Rhythm Nation Builder
Legendary percussionist Airto Moreira appears at Esalen this week.
Thursday, July 1, 2004
Before he agreed to lead this week’s “Samba for the Soul” workshop at Esalen Institute, Brazilian-percussionist Airto Moreira hesitated for a minute, leery about misplacing his late friend Babatundi Olatunji. But Airto knows the legendary Nigerian drummer is smiling upon his endeavor.
“That’s his spot, he did that for so many years,” Moreira said after a recent performance at Yoshi’s, referring to Olatunji’s longtime relationship with Esalen. “I had to really consult inside myself and see if it was going to work out, and I’m sure it will. We were like best friends with Baba and he will be there with us, in spirit. I believe in reincarnation. I don’t just believe, I know that’s the way it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be here learning the way we are.”
Few people in the world know more about the power of rhythm than Moreira. He first made a name for himself in 1970, touring and recording with Miles Davis, and went on to play a key role as a founding member of the fusion super group Weather Report. Along with his wife, vocalist Flora Purim, Airto gained international fame when they joined Chick Corea’s first version of Return to Forever.
A widely revered rhythmic savant, he has presented countless workshops around the globe, both on his own and with other percussion giants such as Reinhard Flatischler, Giovanni Hidalgo, Zakir Hussain, Mickey Hart, and Olatunji.
The Esalen workshops run from Friday through July 9, with a performance on Wednesday evening by Airto’s Jam Band, a new group that incorporates elements of hip hop into his already charged Brazilian jazz. Featuring keyboardist Kit Walker, electric bassist Gary Brown, guitarist Fabio Soares, Airto and Purim’s daughter Diana Booker on vocals and her husband DJ Krishna Booker (the son of jazz bassist Walter Booker), the group is developing a sound that’s steeped in improvisation and contemporary funk grooves.
“This band is bringing out another new breed of music,” Moreira said. “I should thank our daughter Diana, because she’s contributed her work as a great singer and a songwriter. And also Krishna, who is a really good beat-boxer. What he does is very different. We’ve found a way to use loops and sounds without getting hurt by them. We have them to reinforce the rhythm. We made them with my sounds, and Diana’s keyboards. So it’s all homemade stuff and it feels real good.”
Moreira notes that Purim will also be making an appearance with the band, as he could hardly open a new musical chapter that didn’t include her. They were already a couple when they came to the US in 1967, and for the past quarter century they’ve lived in Los Angeles, where Moreira teaches at the University of California.
“All that time, we’re playing together, we’re married, and my life can’t be told without involving Flora and vice versa,” he said. “So we’ll be playing and I’m pretty sure the people will be dancing.”
While the Jam Band puts a decidedly contemporary spin on Brazilian jazz, the workshops move in the opposite directions, delving into the African roots of Brazilian music. Centering on Airto’s vast battery of percussion, the workshops also feature singers and a Brazilian dance instructor. Exploring chants and Afro-Brazilian spirituals, the idea is to explore the trance-inducing rhythms that undergird so much of popular Brazilian music.
“In a show we play the songs, and we feel very free,” Moreira said. “But there are some pure rhythms, the basics, and it’s almost impossible to play those things unless we play very old music, which is not very exciting for people of 2004. The rhythms on their own are very exciting.
“It’s really a great opportunity for me to be at Esalen. I can also talk about what happened when slaves came from different parts of Africa, and thank God they were allowed to play their instruments and do their rituals in Brazil. In many countries, including the US, they missed that, because they said ‘No, you can’t play, just go work, work, work.’
“All those rhythms and stories will be exposed. I’m going to talk about them and music and spirituality, and the universal energy that is here with us 24 hours a day.”
Airto Moreira will give workshops and perform at the Esalen Arts Festival, Esalen Institute, 55000 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920. 667-3000. www.esalen.org