visit. I had originally intended to take the bus, but I became worried that – in trying to negotiate the intricate public transit system of Salvador – I would wind up in some remote favela, so I decided to walk instead. I remembered that Julio lived on one of the narrow stairway/streets snaking up a hill overlooking the Dique de Tororó. From the main road I squinted to identify the recessed entrance, and began scaling the crumbling steps.

After several flights I arrived at his house, rapped on the door, and waited. I had taken a rather big gamble, not having the slightest idea whether he would be at home, or even in town. Standing on the threshold, I glanced behind me toward the street. Mangy stray cats prowled the alleys, flies circled, curious children peeked out from behind cracked doors, old women swept the sidewalk, eying me suspiciously as snatches of pagode and samba de roda crackled over transistor radios. I knocked again with greater urgency.

Salvador had changed; it was noisier, more crowded, more polluted, more rushed. Unfinished construction projects dotted the cityscape. During the past few years Brazil had been benefitting from an unprecedented economic boom. It was proudly boasting one of the fastest ’developing’ economies, ascending along with China, India, and – to some extent – Russia. But Julio’s neighborhood had not changed; the Brazilian economic miracle was passing it by.

I knocked again and waited in silence for a while, then I heard a faint stirring inside, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Footsteps reluctantly made their way toward the front of the house; the door creaked open, and a slight, wiry-framed man with long dreadlocks peered out.

“Julio!” I said. “Como vai?”

He blinked in unrecognition for a few moments, then a slow smile crept across his face and he emerged from the house to embrace me. “Deriki!” he proclaimed. “Faz muito tempo! Tudo bem?”

We exchanged greetings, and after a couple of minutes he grew visibly excited. “Deriki, venha comigo…eu gostaria te mostrar alguma coisa…” He motioned for me to come into the house. I stepped in and my eyes adjusted to the shadow. Julio had dragged an enormous caxixi across the floor and into the daylight. It was the size of a small child, about three feet in height. Other than that, it looked identical to the regular, handheld kind. I probably appeared stunned, gawking at this bizarre creature the way a guinea-pig-owner might stare at a capybara. It looked like a mutant percussive strain – absurd, yet quietly proclaiming its own territory on the floor nearby, justifying itself via its mere grandiose existence.

Julio was beaming. “Boa, não é?” he said, reddening slightly as he noticed the startled expression on my face. Yes, it was indeed beautiful, but this entity was far too large to imagine actually playing, and I posed the inevitable question – one which I felt sure he had been asked before – “Claro que sim… mas… como tocar?”

His countenance turned earnest and he replied – somewhat defensively – “Of course it can be played! I just have to lift it a little…” I watched, bemused, as Julio heaved the gargantuan caxixi into the air. It crashed back to the ground a second later with a percussive CRUNCH. Not the most elegant rhythmic device, but at least it made an impressive noise. “You see?” he boasted breathlessly. “A robust sound! And the scale is proportional in every way to the tiny ones.”

I cast a quick glance at the myriad small caxixi stacked on his shelf. The huge specimen was indeed a mirror replica of its miniature relative, but what of its utility? What musician would possibly want a shaker of such size, more akin to a piece of vintage furniture than a musical instrument?

“Dereki, what is beautiful to me is the form,” he said thoughtfully, as if in response to my unarticulated musings. “And this one is just a protótipo. The real one is in the back room. I need you to help me, because I can’t lift it alone.” I grinned, anticipating the next bizarre chapter, and followed him to the inner chamber. There it was, resting in the shadowy corner: the mother of all caxixi. Standing nearly six feet tall, the Amazon entity – fashioned from wicker, and filled with dried beans – sported a flattened gourd bottom, like the others.

Julio wore a broad smile. “Here, let’s bring her outside for some air.” The two of us dragged the giant caxixi onto the landing. Several curious children gathered cautiously near the doorstep, but were promptly shooed away by a watchful woman nearby. Before I could inquire, Julio remarked to me, “Now, I have no doubt that this can be played; I just need to figure out how…” We tried to lift it, first separately, then together, to no avail. I had a clear sense that this caxixi would never shake, except perhaps in an earthquake.

After several tries we gave up and Julio began fussing with a tiny crack in the gourd base. Somewhat guardedly, I said, “Julio, I think – perhaps – these should be in an gallery. They’re not really…exactly… musical instruments, you know?”

He stared at me, uncomprehending. “A gallery?” he echoed, seeming to contemplate the thought. I wasn’t actually sure if he knew what I meant by a gallery; maybe I had used the wrong word.

"Exposiçao?" I tried, tentatively.

He suddenly burst out laughing. “How can you think that? Dereki, Just imagine how this music will sound. It will be tremendous, awesome!” He stood back and savored his work. “I have always wanted to make caxixi this size, but I was…frightened. And for a long time, I didn’t feel sure enough in my technique. But now! Now that I have finally built one, I think that it is perhaps the most perfect thing I have created.”

I marveled at the huge shaker, speechless. At what point, I wondered, had Julio’s work morphed from instrument-making into sculpture? Had the transition occurred at the juncture when form became detached from function? The tricky issue was that Julio himself did not distinguish between these two aspects of his craft. From his perspective, he remained foremost a maker of musical instruments. Defining his creation primarily as an art-object was unthinkable – an utter diminishment that would rob it of its raison d’être.

Then again, perhaps it was a bona fide hybrid. Julio had smashed a functional boundary and was ushering a traditional, utilitarian practice into fresh and unknown territory. I applauded that bravery and felt elated for him, but I also sensed that his blissful undertaking would be an isolated journey that peers would likely ridicule and – at best – deem incomprehensible. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed kids gaping and snickering in the street. I looked back at Julio, cleaning cobwebs off his monster caxixi. On a dusty, boiling day, on a dingy streetcorner near the Dique de Tororó, I felt that I was witnessing the mysterious, lonely rebirth of art.

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