Mr. TAMBA, Interview w/ HELCIO MILITO by Debora Pill for MAISSOMA BR (English version)
ENTREVISTA . Helcio Milito, por Debora Pill
Original interview in Portuguese ^ link
MR TAMBA by Debora Pill (English version)
Hélcio Pascoal Milito is a living legend. Percussionist, drummer and music producer of the highest level, he was also the inventor of the “tamba”, a percussion instrument made of four frying-pans, one “caixa-clara”, three drums and two bamboos.
Self-taught musician, he started his professional career in São Paulo back in 1948, playing percussion in Conjunto Robledo. He was part of the Maestro Peruzzi Orchestra, of Sexteto Mario Casali, of the great Orchestra of Luis César and also of Izio Gross Trio. In 1957, he moved to Rio and started playing in Djalma Ferreiras group. A year later, he went on tour to Venezuela with Ary Barroso’s Orchestra.
Towards the finals of 1950, during the early start of Bossa Nova, he created the Bossa Nova group (Conjunto Bossa Nova), with Roberto Menescal, Luiz Carlos Vinhas, Bebeto Castilho, Luiz Paulo and Bill Horn, with whom he has recorded the compact “Bossa é Bossa”, put out by Odeon in 1959.
In 1960, he played for the first time his own invention, the tamba, during a concert of singer Sammy Davis Jr., in Record Theater, in São Paulo. In 62, he created the legendary group Tamba Trio, together with Luiz Eça and Otavio Bailly, who was soon replaced by Bebeto Castilho. Two years later, he left the band and went to the United States to play with cats like João Gilberto, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Michell-Ruff, Luiz Bonfá, Don Costa, Gil Evans, Tony Bennett, Wes Montgomery and Duke Ellington, just to mention some.
Back to Brazil, besides working as a musician, he also became a music producer in record labels CBS and Tapecar. He has promoted a true creative revolution by building a list of artist which the labels didn’t care much about to promote.
He studied music with American percussionist Henry Miller, with maestro Moacir Santos and also with Ester Scliar. He also took part of the soundtrack of Brazilian films such as “Cinco Vezes Favela” (Episode A Pedreira de São Diogo, directed by Leon Hirszman), “Os Cafajestes”, by Ruy Guerra, and “Garrincha, Alegria do Povo”, by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
Throughout his career, he has played with artists like Nara Leão, Eumir Deodato, Maysa, Carlos Lyra, Clementina de Jesus, Quarteto em Cy, Joyce, João Bosco, Tom e Dito, Sivuca, Dom Romão, Carmen Costa, Milton Nascimento e Nana Caymmi, Leny Andrade, among others.
When did the music invade your life?
Look, I was six years old, it was 1937. My mother had those big wood stoves, a huge one. And I decided to hang a lot of potlids to play. It came out of the blue – I hadn’t seen this anywhere! I don’t have the slightest idea where I took that from. Maybe it is a genetic thing really. The truth is that I hung the pots, hit on them and made hell out of mothers life. (laughs)
And where did inspiration come from?
Ah, from the family. Everybody was an artist there. My grandparents, from my mother’s side, were painters and sculptures. My mother was a fashion designer, from Milan. My father was an iron road engineer of São Paulo Rail Company. All italians that arrived here went to study and I came out of this. My mother already was established in downtown with her own work, her dresses and hats. The great figures of Paulista society hired my mother to make their family hats. Besides that, my mother used to sing opera and sing very in-tune, acapella and she had no idea she was that good.
And what about your father?
My father was not a professional artist, but he ended showing up like an amateur. He was good-looking, “Calabrezian” style. People thought he was more handsome than Clark Gable! He was a real hit. Yes, my old man was a good person. He wrote poems, he didn’t chew gun. Because down there, in the South of Italy, it was a crazy western thing and there I was, in the middle of all that… They tried to influence me, to catechize me in their art. You see how much culture around me! And there I was, hitting my little pots…
When did you leave your pots behind and started playing for real?
