Cyro Baptista follows the ‘Beat’ with intensity

Apr 10, 2007 at 6:35 pm

Cyro Baptista is in pain.

The dancing machines of Cyro Baptista’s “Beat the Donkey” are rhythmic virtuosos.
The dancing machines of Cyro Baptista’s “Beat the Donkey” are rhythmic virtuosos.
The Brazilian mastermind behind next Thursday night’s “Beat the Donkey” performance at the Kentucky Center has pushed his body to the limit, and his body is letting him know it.

“For me, this show is very important, more important than any one (show), because I just had surgery in my rotator cuff,” Baptista said in a telephone interview from New York. “This will be my first show, my coming back.”

No worries, though: Baptista is used to hurdles. “For me, my career has been a struggle, this is just one more,” he said.

The Brazilian-born Baptista relocated to New York in 1980 to attend college at a music studio in rural Woodstock, N.Y., immersing himself in Turkish, African and Indian music.

“I was really lucky, because it was a farm that had amazing musicians. Everybody was jamming all the time,” he said. “People worked together there and we saw the possibilities. I didn’t stay there for very long, six months, but what I learned in six months was good for my whole life.”

Since then, Baptista has grown into one of the pre-eminent percussionists ever. Five Grammy-winning albums feature his work, and he’s performed with Sting, Yo Yo Ma, David Byrne, Paul Simon and Brian Eno, as well as Brazilian artists Caetano Veloso and Nina Vasconcelos. Drum magazine named him Best World Percussionist in 2003.

With that kind of resume, what else is there?

Enter “Beat the Donkey.”

The title of the show is a loose translation of the Brazilian expression Pau Na Mula, which means, “Let’s go! Let’s do it!”

It’s fitting too, because this production is a rhythmic giant: An eight-piece drum and percussion ensemble locked in perpetual motion, in the vein of “Stomp” or “Blue Man Group” — if the players donned techni-color wardrobes instead of black turtlenecks. The show is so eclectic, it’s hard to come up with any useful description.
The New York Times named the first “Beat the Donkey” album, Tzadik, one of the 10 best alternative albums of 2002, and Drum magazine voted it the best Brazilian CD of the year.

The dancers play percussion and the percussion players dance, and these two facets of music are inextricably linked.

“The core of the band is percussion,” Baptista said. “I don’t think percussion would exist without dance.”
For “Beat the Donkey,” he and his players use traditional drums and percussion instruments that Baptista said are native to his home country. But after living in New York for so long, he’s also picked unlikely tools — PVC piping and pieces of refrigerator, for example — to produce unique sounds.

The instruments help define the musical idea and eventually, the choreography, he said. “It’s incredible, because it’s like being in a big band.”

While he’s in Louisville, Baptista will also conduct a percussion clinic. Go to for more information on that opportunity.