February 2002

Snapshots of Sound

Embracing his legion of California admirers,
Hermeto Pascoal transforms emotion into sound.

Bruce Gilman

The ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco via Interstate 5, although usually quick and direct, is tedious in bad weather. There is nothing apparently attractive about the landscape. You overtake, you're overtaken, cars rush, passengers glare, and you try to surmount fatigue. I had been driving in rain for nine hours, with swarms of slowly cruising Harley-Davidsons, making what draping overpass banners referred to as the "Love Ride" as my only distraction, before I caught sight of the sign for Woodside.

It was almost five o'clock, and a few small holes in the sky were letting the sun shine through as I turned in at the Palm Circle home of Steven and Thalia Lubin, two architects responsible for bringing the best Brazilian music to the Bay Area for close to a decade. After extracting myself from the car, I wound through a rustic front yard, weaving under an arbor and over stone pavers, to the threshold where I stood, still undiscovered. An oblong window next to the front door admitted the view of a man's hands, and above the hands, a swath of snow-white hair bent over the piano. What I heard coming from behind the door-frame took me two psychic steps forward. The pianist, a man endearingly referred to as the Sorcerer, a living legend, was Hermeto Pascoal.

Steven waved me in, handed me a cafezinho, and let me sit silently, sipping the dark steaming mixture gingerly as I listened to the composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist revered the world over for his capacity to extract music from any object—animal, vegetable, or mineral. There was something epic in the old man's presence, in the pale-complexioned face in which geniality and humor seem the salient characteristics. Laughing and merry eyes lie behind his glasses, betraying much of the naïveté and wonder of a child; and yet, in an unassertive way, containing much of a calm self-reliance and strength of purpose founded upon self-realization and experience. There was also something in the dramatic subtlety of his improvisations that makes comment nearly impossible.

I sat for a long time listening in a preconscious state, staring through a great window that frames an organic link between house and garden. Shadows crept slowly through green and purple sculptured landscaping. The setting sun streaming in gold and crimson bars between the wisteria's trellis gave me a sense of stillness, of perfect peace and security. To the maestro's right sat mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall, listening with the same calm delight, drinking the milk of paradise, ideas chasing across his face like wind-flaws across the surface of a lake.

How long I had been sitting I didn't know, but I had the foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing my seat was front row center. Trying to clear my mind of the fairy tale sensation of being in two places at once, I was revived by a knocking on the Lubins' front door and then voices. I could hear nothing of what the voices said, but the sound rose and fell quietly, and I sensed from the very cadence and motion, a continual stir of curiosity and awe in them. Before I could completely collect myself, musicians from Santa Barbara to Seattle (disciples having made the same pilgrimage) were arriving. Wine appeared, instruments materialized, and a jam session ensued that was a shifting prism of idioms, a kind of dream interchange of jazz, atonality, and Brazilian folk forms executed with an abandon and virtuosity that expressed the spirit and passion of the company. This free-form musical collage continued until our hosts summoned us to an inviting table and a well-laid meal. We sat long, imbibing and telling lighthearted stories and occasionally succumbing to uproarious outbursts of laughter. What more could there be?

The next morning there was more. We made a two-car caravan to Sonoma State University. There Hermeto demonstrated a framework—clear, powerful, and easily adaptable—for thinking about musical creation. He and Jovino Santos Neto, both showing monumental patience, provided practical ideas and encouragement, urging pupils to participate actively, to discuss impressions, to question. But students seemed caught in a Northern California stream of unconsciousness, and fearing Hermeto would ask one of them point-blank for a response, acted as though punctilious courtesy was the manner best calculated to restrain the man. After several ineffectual attempts to engage them, Hermeto broke through their defense bluntly by offering to photograph volunteers in sound. Three young men took turns "modeling" next to the piano while Hermeto created their musical images. Maybe these blossoming musicians were intimidated by an old man for whom composing is an act as natural as breathing, whose music singer/songwriter Joyce says "we'll be studying one hundred years from now," and who Gil Evans called the world's greatest arranger. Maybe these students dance to a different drummer. Well, let them dance. Next stop, the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

For the commute back into the city, I rode with Hermeto, Jovino Santos Neto, and Luiz Bueno of the ensemble Duofel. Hermeto told me as the van pulled away from the curb, "Musicians are really no different than farmers. If they don't plant, if they don't know how to plant well, they'll never harvest. The first thing is that music is a mission, not a fashion. It evolves spiritually. I don't want anybody to really understand, to comprehend my music. I want them to feel my music. It's very important that musicians, who today have to handle so many things that are accessory to their music, can use technology from a musical point of view and never let themselves be led by it or let it take precedence over the importance of the music itself. Change does not mean evolution. To evolve is to create. A computer will never give you the gift of creation. It's just a machine. It's there. It's ready for somebody to do something. But there are a lot of people who mistakenly believe that the computer is actually creating something. There are a lot of people who have no idea what it is to compose a simple melody, and they're composing stuff on the computer. This is the same thing as trying to clone a human being. Instead of this helping creativity, it actually hinders it. And it's no one else's responsibility except the musician's. Use the computer or anything else you want. Drink your beer, but don't become drunk by the beer or by the computer."

