"Who is Hermeto?"
"Are there any recordings available?"
"You can't expect me to know anything about him if he's over 40!"
Pushed to the wall I screamed, "I'm probably taking too much for granted (my own brother had just discovered Olodum). But Hermeto is the Hermeto Pascoal, the reigning wizard of Brazilian music who plays everything and anything. Piano, flute, sax, live pigs, you name it. He's the only one who can write a kick-ass samba in 3/4!"
This lack of awareness about the planet's greatest musician coming from people who pride themselves on their knowledge and appreciation of Brazilian music astounded me. Yet these aficionados had plenty of company. Considering his international artistic stature, observances of Hermeto Pascoal's sixtieth birthday both in Brazil and in the United States were reprehensibly sparse.
That wizardly looking mystical presence with the turbulent white hair and beard was born June 22, 1936 in Lagoa da Canoa in Arapiraca, state of Alagoas. Many say Hermeto resembles the other Northeastern Albino accordion player with the Santa Claus beard -- Sivuca, Hermeto's old bandmate from the group O Mundo em Chamas (World on Fire). Actually, Sivuca has complained that people passing him on the street think he is Hermeto and ask him for his autograph and how he gets those bizarre sounds from pots and pans.
And although they are like brothers, Hermeto jokes that it is upsetting to be confused because he is more handsome. If they were Americans some advertiser would probably employ the two for one of those silly look-alike gum or jeep commercials. In reality, Sivuca is bald, taller, and older than Hermeto. Hermeto's knack for creating musical instruments from found objects and "junk" reminds others of the American composer of experimental music and inventor of instruments Harry Partch. And because of daring instrumentation and Hermeto's integration of forms (free jazz, frevo, maxixe, xaxado, baião) and use of odd meters, the contemporary French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez also comes to mind.
Hermeto's prowess for transmuting noise into music is anything but imaginary. In the liner notes to Brazil, Universo Hermeto says that although his music is born in Brazil, it is inspired by the universe, that instruments are all around us, just waiting to be discovered. It only requires a mind free of any prejudices. His music truly has no borders. He has composed for ensembles that include wash basins, tea kettles, sewing machines, chickens, goats, geese, turkeys, and pigs.
A perfect example (my favorite) is the screaming forró "O Tocador Quer Beber" (The Player Wants to Drink) where the climax of Hermeto's solo on accordion elides with and is augmented by squawking chickens played by Marcus Vinicius. The effect is outrageous and stylistically perfect. Try it on your answering machine! This single tune is worth the price of the entire recording.
Brazil, Universo is a must for any serious collector and also contains "Crianças" (Children) and "Peixinho" (Little Fish), tunes which reveal Hermeto's utilization of odd meters and the human voice as an instrument, as atmosphere, as part of the musical texture, but not to present lyrics that convey some sort of story. Currently, among his numerous activities, Hermeto is writing Sinfonia da Boiada (Symphony of the Herd) that will place on stage a multitude of accordion players, violeiros (musicians from the Northeast of Brazil who play guitar-like instruments), and creatures who make bleating sounds.
As a child, the maestro taught himself to play flute, quickly moved on to the sanfona (accordion), began exploring the indigenous music of the Northeast, and was fronting a local forró band by the time he reached his eleventh birthday. Since then each of Hermeto's groups, like those of Art Blakey and Miles Davis, has been a training ground where extraordinary talent has harvested. Known for musical aggressiveness and daring, Hermeto's lack of commercial potential often scares uninitiated record company executives who are prospecting for hit records, which may explain the disparity in his popularity.
Hermeto's music is an ear stretch and not something one finds on the easy listening channels. Like Stravinsky who left Los Angeles in the 1950s frustrated with people who claimed to be devotees of his music but who were just beginning to listen and really "hear" the music he had written fifty years earlier, it may be some time before those who listen (let alone the public at large) will fully appreciate Hermeto's work.
"As far as I'm concerned, it is criminal how little of Hermeto's recorded works are available in this country and how little of his work has been recorded at all," complained Steven Cantor of NPR affiliate KOPB 91.5 FM in Portland, Oregon. Cantor, a radio host that celebrated Hermeto's birthday on-air, put together a two hour special of the maestro's music which included a playlist that had been selected by Hermeto himself.
Cantor believes that Hermeto's genius is neglected in the United States because he is Brazilian and doesn't speak much English, because he is uncompromising and can be very difficult to work with, and because virtually all of his work is instrumental music. "It's a complete mystery to me," criticized Cantor, "why the American jazz community hasn't picked up on Hermeto a long time ago."
