Flora & Airto: The Free Flights of Two Rhythm Devils

SAN RAFAEL — “I can’t find my shoes.” Airto says as he circles the percussion—filled stage at Marin Veterans Auditorium in his stocking feet. A final rehearsal for a Rhythm Devils concert has wound to a halt, and Airto has a tough task ahead—finding misplaced shoes on a stage packed with birembaus, dunduns, gombes, angklungs, and other assorted percussion pieces.

The Rhythm Devils first performed on the soundtrack to the movie Apocalypse Now. These two nights in San Rafael are the first public performances for the group, which features Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzman, Dead bassist Phil Lesh, Dr. Michael Hinton, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. The music of the Rhythm Devils is largely unstructured, spontaneous, and often quite delicate. When I walked into the rehearsal, Airto was crumbling music paper into a microphone and Flora was shaking a pine branch.

Flora and Airto have been known for creating unusual sounds ever since arriving in this country in 1968. Prior to that, they were both known performers in Brazil. Airto (who explains the pronunciation of his name as “Eye-Ear-Toe”), grew up in a small village in southern Brazil, where he had his own radio show as a child. A self-taught singer and percussionist, Airto moved to Sao Paulo at the age of 16. He played nightclubs and cabarets all over Brazil for several years, then joined a band called Quarteto Novo. It was in Sao Paulo that he met his future wife and colleague, Flora Purim.

Flora began studying music when she was 8. living in Rio de Janeiro. Her parents were classical musicians, who also kept a collection of jazz records around the house. After studying piano and guitar, Flora began singing at the age of 17. She worked with several bands in Brazil, including occasional appearances with Quarteto Novo, who were known for rearranging Brazilian “standards” for electric guitar, bass, piano, and drums. According to Airto, the band was doing so well that he didn’t want to leave Brazil, but he was convinced by Flora.

“It seems incredible,” Flora recalls, “but I didn‘t want to sing Brazilian music. I wanted to sing jazz. And in Brazil jazz was not popular. So I came here. I ended up playing with the best guys, and became accepted as a jazz singer. When I was here, that‘s when they started to tell me that I missed a lot by not looking at Brazilian music as a source. So I started to borrow more from my roots and background, and I created a new style.”

That “new style” was first heard by many on Airto’s 1969 album, Seeds On The Ground. Hermeto Pascoal, a colleague of Airto in Quarteto Novo, aided on the album, and Flora credits him with opening up her vocal style: “He told me to use my voice to make sounds, and also think of nature sounds to inspire me if I was inhibited, which I was.

“But now it’s been ten years and I’m freer,” she continues. “Basically, instead of becoming a pop singer I became a more unique kind of singer because of him. He told me not to sing lyrics. because everybody could do it—just attempt to use my voice for different purposes.”

Airto arrived in the US. a month after Flora in 1968, and the two began studying music in Los Angeles with Brazilian composer/saxman/teacher Moacir Santos. Flora continued her music studies at Cal State Long Beach, and studied Stanislavski acting method, as well. The stage experience helped Flora feel secure singing.

“Jazz music is very inhibiting. it‘s introverted,” she says. “And I wanted to break those barriers, and still be as free. People get more turned on when they have motion. Music is motion, even when it’s free.”

After studying with Santos for a short time, Airto moved to New York, and soon was playing with established jazz players like Cedar Walton, Lee Morgan. Cannonball Adderly (where he met George Duke), and J.J. Johnson. After a tour with the Paul Winter Consort, and recording dates with Paul Desmond and Hubert Laws, Airto was picked to join Miles Davis’ band. The band at that time was Wayne Shorter, David Holland. JackDeJohnette, Chick Corea, and Miles. “Actually it was a very important thing in my life, not just in my career,” Airto says. He speaks of Miles as a master, who taught him good things and bad things.

From that band, Airto and Flora became part of a group Chick Corea was forming called Return To Forever. This was the first band that the couple had officially been in together, and it saw Airto back behind the drum set and Flora singing and playing percussion. The response to Flora’s adventurous vocals, augmented by electronic echo and harmonizing effects, and to Airto’s percussion barrage, was mixed.

“People used to be skeptical about what we were doing,” Flora says. “They didn’t know whether we were kidding or we were serious, and why we were doing all these noises. We did it for so long, and with so much attention, that they realized that we were trying to communicate something that’s beyond words and lyrics.”

Airto signed with Buddha Records in 1969, and also has recorded albums for Arista, Warner Bros. and CTI Records. His Fingers album on CTI sold nearly 100,000 copies, but other releases averaged around 60,000 copies sold each. Those figured are termed “pretty good for jazz,” but not good enough by present corporate standards. From Airto’s point of view, he always had a relatively free artistic reign over his solo albums.

“You have to make sure that you have at least some kind of freedom, the things that you need most in order to be inspired,” he says. “You have feelings, and feelings are what counts, not words, or plans, or anything. You can make plans and they change tomorrow. So at least you play some nice music, and you put them down, and then you’re happy at least.”

After releasing Touching You, Touching Me, a viable and seemingly sellable album in 1979, Airto was dropped from the Warner Bros. stable. Airto’s studio career over the years has included sessions with the likes of George Benson, John McLaughlin, Weather Report, Santana, Wayne Shorter, and Paul Simon.

Flora’s solo recording career bagan with her signing to Fantasy’s Milestone label in the early ’70s, but it was interrupted when she was arrested in 1971 on a charge of possessing cocaine. She appealed the charge until August of 1974, then served 18 months of a three-year sentence at Terminal Island in Los Angeles. Flora may have been momentarily discouraged, but her career has kept moving. Between Milestone and later Warner Bros. Records, she has released ten solo albums, and has also appeared on records by George Duke, Santana, Duke Pearson, and Crusader pianist Joe Sample. Flora appears on all of Airto’s solo albums, and vice versa. And like Airto, Flora’s record contract with Warner Bros. was not renewed last year.

In the face of the record industry slump, Flora and Airto decided to put a band together, continue touring, and produce their own album. Their group has been together for over a year now, and includes bassist Keith Jones, guitarist Larry Nass, Kei Akagi on keyboards, Jeff Elliot on flugelhorn, trumpet, and synthesizer, and Tony Moreno on drums and percussions. Airto is very happy about their half-finished album, and points out that he has distributors in Europe and Japan anxious for its completion.

Flora explains that the new band represents a radical change for her and Airto. “We’re searching for new sounds,” she comments. “We’re writing simple songs but with new instrumentation. We’re attempting more flights into the freer space, yet trying to keep a pulsation that will help other people to be there, no matter how free you go.” I asked Flora if their aim was to be commercial, but remain free. She replied, “No, we’re trying to make ‘free’ more commercial.”

The music on stage at Marin Veterans’ Auditorium was far from “commercial,” as the Rhythm Devils ran through a dress rehearsal. Mickey Hart was perched on a gombe, Billy Kreutzman squeezed a talking drum. Michael Hinton scratched and rattled sounds out of a tambourine, Flora sang high arching notes multiplied by an Echoplex, and Airto tapped the string of his birembau, trance-like. Airto has done much to elevate the status of percussion in this country, to where it is now an accepted category all its own. And Flora has helped open the door for vocalists who want to do more with their instrument than fashion lyrics. The uninhibited styles of Flora and Airto continue to win them fans. The uncompromising and exciting music they offer continues to make listeners a little more “free.”

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