Brazil’s Musical Jedi

Carlos Malta's Paru albumThere are few flautists who come close to matching Carlos Malta’s brilliance, his coloristic range, or his drive, and fewer still who so satisfyingly combine all those qualities. Malta, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger, was part of Hermeto Pascoal’s O Grupo for twelve years, which afforded great on-the-job experience to formulate ideas that have paid enormous dividends within Malta’s own groups.

Incorporating influences from classical, folk, jazz, and indigenous music, Malta has evolved a highly personal eclecticism. Casually glancing at his discography leaves little doubt of his importance to contemporary Brazilian music.

There is similarly little doubt that some of his most impressive work lies outside the popular music arena. That Carlos Malta has a highly developed feeling for the sound world of the Brazilian Northeast is driven home on Paru, his recorded homage to the scholar, chief, and defender of the Amazon’s Yawalapiti people.

Malta’s Pife Muderno project, very much a part of the Northeastern bandas de pífano ethos and unlike any other form of Brazilian music, is ruled by its instrumentation and repertory. Consisting of flutes and drums, bandas de pífano are widely spread throughout the Brazilian Northeast: Pernambuco, Alagoas, Ceará and the interior of Bahia state.

Ensembles are usually composed of two flutes (pifes), a bass drum (zabumba), a snare drum (caixa or tarol), and a pair of cymbals (pratos). Characteristic of the repertoire are compositions of a descriptive character written by group members or borrowed from other repertories then adapted to a particular group’s instrumentation. Included are most genres of popular regional repertoire and all genres popular in Northeastern Brazil.

Making a fresh and venturesome use of this configuration, Malta draws from a pool of his extremely versatile peers to create an ensemble that mirrors the heart and soul, the sound and aesthetic, of bandas de pífano.

It should be said, however, that while the basic conception remains the same, there are stylistic differences. Without ever resorting to such fashionably outré devices as sampling or techno, there is a creative and engaging use of the recording studio’s capacity for double-tracking and going back over a work to create multiple layers of harmonic conversation between the two imaginative soloists.

Malta and Andréa Ernest Dias, both phenomenal, full-on, in-your-face flute players with distinctive voices, are fully capable of going within the space of a few bars from a ceaseless torrent of ideas to almost tender, rhapsodic melodicism. They work at making small definitive statements and know when to stop, an art not all musicians manage to master in their careers.

Pife Muderno’s new CD is given a great deal of variety through the sheer number of flutes, fifes, and whistles they play – Brazilian, Chinese, East Indian, European – but there is more to the versatility of their music than that.

If there were a school for extended flute techniques, this disc would be its whole curriculum: flutter tonguing, harmonics, multiphonics, whisper tones, percussive tonguing, key slaps, pitch bending, singing and playing simultaneously, extensive probing of overtones and micro-tonal ornaments, not to mention the timbral possibilities offered by different combinations of flutes.

A strange ineluctable mood is set with the title track, “Paru,” a mysterial march alternately subtle and dramatic with sundry moments of sheer virtuosity that sounds as if it is set in a luminescent dream time.

Dias and Malta have both the imagination and the empathy to investigate unusual angles in mutually enhancing ways, especially on tunes Jackson do Pandeiro transformed into classics, like the samba “Chiclete com Banana” (Chewing Gum and Bananas) and the xaxado with which he started his recording career, “Sebastiana.”

Beginning in a 2/4 meter and ending in 7/4, it is an especially evocative performance played here on C flutes, bass flutes, and Chinese di-zi. Both flautists exhibit fiery, brazen playing and are musically very much in touch on Hermeto Pascoal’s maracatu “Santa Antonio,” while their interplay on Malta’s tribute to Maestro Moacir Santos, “Coisa dos Santos,” an odd meter xaxado, is extraordinary.

One of the most striking musical factors consistently on display here is the spirited rhythm and tumultuous fireworks of percussionists Marcos Suzano and Bernardo Aguiar (pandeiro), Oscar Bolão (caixa and pratos), and Durval Pereira (zabumba).