In my neighborhood there was a ballroom. I used to go there and carry the drum for the musician, and he was the “official” drummer of the little orchestra of Orlando Ferre. I used to do that because back in the days there was no music school. Today you have university, but not in those days. Brazilian drummers had to go to Buenos Aires to study.
And then you started studying?
A friend of mine, who was a professor at Zimbo Trio’s school. I used to go to his house to practice with a little book of percussion. But it was no good, because we didn’t know the system, I would only start knowing the system with the Russian professor I had, for eight months. A Russian that was American, in fact. He was a true master of percussion of Cleveland Sinfonic. I left knowing how to work even as a regent! This is very important for a musician. When I went to the USA, I understood how this was important, because I went to record with an orchestra and each time I had a different regent. And an insecure regent, makes you feel insecure as well.
Where else have you played in São Paulo?
Ah, I have played a lot with Orlando Ferre, he used to hire a lot of groups around here. I played in Trianon, with a pianist, Ted, who played a lot of American music. I played in Camuzinho, which was a ballroom behind Caetano de Campos School, there at Praça da Republica. But my premiere was in a taxi-danças…
What were the taxi danças?
Ah, you young people don’t know. It was a big hit around here! It was a copy of the USA. They were called “taxi dances” because the girls used to be sitting inside the ballroom in little chairs and when you entered, you were given a card with many numbers. They had to dance with you. They couldn’t say no. This was rude… too much macho attitude. When you ended dancing, she marked how many minutes you danced and gave the official mark, who had a small pliers to make a hole in the card.
Then you sat, drank your beer and when you left there would be a box, you showed your card, he made the calculation and you paid your bill. But many girls went crazy…. They couldn’t give up earning money, but at the same time they had to go with a lot of rascals, they did all bad things… I had a girlfriend there and she used to tell me. “Helcio, I will stop because I can’t take it anymore…” Yes, the first time I played in a taxi-dance was in a taxi-dance that stayed in the square of Ipiranga with São João, called Dancing Maravilhoso. There was also Cuba, which was next to Duque de Caxias, which was marvelous. There was also Olido…
Then I started evolving, even without school, playing in all those places. Then in 1952, I ended up playing with group that was considered the best in those days, Maestro Peruzzi’s. It was a band of only black people. They used that suit with shoulders up to here, you know? (he shows a bigger size than his shoulder). Again copying the American bands, you must have seen the old movies. Not to talk about the trousers, tight down in the feet… There was a police officer in Rio that used to throw a whole orange inside the guys pants, and if it didn’t go through, he was arrested. Yes, if you wore the end of the trousers tight it was a sign that you were a malandro. Well, back in those days, some ten years before, if you played samba, you were a malandro and could be arrested.
Did you suffer prejudice for being white and for playing samba?
My family was racist. “Are you gonna play this instrument of drunk and black people?”I was very young. I couldn’t take that anymore that’s why I have leave home.
When came the first recording?
In 1954 I recorded a “dobrado” celebrating 400 years of São Paulo. Dobrado because the Brazilian music is 2 by 4, its martial. Its military, it came out of a militar mentality.
How did you end up in Rio?
We used to work here in Teatro Praça Julio Mesquita with José Vasconcelos. And I was dating a girl who was a model in his piece. She was very beautiful and sweet. We were super in love, that young thing… And so we went to Bahia with Ze’s piece. We spent a month there. And to be in love in Bahia is a wonderful thing! I miss those days. Well, then we went back to Rio with him. And there, we weren’t able to pay the hotel, so I had to do something. I called my dad, after Dom Romão helped me too. Indeed, he was one of the greatest friends I had. Adorable.
Where did you play in Rio?
There I used to play at Drink‘s, which was a club of Djalma Ferreira. Marlene and I used to live there at Drink’s second floor. I used to go down from inside the house to play! And she used to model with Carlos Machado back in those days, so she went downtown and came back and I remember lots of stories at Drink’s… For example: practically every night, I took Ary Barroso home in Leme. You know why? Because he would get drunk! But I mean really drunk, with a soft mouth. He used to call me: “Hey boy! Do you want to drive me home?”He had a Chevrolet 55, and I used to drive for him without having a license or anything. I used to drive him home and heard a “Thank you kid!” (laughs)
Then you went to radio.
