Hermeto Pascoal, Music Man

The Brazilian multi-instrumentalist, who made a connection between Nordeste traditions and Miles Davis in the 1970s, just added four volumes to an already massive discography. His oeuvre is as iconoclastic as it is sophisticated, and at age 82, he is touring with it again.

The mortarboard (with its round base, flat top, and pompom) seemed too small for his shaggy mane, but Hermeto Pascoal eventually crammed it onto his head all the way down to his eyes. The joke was covering up true pride. He was given the headgear in 2017, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, the oldest private conservatory in the United States, whose amphitheaters have seen the likes of Dave Holland and Cecil Taylor. Honored by an institution of erudite music while he is a self-taught musician resistant to academicism, the octogenarian never gets tired of showing off his diploma, as if he just graduated from high school. Happy as a clam, with his mortarboard on his head, his bad eyesight, and his mutinous demeanor.

After 15 years of no new recordings, last year, Hermeto Pascoal released two albums in quick succession, No Mundo dos Sons (in a quintet) and Natureza Universal (in a big band), and released two unpublished recordings, Viajando Com O Som produced by Rogério Duprat in 1976, and Hermeto Pascoal e sua Visão Original do Forró, a wonderful tribute to forró recorded in 1999. They are four examples of his genius–for once, the word isn’t clichéd– whose experiments draw their water at the source of Brazilian slang, jazz, and the avant-garde. It’s a most sophisticated oeuvre, in absolute relaxation.

“The cows, birds, and field workers were my first audience.”

Hermeto Pascoal is an 82-year-old “child” who has spent his life playing with whatever came to hand ever since he used to frolic in the forests of Alagoas, a small state in Nordeste, listening to the symphony of the rivers, the wind in the leaves, and birds’ chirping. “I’m a child,” he confirms under his white beard. “I have always been like that, really. I started to play in Lagoa da Canoa, my native land. I used to make instruments with everything I found in the forest. There was no electricity back then. It arrived after I had left as a teenager. And that’s a good thing. With it, I might not have had the chance to experience everything I experienced. In the same way, I always just played by intuition, because I wasn’t in contact with any music, except that of the emboladas [poetic or satirical jousting generally accompanied by the pandiero—Ed.] that took place at the market near our house. The cows, birds, and field workers were my first audience. When I played on the banks of the lake, the frogs came to listen. Because my music is completely natural. Nature is music; music is nature. There is no difference. Everything is music. It isn’t missing from any place, object, or person. I wasn’t born WITH it. I AM music. That’s what explains that I am 100% intuitive. Music, a family like mine, and lots of friends; that makes me happy. That’s bliss.”

A universal musician

Hermeto Pascoal was also born an albino, a “will of God” that he made the best of, despite the taunting. “My mother always told me that I was handsome. And I think I’m a good person.” The genetic anomaly also explains his vision problems, probably compensated for with sharpened hearing. “I see what I need to see”, he promises. “For example, I see women better than men. And music, I perceive it in every way.”

Flutes, percussion, accordion … Recruited at age 7 to entertain at dances with his older brother, he was soon noticed for his improvisational talents. Maybe a little too much. “People would listen to a piece and they didn’t believe me when I told them that I had made it up on the spot. I explained that it was improvisation, but they always thought I was making fun of them. Some even threatened to cut up my accordion with a knife if I didn’t play the piece again exactly the same way. They were convinced that I knew it by heart!”

At age 14, still in his big brother’s wake, he reached Recife. The capital of Pernambouc wasn’t yet the sprawling metropolis that it would become, and Chico Science, who would invent Mangue Beat, was not even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. But the city was already the repository of the Nordeste folk music– baião, frevo, maracatu, côco– that was danced at the forrós (popular celebrations). “I am the sum of these traditions and of everything I’ve taken in since birth, whether it be the sound of a stream or of car traffic. That’s what I call ‘universal music,’ because it isn’t fundamentally different than that played elsewhere in the world. For this reason, I am a Brazilian citizen, but I’m a universal musician.”