Aside from creating infectious grooves and supplying the soloists with a remarkably rich tapestry of sound to glide over or dig into as the whim (or the arrangement) takes them, these percussionists, packing a significant level of intensity into their stinging attacks and aggressive approach, register levels of individual passion that border on the ecstatic. It is a tribute to Malta as a woodwind virtuoso and group organizer that his vitality translates itself to his sidemen when they are of this caliber.

Durval Pereira’s vigorous zabumba, at the heart of Pife Muderno’s well-integrated rhythm section, guarantees the right foundation for “Viva Seu João do Pife” (Long Live Mr. João the Flute).(1)

This arrasta pé is Malta’s homage to João Alfredo Marcos dos Santos (João do Pife), a musician from Caruaru who has pursued his trade against odds greatly stacked against the continuation of an arousing folkloristic style of music, the banda de pífano. There is a near-telepathic blend on Malta’s “Tudo Azul” (Everything’s Fine), a slow and bluesy baião that has Durval Pereira double-timing on zabumba and Malta, never afraid of taking the listener on extended musical flights, soloing with plenty of fire on fife.

That irresistible momentum is matched by the metric sophistication of the percussionists on Malta’s choro in 3/4, “Procura-se o Oficleide” (Oficleides Wanted).(2) Establishing a bizarre kind of harmony, Malta brings out his soprano sax for this track and interchanges snippets of the theme with Dias on piccolo. Playing at around 1,000 mph, like birds fighting in midair, they keep everyone on their toes, musicians and listeners alike.

Prominent among the tracks are four tunes, in homage to Gilberto Gil, from Andrucha Waddington’s film Eu, Tu, Eles (Me, You, Them): “Baião da Penha,” “Qui nem Giló'” (Just Like Giló (very bitter kind of eggplant)), another baião driven by Oscar Bolão’s caixa, the marcha lamento “As Pegadas do Amor” (Footprints of Love), and the xote “Esperando na Janela” (Waiting by the Window), whose melody line floats, dips, and pivots like a bird in flight.

This attractively varied program ranges from choro to xaxado with a freshness that derives in large part from the superb musicians with which Malta has surrounded himself. Even so, Malta’s playing is at its best – bravura, florid, headlong, and unfailingly inventive. Few flautists of any persuasion can boast his virtuosity, and when he takes center stage, the disc locks into high gear and genuinely earns its top grading.

It is the mark of an artist that he takes what he needs, from whatever source, and turns it into something much deeper and more meaningful than it was before. With simple instruments that have become cultural symbols of local identity, Pife Muderno represents both a link with the past and a continuing living and changing form of music making that satisfies present-day needs and tastes. I talked with Carlos Malta, about Pife Muderno’s coherent musical statement.

Brazzil – Carlos, this is the first Pife Muderno CD in five years. Was there any difficulty in finding a label or studio time?

Malta – It was not that kind of an issue. Pife Muderno had been in more of a performance mode, putting together material and playing.

Brazzil – Was the recording process any different this time?

Malta – Our approach was different. On the first album we recorded everything in one session, more like a “live” recording in the studio, straight up, like a show. The last piece, “Barrigada,” took a little more time because we had to put it together with the members of Pedro Luís e a Parede in the studio. This time we took seven sessions and recorded more conscientiously, stopping and listening. We had been playing this material for a long time so there was a great sense of togetherness throughout these sessions. And because we had more time, we were able to develop some pieces in the studio like “Procura-se o Oficleide” and “Coisa dos Santos.”

Brazzil – Last time we spoke you were telling me about a gathering in Brasilia to which an Indian tribe brought sacred flutes they used to mediate between the human and the spirit worlds, and also about Aritana, an important Indian chief. How does this connect with Paru?

Malta – Paru is Aritana’s father. He was the leader of a new generation of Yawalapiti people and also the soloist at that meeting. His flute playing and making amazed me. The music one is capable of drawing from those instruments is astonishing. That meeting is etched in my mind, and when the opportunity came up to record a new Pife Muderno album, I wanted to communicate the influence we receive from masters like Paru. They are life’s shadow, shadows cast over our heads, you know? This CD is an homage for my masters. The first piece, “Paru,” serves as an entranceway, a big door into the listener’s mind.

Brazzil – More than a door, that tune could be an entire course in contemporary flute techniques.

