As the Brazilian trio Azymuth finishes its first song at a rare U.S. concert, the audience breaks into enthusiastic applause. The drummer rises quickly and begins clapping back at the crowd, an infections smile on his face.
Ivan Conti, also known by his nickname Mamao, is one of the most highly regarded drummers in Brazil. His band, Azymuth, is known throughout South America. Azymuth bridges the gap between Weather Report and Bob James with a slick, rhythmic and catchy instrumental sound.
All three members of Azymuth play percussion, and there’s quite a bit of it sprinkled through, filling spaces and adding texture to the sound. Mamao impresses with his ability to lay back and not overcomplicate the rhythm, and his ability to propel a simple beat in an interesting way.
The 36-year-old Conti lives in Rio with his wife and family, and is active in the studios there, having recorded with Deodata, Milton Nascimento, on the CBS debus of trumpeter Marcio Montarroyos, and with international singing styar Gal Costa, among others. Conti is also a popular choice for movie and TV soundtracks in Brazil. “Where I feel good playing is with Azymuth,” he says. “But as a professional I have to be open enough to play all kinds of music.”
RT: Are people very percussion-conscious in Brazil?
IC: Yes, especially now, they are focusing a lot on percussion. many songs are using a lot of percussion.
RT: What was your first experience in music?
IC: My first instrument was guitar, then I switched to drums. I’ve been playing for 20 years. I think every person who wants to be a musician should start by learning harmony.
RT: What made you switch from guitar to drums?
IC: There is more room and mobility with the drums than the guitar. The guitar helped me in writing songs, but I don’t play guitar anymore.
RT: Did you start playing the drumset or percussions instruments?
IC: Drumset, and after that percussion. I think you should learn the drums first. The two are very closely related. They are almost the same in my opinion.
RT: What was your first drumset like?
IC: It was a four-piece instrument, with cowhide skins. There is no such thing anymore.
RT: I understand that you do a lot of studio work in Brazil, besides playing with Azymuth.
IC: I’ve played with almost everybody down there. Gal Costa, who is very well-known. Milton Nascimento. Simone; she’s probably not known here, but is well-known there. I play with orchestras too, on TV. I worked a couple years back with Paul Mauriat. I really enjoy his music from a technical standpoint. It’s very correct. I am a great admirer of his.
RT: So you do know how to read music.
IC: Yeah, the industry has forced me to. I like the idea of the conditioning of reading. Just the fact that if you see “da do da” writte, then you have to do “da do da.”
RT: Did you go to school to learn to read?
IC: I studied with two private teachers, and also took a correspondence course from Berklee School of Music. I wanted to get a scholarship to Berklee, but it just didn’t work out. I think I learned the most just working with music.
RT: Are you comfortable in the studio reading music?
IC: I feel somehow better when I don’t have to read. When I’m involved in the music a lot, then I like to read it. But when it’s something I’m not really part of, then I’d rather just play by ear. It depends on how creative the music is. I definitely enjoy it more when I’ve got room to put myself out naturally instead of having to read. But if the music is good, if there’s room, if it feels good, it really doesn’t matter to me. I get into it just as easy.
RT: Did you study the rudiments?
IC: I did study some and sometimes still do. I think one should keep on studying, especially to improve technique.
RT: Do you still practice a lot?
IC: I have a little studio outside my house, and every time I feel like playing, I lock myself in and play.
RT: You are basically a right-handed drummer, aren’t you?
IC: At home I play with the left hand, but out in the world I play with the right. I am always trying to get the left hand to play as well as the right. If you can improve the left hand it makes the whole thing much easier, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get them even.
RT: I understand you have quite a collection of Gene Krupa albums.
IC: I am a Krupa freak. I have almost all his records. He was a big influence on my career. Also Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Joe Morello, Steve Gadd, and Billy Cobham. There are so many.
RT: Are you still being influenced?
IC: It’s possible that I am being influenced by someone, but at this point in my experience, I’ve got my own personality, musically speaking. But there are idols all the time. There are a lot of Brazilian drummers that I really like. Bituca, who plays on TV Glovo in Brazil. Wilson Das Neves, who plays on Elizeth Cardozo. Roberto Silva, who played with Milton Nascimento. Elcio Milito has fantasxtic brushwork.
RT: There is a drummer with the band Viva Brazil who is very good.
IC: I know Ribibnho, and I identify myself with that kind of playing. Ribinho grooves.
RT: How much do you work with Gal Costa?
IC: I’ve worked with her a lot onstange, this last year. Probably three months. I went with her to Israel, too. That’s a totally different type of work from Azymuth. I’ve recorded with her also. It’s good practice playing with a big band like that. There’s a lot of punch, and rhythmic certainty playing in that context. Lincoln Olivetti does the arranging, and I like his concpets very much.
RT: Isn’t it true that most all of the different parts of Latin America ghave their own rhythms?