Apolitical and optimistic

Championed by Sivuca, another Nordeste music reformer, then relocated to Rio de Janeiro, Hermeto Pascoal joined Trio Novo (Airto Moreira, Theo de Barros, Heraldo do Monte) in 1966. Renamed Quarteto Novo, the short-lived group recorded only one album (Quarteto Novo, 1967), but by setting the baião within learned arrangements, it contributed much to the revolutions that were underway. Brazil was then under a dictatorial regime, but a new generation of musicians fought for the juries’ favors at the Música Popular Brasileira festivals, broadcast live every year on TV Record.

The 1967 festival signaled the break between the past and the future, sentimental ballads and psychedelic rock. In an insurrectional atmosphere (infuriated by booing, Sérgio Ricardo broke his guitar onstage), the audience cheered Elis Regina, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil (with Os Mutantes), and Caetano Veloso. But the prize was awarded to Edu Lobo and Marília Medalha for their interpretation of Ponteio, backed by Quarteto Novo and with an introduction by flutist Hermeto Pascoal.

Above all, the festival marked the advent of Tropicália, a cultural movement with political implications, to which Pascoal remained an outsider. “That was never music”, he asserts today, despite his friendship with Caetano and Gil. “I’m not criticizing, that’s simply the truth. It was staging, theater, but the rhythms and harmonies weren’t beautiful. As for politics, I never took a stand. Even during the dictatorship, I didn’t worry about that situation. I played to packed houses, and after the concert, people came to the dressing room: ‘Thank God you came to make us smile with your music.’”

Punching Miles Davis in the face

His international fame was ensured by his collaboration with Miles Davis, through Airto Moreira, who accompanied the trumpeter onstage at the time of Bitches Brew. The percussionist had taken Hermeto Pascoal to one of Miles’s concerts in New York.

“It was a spiritual meeting”, Hermeto recalls. “When we crossed paths backstage and he stopped to talk to me. He was 45, he no longer took drugs, he worked out; it was a good time for him. When he learned I was a musician, he invited me to his house. When I arrived, I told him, ‘I’ll sing a note and you check that it’s a B flat.’ I have perfect pitch and I can even do that with a chord. He went upstairs where the piano was while whistling the note that was, of course, a B flat when I sang it. That was how I impressed him”.

“I only went to his house four or five times, but we had an amazing friendship. We boxed together. With my wonky sight, my eye looked to one side, and when it came back to the middle, I punched him right in the face. It hurt my arm. One day, a journalist asked him, ‘After your death, how would you like to be reincarnated?’ Miles answered, ‘I’d like to be a musician like this crazy albino.’” Hermeto played the electric piano and whistled on the album Live-Evil (1971), for which he composed three songs (“Little Church”, “Nem Um Talvez” and “Selim”) without being credited.

Everything is music

With “o Bruxo” (“the Wizard”) as he is known, the discussion stumbled over its leitmotif: everything is music. An animal, a plant, a landscape, a movement, a feeling, an interview? All music. The instrument itself doesn’t matter. He is known for playing with a teapot or a squeaking teddy bear, even if it means that the mischievous exuberance overshadows the depth of his orchestrations and of his countless compositions (from June 1996 to June 1997, he recorded one new song per day).

He promises that nothing he undertakes is premeditated. “The music is my only guide.” Once again overexcited, he just upped the number of concerts to the far corners of Brazil, before visiting Europe in a sextet. “I have a global audience. We meet, we hug”, he rejoices, not worried about either his legacy or his future. “What I did 30 years ago is no less current than what I’m doing today, and vice versa. The soul doesn’t age, it doesn’t die.”

Hermeto Pascoal is on tour:

  • July 6, 2018: Sète, Worldwide Festival
  • July 7: Porquerolles, Jazz à Porquerolles
  • July 8: Vienne, Jazz à Vienne
  • July 10: Paris, Petite Halle de la Villette

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union