Malta – That’s interesting because the main flute I’m playing, the jaqúi-mirim, has only four tone holes, and the other is just a whistle, no tone holes whatsoever. To modulate the sound, you have to adjust the pressure with your embouchure and air stream. More than ever, my playing is answering to a subliminal call, to something inside, and it’s striking to hear how my thoughts translate on primitive instruments.

Brazzil – Speaking of primitive instruments, wasn’t the oficleide used by the Corpo de Bombeiros?

Malta – Yes, Anacleto de Medeiros used it in his Banda do Corpo de Bombeiros. When choro was just beginning, the oficleide was a guaranteed presence. Everywhere there was choro, there was someone playing the bass line on an oficleide, or euphonium, or bombardinho. And suddenly, this instrument disappeared because the time of the 7-string guitar had arrived, and that completely changed the path choro was traveling. If you research choro, you’ll see that the music made with the oficleide was completely different from what we call choro today. You had one instrument, a harmony instrument, constructing a railway for the flute and the other string instruments to travel over. The oficleide made a big difference, as did its disappearance.

Brazzil – Is “Procura-se o Oficleide” an homage to one particular master?

Malta – Yes, an homage, but to more than just one. Beyond Pixinguinha, it is for one of Pixinguinha’s masters, an oficleide virtuoso named Irineu Batina. But also, I wrote this choro in 3/4 as a message to the people who only play choro with three parts in 2/4. I wanted a feeling, a subdivision, an accent that swims completely against the current. Not a waltz, but a choro. I wrote the melody and the bass line at the same time. When I was finished, I thought about how, by altering the way choro was typically played, its course has been completely changed. It’s like the chaos theory, which says that a butterfly’s wings flapping in Brazil can set off a Tornado in Texas.

Brazzil – You mentioned developing “Coisa dos Santos” (A Thing of the Saints) in the studio. I’m wondering why there is such a mysterious feeling to this tune and why only part of it sounds Northeastern?

Malta – As you know, “Coisa dos Santos” is an homage for Moacir Santos, the great Moacir Santos, a beautiful man, an outstanding musician, and a truly great composer.

Brazzil – Titled for the many “Coisas” he wrote?

Malta: Yes, coisas, many coisas, “Coisa No.10,” “Coisa No.7.” When we were in the studio, I had just finished an arrangement of “Coisa No.6” for a group here in Rio, and that arrangement was in the back of my mind, you know? I was setting up a 7/4 groove and suddenly a melody (sings) came to me, all at once, as if from a saint or the saints. And thank God we were recording. So, the title is a play on words, like Moacir or the saints gave me this coisa. Its feel is Northeastern until we change flute harmonies, then the fife band goes to Cuba.

Brazzil – How would you describe the alto flute harmonies on “Gatas Extraordinárias” (Fantastic Girls)? They sound much more elaborate than, say, parallel thirds.

Malta – People sometimes think, “Ah, there are only two melody instruments; playing harmony must be very easy.” Not the case! The fewer number of instruments, the more complicated it is. Sometimes we do use parallel thirds, sometimes we use perfect fourths then thirds, but most of the time, the second flute is playing a rhythmically and melodically different idea, a kind of counterpoint or bass line that outlines the harmony. It depends on the music. João do Pife’s band, and for that matter, every banda de pífano I know, uses complementary melodies.

Brazzil – Luiz Brasil wrote an arrangement of “Gatas Extraordinárias” for Cássia Eller, and I’m wondering if that was a factor in having him arrange it for Paru?

Malta – Yes, Luiz is a very good friend of mine, and because he had written the original arrangement for Cássia, I invited him to write ours.(3) I hadn’t told anybody we were going to record this tune, and it took Andréa, completely by surprise. We were in the studio recording the bass track, the percussion, when she came in saying, “Ah, this is unbelievable. I was just singing that tune on my way here.” She had recorded it with Cássia who was a great fan of ours, and I am a great fan of hers. “Gatas Extraordinárias” is for her.

Brazzil – What about Pife Muderno’s percussion, are they tuned?

Malta – We do tune the zabumba and pandeiro. For example, on “Procura-se o Oficleide” the relationship between the two is an interval of a perfect fourth. Sometimes the pandeiro is tuned to a C, F, or G, and the zabumba is tuned a fourth above that. This creates a more comfortable sound in the ears, the kind we need when we’re playing with a piano or guitar.