Then I got a job in National Radio. It was good, it paid my rent. I was the sixth drummer of the radio. Because back in those days it was all live – The 14, Marlene, Emilinha, Angela Maria, I played with them all. It was orchestra, and I did it. I was the youngest. One day with Angela Maria I was so full of energy, breaking it all… The orchestra played the opening for the song and I had a little drum break of 2 compasses. Uau, when I saw that part – I was already studying and all – when I saw that, I don’t know why, but I did a thing that she couldn’t understand! It was a disaster! The orchestra felled, she felled…. The maestro wanted to kill me! Suspend me! Boy, I had two, three bombings in the break (laughs) and from all of them she was the best in rhythms. I was inexperienced… I noticed I screwed up bad… after that, much older, we talked about that, laughing like crazy.
When did you decide to create the tamba?
Our generation was very proud to say we were Brazilians. You can’t imagine! All that stuff – new capital, “Cinema Novo”, first World Cup… Juscelino was the president of bossa nova. It wasn’t only Bossa Nova music, everything was Bossa Nova! You understand? All of us thought of creating something! And all were innocently nationalists. So I thought of creating an instrument! I thought: “Why do I have to play an American instrument? Brazilian rhythm has to be played on your foot, with movement!” I used to play sitting, but I felt much better playing on my foot. So I made the instrument, with my own hands, with a friend. I made it very simple. The first time I have played with the tamba was at Sammy Davis concert.
And where did your inspiration to draw the tamba come from?
Russia had just sent Sputnik. So I started philosophize about the thing of the man getting out of himself. As if it was an abortion, or a new birth, you know? Everything was going to change. All that really impressed me and I thought: “I have to do something about this!”. I looked at Sputnik there, with its three antennas, and I decided to turn it upside down, and make them three little legs. Then I drilled the ball with a thread, put the legs on and the tamba was ready!
And Tamba Trio?
Tamba was not bossa nova only. It had this thing… We got a traditional song, created a new arrangement and this song was cheered wherever we played it! At the concerts, I used to put the tamba in the corner of the stage and in the middle of the show, we did some vocals, Bebeto stopped the bass, did the bridge with the flute and came back with an acapella… Then the three of us went next to the tamba, Luiz took the tambourine, Bebeto the agogo and we made a “batucadinha”!
And how was CBS when you started?
The only thing that worked was ieieie with Roberto Carlos. I created some things, for example: I started recording the Black samba-school composers. This was my work – to listen to those guys. If you want to record, you have to listen to the guys! The source is there, it’s them!
They used to stay there at company’s front door. And I used to leave for lunch, come back, and there they were. And where else would they be? They had to be there indeed! So I got some good equipment, a recorder and started to attend them. People didn’t believe it, this was never done before. And I shut everybody’s mouth there! In the end, I put five, six names in the list of the artists that were mostly sold: Wilson Moreira, Zuzuca, José Pegador, Velho da Portela (I ended up becoming a member of the samba school because of him), Candeia… You know, I don’t drink, but I used to go up the favela hill and have some cachaça with him to listen. It is like that, when you want to listen, you have to do it, and don’t stay just talking about it!
And why did I keep Jackson do Pandeiro at CBS? Because this guy is of such great importance… People cannot imagine what he has done for Brazilian music! All swing he was… A simple pandeiro player! He and Almira! It’s a shame that before he died they split…
Another person that made me very proud was Jacob do Bandolim. I took him out of RCA. Both his last albums, he recorded at CBS. This was a great victory for me.
And Capim Gordura?
