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Rhythm of the Ass 

Brazilian percussionists Beat the Donkey don't

Beat the Donkey If you've come to see somebody's ass get whooped, you're in the wrong line. Beat The Donkey is no ultimate fighting contest, nor a perverse South of the Border, animal-abusing spectacle. What you get with the oddly named band is Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista and his 10-piece ensemble in a presentation that's part performance art, part circus and all rhythm. On his latest release, Beat, a clip from an '02 Emmy award-wining WGBH documentary provides a glimpse of the live show. A cadre of drummers surround two half-naked percussion warriors mock-skirmishing around a large free-standing drum, slashing and kicking at each other when not getting in their licks on the drum. Baptista follows that by demonstrating the boogaloo washboard, ratcheting out a samba beat on the rhythm instrument usually seen in Zydeco bands. In another clip, a woman dressed in a revealing gladiator outfit slides on stage on her knees, ripping heavy metal guitar licks while surrounded by a trio of half-naked global village people pounding on tom-toms and shouting. Baptista can be seen in the background in most of the shots, pounding, rattling or scraping on some found object that makes a joyful noise.

Some have compared his act to that of the Blue Man Group, blue-tinted performance artists who bang on various homemade percussion instruments. "They can be my kids," laughs Baptista. The percussionist remembers his "kids" from when he lived on New York's lower east side, and they were just starting to do workshops and showed interest in the collapsible stands he built while traveling with Paul Simon. "I think when I came to America in '80, they saw, and then they started to do, but they did it in a way that they make a lot of money."

Baptista's presentation may be avant-garde, but it's no novelty act. Baptista is a well-respected jazz musician who toured and recorded with Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis, as well as more mainstream artists including Dr John, Sting and Trey Anastasio.

Playing with some of those people has sent the wrong idea to those who would follow in his footsteps. When he played with virtuosos like Yo-Yo Ma or Hancock, he needed to be a virtuoso as well. "I see the people go see the concerts and say, 'Man, I'm never going to be as good as these guys. They're like gods.'"

But when he started Beat the Donkey, pounding on objects like his refrigerator (a practice he has since abandoned because the refrigerators are all plastic and have no sound), plastic pots and seed pods, people would come up after the show and say, "'Oh, man, this is easy — I can do that,'" Baptista said. "And I used to get really pissed. Shit man, I practiced so much to be able to do that."

Then he made the connection, realizing that people thinking they could emulate him could be a positive thing. "Then I change. I say, 'man, this is great,' it should stimulate that, that people can participate, can be like us."

To that end, Baptista encourages aspiring percussionists to build their own instruments. "Where I buy most of my instruments is Home Depot," he laughs. His theory of percussive composition is to play the things that surround you, your environment. The percussionist adapted from playing the sounds of birds, the wind, water, rain and the river in his native Brazil to recreating the urban New York environment he now calls home. "Here you have the sound of the subways, the rhythm of the life in the streets."

Emulating street life has been the concept of the BTD since the beginning. His troupe of dancers is an integral part of the group, based on Brazil's Carnival. "Each group in the Carnival could have 4,000 people," he says. "Two thousand playing, 2,000 dancing." Though much smaller, Baptista's bunch represents the uninhibited Carnival spirit with plenty of fancy footwork, from tap dancing to break dancing to martial arts.

Although Baptista's work is accepted worldwide, there's still a problem with that name. "I know in America, it sounds strange," he says in the album's video intro. "In Brazil, shaking the fingers until they pop is called 'beating the donkey.' It means 'let's go, let's do it.'"

The percussionist says he gets e-mails from people saying they used to like him but will not go to concerts or buy his records now "'because you beat the donkey. It's really a very nice animal that's been good to humankind.'"

"I regret it sometimes so much, but it's too late to change it," says Baptista. "It's absurd — it's just a Brazilian expression."

Cyro Baptista's Beat The Donkey opens for Particle at the Visulite Theater Wednesday, March 9, at 9 pm; tickets are $15,

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