Brazzil – You once told me that Suzano’s pandeiro plays the bass line and Durval’s zabumba, the piano part. Wouldn’t you say that’s a little unorthodox for a banda de pífano?

Malta – Yes, that’s true. Our percussion functions a little bit differently because a banda de pífano has no pandeiro. On “Viva Seu João do Pife” you can hear how Bolão,” using a second zabumba, a contrazabumba, answers Durval’s primary zabumba and establishes a distinctive kind of harmony. And the two bass flutes, playing a haunting melody over that arrasta pé groove, give off a completely different sound from the opening’s very staccato fife melody. It sounds like a party of little pixies in the bamboo trees.

Brazzil – You and Andréa are both such exceptional flautists; I’m wondering how you divide the roles of first and second flute?

Malta – We alternate the lead many times. It’s remarkable how two people can exchange harmonic and melodic functions. Sometimes you can’t tell who is playing the main voice and who is playing second. Andréa plays the upper voice on “Viva Seu João do Pife,” but the main melody is the lower voice. And when we use three flutes, there is a complementary line, like on “Sebastiana.” If the leading melody voice, the di-zi voice, were taken out, we would hear a melody already there. The harmony is a separate melody.

Brazzil – Is Jackson do Pandeiro one of your masters?

Malta – For sure! Jackson was the guy who started rap music. We can easily compare the importance and influence of rap music today to that of coco in Jackson’s time. Two pandeiros played coco’s rhythm, and over that, two guys sang very clever lyrics, improvising, challenging each other, singing nonsense and joking, or talking about politics, and sometimes about “that guy over there.” The lyrics went by very quickly. Everybody knows Jackson do Pandeiro. He was the master of coco and one of Brazil’s percussion gods. Pife Muderno did an entire concert in homage to him with Lenine, who knows and sings the repertoire very well. In fact, Lenine’s “Jack Soul Brasileiro” celebrates Jackson’s influence.

Brazzil – What inspired you to change meters at the end of the tune?

Malta – It’s funny you should mention that. There is a very interesting change of mood inspired by the lyrics, which talk about a girl, Sebastiana, who becomes very drunk and starts to jump and shout “a, e, i, o, u, picilone.”(4) And then the lyrics say that she grew tired and started to dance out of rhythm in the middle of a party.

To me there is nothing that translates out of rhythm more than a few phrases of 7/4. And with that harmony in the bass flute, it gets really dizzy. During our concerts, we sing the lyrics in 7/4, and the audience always joins us, in 7/4! It’s very funny how people can be musical without knowing any theory.

Brazzil – Seven is a very cool meter. I love Airto’s “Misturada” (Mixing) on the Quarteto Novo LP.

Malta – Airto is a master of seven.

Brazzil – Carlos, we haven’t talked about your use of multi-tracking. Can you comment on this?

Malta – Yes, we use the standard set up for Pife Muderno on some of the tunes, but on others, I wanted a more complete harmonic field to emphasize different melodies and instrumental color. On “Baião da Penha” we use two flutes for the harmony and the fife, the pife, for the melody, and on “Sebastiana,” the di-zi has the melody. It’s a very nice sound for playing forró, like a bowed instrument, like a violin coming in. Andréa and I don’t need additional voices in concert; we used some for the CD, as it was more in the spirit of the arrangements.

Brazzil – The arrangements certainly stay with you, especially those from Eu, Tu, Eles. What motivated you to write and record them?

Malta – I recorded a few tunes from Gilberto Gil’s album Eu, Tu, Eles, first of all, because of my respect and admiration for Gilberto Gil. I was only twelve years old when I heard his album Expresso 2222, and I got completely crazy! It opens with the Banda de Pífanos de Caruaru. You know, there is something very genuine, very original about that music. As a teenager, it was one of my strongest impressions.

And that sound, that message, has stayed with me, which is prophetic because years later I recorded Eu, Tu, Eles with Gilberto Gil. Apart from that, I arranged tunes like the very sensitive and very deep “As Pegadas do Amor” for the show Pife Muderno performed of the music from Eu, Tu, Eles. These are arrangements that bring out the instrumental character of each tune. But we also recorded these pieces because today it’s really difficult to find a specialized audience. When you perform a show, you have people who like all kinds of music.