This was another victory. Laercio de Freitas composition. I gave it to Vinhas so that he became the leader of the story, so that he could earn some money. He was a problem for everybody, but me… I loved him. And this record sold 900 thousand copies…
Another great thing in that album is that on its B side I put “Chovendo na Roseira” of Tom (Jobim). Imagine! On one side, “Capim Gordura”, São Paulo interior, with a vocal full of heavy accent and everything… Another world!!!! (laughs) And it sold a lot! “Imagem Barroca” was also like that. I feel happy to know that still today, 42 years later, this record is still being sold in Japan. It was harpsichord, string quartet, lots of other instruments… And I did the drum myself because it was a very light thing… Bailly in one side and in the other Luiz Eça, two opposite things! Luiz was always complaining… In reality every arranger of value complains that he doesn’t have a chance to make a great work. So I told Luiz to write it down and he did. But I told him, “Don’t come with all that improvisation, otherwise it won’t sell!”. I have always chosen other ways, but that did sell. You have to shut their mouths by doing it, that’s all.
Among so many successes, was there any mistake?
Dom Salvador. He used to wear that black power hair and all. And I did the record cover like that, he with his hand closed on the table, all in black and white, he wearing a kind of Black Panther jacket. But he was no tiger, he was a little cat! I wasted my time. And so did he. And the company lost money.
But that one was not the only record that did not sell but had an unquestionable value. At that time I thought: “I will make a record that will sell less, but that has to be done. Something will happen.” It did not sell and I did not bother because I knew. It was the same with Orquestra Afro-Brasileira, with Pedro (Santos, of the enigmatic record Krishnanda).
Tell me about Pedro.
He was a drummer at Severino Araújo’s Orchestra. I had already heard about him and he told me the ideas he had, some mystical things, but that in the end were not mystical at all and that’s why people used to call him “Crazy Pedro”. You know, this ignorant thing.
What were those ideas?
He was deeply against what religions used to preach. He had other ways to explain his preferences and since I am also like that… You can see that the record it’s all himself, the songs he created himself, the drawing at the record cover, its philosophy, the lyrics… Take a look at what’s in there! And as a percussion player he was the best of them all. If he had gone abroad, he would have become a very rich guy. Just because he created. He took a little children toy and transformed it into an instrument. Not everybody can just that makes this…
Tell me about the Orchestra?
Abigail Moura’s Orchestra was introduced to me by Carlos Negreiros. I saw them rehearsing, I found it so human, so beautiful! But I thought: “this will not sell”. And I cannot change it, it’s their repertory! Then I went home and kept thinking: “I cannot leave these guys without a record! It won’t sell, but something will happen”. And so it did, 40 years later! And I ended up recording, exaclty the way they played, in their style, with the vibrato, all that stuff that the jazz musician does not like. Fuck, I am tired of that stuff, jazz musician has the final word now?
There is another type of music that is cool. For example, there are days when I listen to Miles Davis because I think its out of time. Suddenly I listen to classical music, another day I watch TV and see a country duo with very human lyrics. The same way I love electronic sometimes. Music is the moment, art is the moment.
And, talking about moment, what is the secret of all this energy at the age of 79?
Look, I never did bullshit. I did not do any drugs nor drink. I knew that, if I started, I would not stop. So I started practicing yoga. A friend of mine that used to play violin took me to a yoga school. He noticed that I was also looking for something different. Because New York is very tough and if you are not feeling good with yourself you are in trouble. And when that 30 degree negative hit you? But there I was… I was in love with that thing!
After that, when I was already back here in Brazil, I learned a relaxation that I still do nowadays if I am stressed… We live a moment of a lot of transformation in this world and since I don’t follow any religion, I do exercises, the Schultz technique, in which you control your own body… This thing is fantastic. I used to work in tours in the US, that craziness… And I don’t take anything, so I sit, do this exercise and it’s all gone.
And what are your plans for the future?
Look, I plan to produce the tamba. And there is also the method that will come out! Besides all this you see here in the tamba, there are two bamboos that Pedro (Santos) gave me back in the 67. Now I have added the tubes that an Italian family made for me in New York and that are beautiful. The sound is celestial… Because you have a lot of noise makers around! Percussion has its romance, the need of dialogue, that’s why I like to record things, because it’s a dialogue. A drawing here, another there. Then they play. They speak! One speak to the other.