IC: Yeah, there are totally different folklores from area to area, even within a country. Especially right now, there are a lot of musicians out in the country. There’s a lot happening out in the sticks in Brazil. It’s always a pair of musicians. Quinteto Violado is a northeastern group from Brazil that‘s extremely well known and extremely good. They are all acoustic. There’s an accordionist named Sivuca Tonico & Tinoeo There’s Sergio Reis, and a ﬁtttist named Altamiro Carrillto. There are so many people. Hermeto Pascoal is one ofthe best examples of Brazilian folklore.
RT: People associate the samba with Brazil. Did it originate there?
IC: The traditional samba beat is deﬁnitely Brazilian. There are peculiarities though. Especially the beat that comes out of the slums and hills. That‘s the real thing.
RT: What other rhythms come from Brazil?
IC: There are a lot of other kinds of rht hms, and most of them come from the samba. Maracatu, frevo, acajere, maraceje, agorere, samba from Bahia, samba from Rio, boi-bumba, rancheira. The reason lam here, is because I catne up with a diﬁerent kind of samba. A certain type of my own.
RT: Did it have more of a rock influence?
IC: There is deﬁnitely an inﬂuence of the rock n’ roll beat there, as there is the inﬂuence of freejazz. But the beat ofthe samba is the beat of the samba, and it‘s got to be Brazilian to have that beat.
RT: The music of Azymuth covers a lot of styles.
IC: I like to play a variety, and that’s why I ﬁt into Azymuth real well.
RT: Have you listened to American funk music?
IC: There’s a lot ofAmerican funk in Brazil. Funk has got a lot of taste to it. Flavor. 1 like that ﬂavor.
RT: Do you get a lot of records from America and elsewhere in Brazil?
IC: There’s no problem getting records. It is hard to hear live music though. To hear good people playing. In drumming, you learn from the visual. It‘s better to go see people play.
RT: How much touring does Azymuth do?
IC: We do tours, in Brazil. It’s a lot of effort. but it‘s worth it, because it’s hard to get people to appreciate instrumental music. It’s hard to set up situations where we can play to people. We are quite well known in South America right now, and it came as quite a surprise to ﬁnd that we are well known in Japan. That makes the very happy I’m not really concerned with the fame, but I want to play and be appreciated by people who know how to appreciate it. That‘s my concern for now. When you realize your work is being respected abroad somewhere, that‘s a great feeling. It creates new energy.
RT: Would you play any differently on an album for US. release. than one for Brazilian release?
IC: I would play the same. It’s unfortunate that an engineer or producer will try to change the sounds to ﬁt a format that’s in his mind, and not in the mind ofthe drummer or the group. I think that‘s a great mistake.
RT: Have you done any recording with a click track?
IC: I have recorded some disco in Brazil. The new drum machines are being used a lot, especially the Linn. I think it takes away a lot of emotion. I have used a metronome for study, but I would rather follow along with a record. It’s good to condition yourself into the timing, but I don’t think the metronome is that great. It doesn‘t allow you to flow. You’re always concerned with following that thing. In Brazil, there is a drum machine they call “George.” You can never get away from “George.” He always follows you around.
RT: When Azymuth goes into the studio to do an album, do you look over charts or rehearse all the material beforehand?
IC: We work out the basic skeleton of a song before we go in. It‘s not a stiff situation. We have a sketch, and we go in and do it live. I like the energy of recording together without a whole lot of overdubs. We‘ve been playing together for ten years, so it’s very easy for us to just walk into the studio and connect.
RT: Do you have any ideas about drum solos?
IC: The moment of the solo is when I bring out a lot of what I’ve learned, and at the same time, I face a lot of what I still have to learn. There is a tradition of soloing, a school of soloing, that you could learn in a way. People do that. They learn a group of things that other people have done in the past. I can appreciate that, but personally, I feel solos should be more spontaneous and not rely on things that have been done before. Billy Cobham is someone with remarkable technique. I saw Buddy Rich keep a coin on a wall with his drumsticks in a hotel in Sao Paulo. That’s beautiful, but I think a solo should be a freer thing, not a demonstration of a certain technique, Put yourself out there.
RT: Do you teach in Brazil?
IC: No, not now, but in the future. I still want to learn a lot more. It’s very hard to learn the drums in Brazil. In the U.S., there’s a lot to learn from, even if you’re not going to school. There are so many bands and orchestras, and drummers that you can sit down and listen to and learn from. In Brazil, you don’t have as many local musicians where you can relate to it closely. Sao Paulo is the best place in Brazil for learning, seeing somebody play live. Rio is quite poor, still. One of my goals is to have a school for drummers in Brazil. I would like to have more time to learn from other drummers; to look around and listen to drummers and see them play. It seems I don’t have enough time. But my dream is to have a drummers’ school in Brazil, because there is none.