Ivan “Mamão” Conti has released Poison Fruit, his first solo album in 20 years. The creativity of the seventy-year-old — who has been experimenting with Brazilian music for half a century — has not aged a bit.
His beautiful house is located on the beach of Saquarema, in the middle of luxurious nature, two hours by car from Rio de Janeiro. “I’ve been living here for about ten years,” says Ivan “Mamão” Conti, pulling a t-shirt over his chest that tans all year round, as he enters a room where a drum set sits in the middle of a collection of synthesizers. It’s a recording studio looking out on the ocean, where his new solo album, Poison Fruit, the first in 20 years, was born.
Ivan Conti was nicknamed “Mamão” by his schoolmates after having destroyed a papaya tree (mamoeiro); since then, he has made peace with nature. Born in the Estácio district in 1946, raised in the Tijuca district, and an eternal flamenco fan, he is a pure Carioca, bottle-fed with samba. “It flows through my veins,” he smiles under his white moustache. “Samba is my roots; jazz was my school because of my father’s records; rock was my debut when I listened to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Samba, jazz and rock are the three essential genres for any musician.” Initially a guitarist, “Mamão” fell in love with drums at a friend’s house in the early 1960s, before expressing his talents at Beco das Garrafas, the cradle of bossa nova where Elis Regina and Sérgio Mendes, among others, emerged. In the Copacabana clubs, he mimics both American drummers (Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson) and Brazilian (Wilson das Neves and his idol, Edgar Nunes Rocca, nicknamed “Bituca”). But the turning point was the Canecão, a large concert hall in the Botafogo district, in 1968: “I was playing rock with The Youngsters, and I met Zé [keyboard player José Roberto Bertrami] and Alex [bass player Alex Malheiros], who were each with different bands. We went for a drink and Bertrami suggested that we meet at his house on the weekend to play together. We started out like that, calling ourselves Grupo Seleção on the stage of Mr. Pujol, the club belonging to Elis Regina and her husband, Ronaldo Bôscoli. In 1972, Marcos Valle invited us to play the music for O Fabuloso Fittipaldi, a documentary film about the racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi. Marcos had a song, “Azimuth” [on the Mustang côr de sangue album in 1969], that we liked so much that we asked him if we could name our band after it. We simply changed the “i” to “y” and that’s how we became Azymuth.”
In 1975, the trio released the album Som Livre, kicking off a copious discography combining samba, bossa nova, jazz and funk, whose success culminated in 1979 with the hit “Jazz Carnival,” which was acclaimed ten years later by all the DJs of the acid jazz movement. To describe Azymuth, we speak of samba doido (crazy samba), especially because “Mamão” shatters the rhythmic framework of a codified genre. The whole MPB scene — Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben Jor — wanted to play with him. “He’s a phenomenal drummer,” confirms Carioca soul musician Ed Motta: “I remember seeing him for the first time in 1979, at Projeto 18:30, which was a stage where artists played earlier, and at more affordable prices.” Stéphane San Juan, who was established in Rio for a long time, accompanying Caetano Veloso, Seu Jorge, and Vanessa da Mata, and is now David Byrne’s drummer and the recent author of the excellent Saved By The Drums, elaborates: “Mamão” inherited the post-bossa nova and samba-jazz of Edison Machado, Milton Banana and Wilson das Neves. He assimilated these different adaptations of Brazilian percussive concepts on drums, naturally adding the jazz-rock wave of his generation,” says the Frenchman, who particularly admires his playing on Marcos Valle’s Previsão do tempo (1973).
Ivan “Mamão” Conti has another fan: Madlib. The Brazilian met the California producer, who has been both popular and mysterious for the past fifteen years, through the documentary Brasilintime: Batucada com Discos. Directed by Brian Cross in 2005, the film sparked collaboration in São Paulo between drummers (Ivan Conti, Wilson das Neves, João Parahyba, Paul Humphrey, Derf Reklaw, and James Gadson) and hip-hop producers (Madlib, Cut Chemist, J. Rocc, Babu, and Nuts). “I heard about this guy who really liked my music,” “Mamão” recalls. “Madlib came to the house and played me a fantastic mix he had made from Azymuth’s repertoire. We became friends, to the point that he finally suggested that we make an album together.” Resulting from this meeting, the excellent Sujinho was released in 2008 under the alias Jackson Conti. In many ways, it prefigures Poison Fruit.
Madlib and “DJ friends from Rio” partly inspired Poison Fruit, a new homemade album, which is a distant successor to Pulsar (1997). “I experimented for six months to find the right drum sound, positioning the microphones in different parts of the room. Then I added an acoustic guitar and synthesizers. After a while, I played the results for my wife, friends, cousins, and they told me, ‘Make an album!’” Jam sessions with his son Thiago Maranhão (co-producer of the album with London’s Dokta Venom) completed Poison Fruit’s lineup, which also includes guests, starting with Azymuth members Alex Malheiros and Kiko Continentino, who replaced José Roberto Bertrami, who died in 2012. Finalized in a studio in Rio, the album is also an ode to Brazilian nature, from which “Mamão” has often drawn inspiration in his career (something he shares with Hermeto Pascoal). Thus, the track “Aroeira” is named after a tree and “Bacurau” after a bird. “It’s an album of forests, waterfalls and spirits, an ecological album,” says “Mamão” who, while worried about the future of the Amazon, is counting on the recently elected far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro: “I have high hopes. He has brought new ideas and a government that is less corrupt than the previous one. I am praying for that,” confides the fervent Catholic.
Let’s forget politics on the dance floor, a field claimed by “Mamão” for Poison Fruit where jazz fusion, futuristic samba and even house mix, notably on five energy-packed remixes (including “Ilha da Luz” by Tenderlonious). Still jovial in his enchanting garden, the seventy-year-old seems satisfied with the trick he has just played on time. “I believe in my mission to be a musician and make the audience happy.” Mission accomplished.
Ivan “Mamão” Conti, Poison Fruit (Far Out Recordings)