I believe we have a responsibility to relay the same truths, the same message, in different ways to children, to teenagers, to people who like rock ‘n’ roll, to people who like rap. The goal of Pife Muderno is to keep our feeling, our energy, and our purity as it is on stage, and say the same thing in different ways so everyone can understand. We are a group that speaks freely to people with many different tastes.

Brazzil – You mentioned forró with a bowed instrument. Could you comment on the cello in your arrangement for “Esperando na Janela”?

Malta – “Esperando na Janela” is a very famous tune, a very soft tune. I wanted a sound that would remind people of a completely different era, not with an exclusively Northeastern harmony, but a harmony that had absorbed elements from Bach and Mozart, from the Baroque and Classical periods. The cello gives this xote (schottische) the rococo-like atmosphere of an earlier time. Mixing the cello, fife, and flute was a joy. These three sounds create a crescendo of color; it’s beautiful. The masters were steering me toward a good translation.

Brazzil – Who was steering when you wrote “Tudo Azul”?

Malta – I was walking on the beach wearing these blue sun glasses. It was a beautiful day. Everything was blue, in hues of blues, and I just started singing. “That’s funny,” I said to myself because I was singing a blues with a baião feel. When I got home, I picked up the fife to take out the melody and found myself putting together those two very similar styles, the baião and the blues. They have almost the same feeling, the same mood, the same spirit, and they use the same scales and harmonic vocabulary. The root of those styles is very fat.

Brazzil – Tudo azul is an idiomatic expression equivalent to tudo bem, meaning “everything’s just fine.” Is that what your title refers to?

MaltaTudo azul can mean “Everything is okay.” It is a very common saying. And tudo azul can be, like the wish to protect the planet, to keep it all blue, or for that matter, it could be like Miles’ “All Blues.” It’s another play on words.

Brazzil – Are there any plans to release a Pife Muderno DVD?

Malta – We are putting together different scenes from the Eu, Tu, Eles shows, and I just received the DVD of a performance we did in 2004 with the Banda Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo and two invited guests: João do Pife and his second flute, his brother. It’s a piece I wrote for symphonic band with Pife Muderno as soloists called Tupizinho Sinfônico, a beautiful work with a big, big sound that brings together two very strong sources of music, the elite, conservatory-trained erudite musicians with the homespun roots musicians. Watching the players’ faces and the people watching us play, you sense a tremendous feeling of union through this music. We’ve been compiling material, and very soon there will be an exquisite DVD of instrumental music.

Brazzil – Has Pife Muderno been receiving a strong response?

Malta – This is a new music market, harsh and money-driven. In times past, we’d go to a shop, buy an LP, take off the cellophane, put the record on the changer, and dance. It was a ritual. Today you can download music; you can have it ring your phone. Still, we have had some very good responses. The people from Nokia want to use “Chiclete com Banana” as a phone ring. And last year when we were performing here in Rio, Egberto Gismonti came back to the dressing room before the concert to say hello. You know, sometimes you hear murmurs of, “Oh, Egberto’s here!” “Egberto’s here!” But we were all very relaxed.

After the concert, he came back again to thank us, and he was completely shining, like a child. You know, those eyes. I said, “Whoa, this must be some other guy!” I’m hoping he will license Paru to distribute though his Carmo label or though ECM. That ECM family is a bench mark in instrumental music, like a gallery of crazy musicians, the good crazy ones.

Brazzil – How does it feel to be such a big name on an independent label?

Malta – The recording process and industry here in Brazil has been heading in an independent direction for some time.

Brazzil – Labels like Biscoito Fino and Trama?

Malta – I don’t think of Biscoito Fino and Trama as independents. They’re not multinationals, but they are very strong. They receive money, not only from their music sales, the CDs, but also from large corporations. This isn’t a negative point, but as an independent artist whose entire discography has never been distributed by the multinational entertainment industry, I need independent distribution to better control my projects’ quality and to assure their accessibility.

If your recordings can’t be found, you remain in obscurity. I have faith in people who purchase CDs immediately after a show, people who aren’t buying because of someone’s recommendation. I believe in this kind of relationship, but it’s not very easy. There are so many CDs, so many DVDs on the market, and so much available online that when a person actually goes to a shop to buy one of your CDs, Oh man, that’s a victory.