In fact, one of Hermeto's most ardent admirers was the revolutionary jazz trumpet player, band leader, and composer Miles Davis. Without speaking the other's language the two became friends. Indeed, a short time before Miles died in 1991, the two had decided to make an album together. When Hermeto went to Miles's house to show him some compositions, Miles insisted on recording all of them. Hermeto refused, joking that he wouldn't have anything left to play himself. Davis did record two of Hermeto's compositions, "Nem um Talvez" (Not Even A Maybe) and "Igrejinha" (Little Church), on the historical album Live/Evil, from 1970.
Miles, like Ellington, developed the habit of taking credit for tunes that were written by the members of his groups. Two obvious examples being Wayne Shorter's tune "ESP," and the Bill Evans composition "Nardis". After all, who was going to complain? These musicians weren't about to give up their gig. They were honored to share the bandstand, let alone record with one of his vanguard ensembles. Although Miles was ultimately responsible for deciding who he played with and for the group's trajectory, his barometer for determining jazz's next phase was often the musical pulse he took from his band constituents. Unfortunately, many of his colleagues' pieces were later recorded by other artists or published in arrangements for various sized ensembles, and on each occurrence were attributed to Miles. So it was a pity that on the first pressing of Live/Evil that the record company did not give Hermeto credit for his work. Could there really have been any confusion of authorship?
Too often and too long neglected, the most original contemporary musician of our time, the internationally celebrated composer and multi-instrumentalist from Alagoas, celebrated his sixtieth birthday without waiting for official festivities. Deciding to have a musical birthday by performing numerous concerts, Hermeto started at the Municipal Theater in São Paulo accompanied by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra with the distinguished Isaac Karabtchevsky conducting.
The program presented the Brazilian debut of Hermeto's piano suite Pixitotinha. The Copenhagen Symphony performed the World Premier four years ago in Denmark, and the performance was broadcast all over Europe. This was not the first scholarly incursion by the Sorcerer of Sound. In 1990 he presented his Sinfonia em Quadrinhos (Cartoon Symphony) with the Youth Symphony of São Paulo in the same Municipal Theater and has had his works performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.
Hermeto sees no problem in going from what many see as a popular music format to the more erudite. He feels that his music is universal and has pondered bringing in the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti for the performance of Sinfonia da Boiada. Maestro Karabtchevsky, the 61 year old musical director of the Teatro La Fenice, the Venice Opera, and the Municipal Theater in São Paulo, has been an Hermeto fan for over 25 years. Hermeto's total instrumental mastery, his rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic ingenuity, and his vision that embraces all musical forms and sounds has always impressed the conductor.
On Hermeto's most recent release, Festa dos Deuses (Festival of the Gods), the thirteenth release of his fifty year career, Hermeto has again surpassed himself. Besides the opulent harmonies, the brilliant rhythmic corners, and the extraordinary improvisations that come together with the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster and the singing of birds; he has brought in the music of human speech. This compositional technique, baptized Som da Aura (Aura's Sound) by Hermeto, makes use of recorded sounds and incidental noises and has been referred to as Musique Concrete.
By means of synthesizer he transformed portions of a speech by ex-president Fernando Collor, a poem read by actor and poet Mário Lago, and even a swimming class offered by his daughter Fabíola. In 1984 Hermeto employed a similar technique. Extracting a short phrase from an excited soccer announcer's play-by-play coverage and developing a tape loop and accompaniment for the loop, Hermeto conjured up the unequivocally hypnotic "Tiruliruli."
Festa dos Deuses is perpetuating repercussions outside of Brazil. Hermeto received a tape from Germany of a stuttering man reciting love poems. Of course, Hermeto is bent on orchestrating and metamorphosing it into a composition. This may sound odd to the unilluminated, but Som da Aura could be the music of the future? Isn't it already? Myriad disciples around the world, from Lyle Mays to Moleque de Rua, continue to be fascinated and inspired by Hermeto's sonic vocabulary and approach to defining music. At sixty years old,The Enigma of the Instruments remains a touchstone for our international music community.
**super highly recommended
(Does not include dozens of recordings as a sideman)
Música Livre de Hermeto Pascoal*
Montreux Jazz Live
Hermeto Pascoal & Grupo
Lagoa da Canoa Município de Arapiraca*
Só Não Toca Quem Não Quer*
Solo por Diferentes Caminhos
Festa dos Deuses**
Bruce Gilman plays cuíca for Mocidade Independente Los Angeles, received his MA from California Institute of the Arts, and teaches English and ESL in Long Beach, California. You can reach him through his E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org