I would love to have better tour support, wider distribution, and greater radio exposure, but instrumental music and musicians, historically, haven’t had much space here in Brazil. There are still many difficult issues to figure out, little battles to win. It’s not very easy to be independent, but that’s the way things are, and we have to hold true to our beliefs.

Brazzil – That reminds me of a tiny message printed horizontally inside the liner notes. You alluded to it when we were talking about “Tudo Azul.”

MaltaProteja o Planeta! This is the message of Paru. It’s a subtle reminder cloistered in the art work. It doesn’t have to be very big. Come on people let’s wake up! One of these days we’ll . . . If there were an angel listening to us right now, my wish would be to protect the planet.


(1) In Brazil notable musicians often identify themselves with their instrument to such a degree that they assume it as part of their name with the result that a musician’s given name may be known only to close friends and family.

(2) The ophicleide, an obsolete brass instrument common at early choro jam sessions, had keys similar to a saxophone’s and was designed to play in the bass register, but was replaced by the tuba in the nineteenth century. The name ophicleide means “keyed serpent.”

(3) Luiz Brasil wrote the arrangement of “Gatas Extraordinárias” for Cássia Eller’s CD Com Você . . . Meu Mundo Ficaria Completo (With You . . . My World Would be Complete).

(4) Picilone is a funny way of pronouncing ípsilon the name of the letter y.

Selected Discography:

Artist – Title – Label – Date

Carlos Malta & Pife Muderno – Paru – Delira – 2006

Various – Os Bambas da Flauta – Kuarup – 2003

Various – Luiz Eça  Reencontro – Biscoito Fino – 2002

Various – Café Brasil – Teldec – 2001

Gilberto Gil – Eu Tu Eles – Warner – 2000 (soundtrack)

Carlos Malta – Pimenta – 500 Anos De Som – 2000

Carlos Malta – Pixinguinha Alma e Corpo – 500 Anos De Som – 2000

Carlos Malta & Pife Muderno – Carlos Malta e Pife Muderno – Rob Digital – 1999

Ithamara Koorax- Serenade in Blue – Jazz Records Station – 1999

Joyce – Hard Bossa – Far Out Records – 1999

Lenine – Na Pressão – BMG – 1999

Guinga – Suite Leopoldina – Velas – 1999

Carlos Malta – Jeitinho Brasileiro – Malandro – 1998
(O Escultor do Vento in Brazil)

Os Paralamas do Sucesso – Hey Na Na – EMI – 1998

Rosa Passos – Canta Antonio Carlos Jobim – Lumiar – 1998

Gal Costa – Aquele Frevo Axé – RCA/BMG – 1998

Aldir Blanc – 50 Anos – Alma Produções – 1997

Lenine – O Dia em Que Faremos Contato – BMG – 1997

Ivan Lins – Vivanoel-Tributo a Noel Rosa – Velas – 1997

Caetano Veloso – Livro – Polygram – 1997

Leila Pinheiro – Catavento e Girassol – EMI Odeon – 1996

Guinga – Cheio de Dedos – Velas – 1996

Caetano Veloso – Tieta do Agreste – Natasha – 1996

Marcos Suzano – Sambatown – MP.B – 1996

Ithamara Koorax – Red River – Movieplay – 1995

Edu Lobo – Meia-Noite – Velas – 1995

Malta & Pezzotti – Rainbow – Independent – 1993

Lenine & Suzano – Olho de Peixe – Velas – 1993

Sérgio Mendes – Brasileiro – Elektra – 1992

Hermeto Pascoal – Festa dos Deuses – Polygram – 1992

Hermeto Pascoal – Mundo Verde Esperança – Som da Gente – 1988
(never released)

Hermeto Pascoal – Só Não Toca Quem Não Quer – SDG – 1987

Hermeto Pascoal – Brasil Universo – Som da Gente – 1986

Hermeto Pascoal – Lagoa da Canoa – Som da Gente – 1984

Hermeto Pascoal – Hermeto Pascoal & Grupo Som da Gente – 1982

Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an international monthly publication based in Los Angeles, for close to a decade. During that time he has written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal.


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