Once underway, the four of us reminisced about the superhighway Hermeto had been traveling since age seven, when he picked up his father's eight-button accordion, and refusing to put it down, was playing professionally for parties and dances by his eleventh birthday. At fourteen, Hermeto was performing on radio programs with his brother Zé Neto and Sivuca in the group O Mundo Pegando Fogo (World on Fire). The station's manager, thinking these three albinos were adorable, referred to them as the "three little doves," a notion that was quickly dispelled by the spontaneous combustion that occurred when the "fledglings" kicked off the frevo "Vassourinha." By his early twenties, Hermeto, already with a reputation as a gifted instrumentalist on accordion, piano, flute, saxophone, and clarinet; was a regular on the night club circuit in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, accompanying singers, playing choro, and working in distinguished rooms like the Copacabana Palace and the Stardust with prestigious musicians like Nicolino Cópia (Copinha).

Hermeto joined Quarteto Novo (formerly Trio Novo) in 1966, a group created to accompany Geraldo Vandré at TV Record's second Popular Music Festival. Vandré's entry, "Disparada" (Stampede), co-written by the group's bass player, Theo de Barros, tied for first place with Chico Buarque's "A Banda." At Edu Lobo's request, the group accompanied his "Ponteio" (Strumming) at the next festival, and, again demonstrating the importance of their contribution, took first place in a competition that included heavyweight challengers like Gilberto Gil's "Domingo no Parque," Chico Buarque's "Roda-viva," Caetano Veloso's "Alegria Alegria," and Dori Caymmi's "O Cantador."

In 1970, Hermeto gave a series of international performances and recorded with, among others, Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Miles Davis, and Sérgio Mendes. On his Live Evil album, Davis recorded two of Hermeto's compositions: "Igrejinha" (Little Church) and two versions of "Nem um Talvez" (Not Even a Maybe), one retitled "Selim," or Miles spelled backwards. Until the matter of attributing the proper composer came up with preparations for the release of the Finding Forrester soundtrack, Davis had been cited as the composer of both tunes—not only on the Live Evil recording but also in "authoritative" books like Milestones by Jack Chambers (who also erroneously states that in Brazil, Airto Moreira played congas, bongos and maracas). Hermeto feels that Miles had nothing to do personally with taking credit for the tunes and that responsibility lies with Columbia's management. "Miles was aloof, like a child, but there was always a mutual respect between us that transcended human vanity." Columbia/Legacy reissued Live Evil in 1997, still with personnel listings and titles confused.

While Hermeto was in the United States, he was called to record a flute solo for the tune "Tema Jazz" on Antônio Carlos Jobim's album Tide. In those days, whenever a solo was to be recorded, it was standard for producers to invite in four or five different soloists and fail to mention to them that other musicians would be taping solos for the same track, and that the solo appearing on the album would be decided afterward. When Hermeto's time came, Jobim stopped the recording, saying that there was a note out of tune, that the flute had a wrong note. Hermeto asked him which one it was then suggested that Jobim call the piano tuner. The tuner was called, corrected the piano, and the session continued with Hermeto recording what is probably the longest solo on any Jobim album. After the session, Jobim privately apologized. On the CD reissue, "Tema Jazz" appears not only in the original LP sequence but also as three of the four bonus tracks, each with a different, mesmerizing solo by Hermeto, his over-driven tone a refreshing antidote to the soft, chorused tones of the melody.

Following his return to Brazil, Hermeto received awards for Best Soloist (1972) and Best Arranger (1973) from the São Paulo Association of Art Critics. He also recorded A Música Livre de Hermeto Pascoal for Phonogram, an album that included his own compositions as well as classics by Pixinguinha and Luiz Gonzaga. Although the album sold more than fifty thousand copies and was critically acclaimed, Hermeto was unhappy with the label's handling of the project and vowed never again to record in Brazil, a disposition that wasn't relieved until his work with Som da Gente in 1982. Nevertheless, his career and prestige blossomed, and his shows drew ever larger and more enthusiastic crowds.

In 1974, Hermeto was back in the United States where he took part in the sessions for Cannonball Adderley's Lovers LP at the Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. After the recording, Hermeto was having dinner with friends in Los Angeles when he sensed Cannonball's presence so strongly that he abruptly stopped eating and left the restaurant, bound for the recording studio. Upon arriving, he was met by the news that Cannonball Adderley had just died. Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and film maker Glauber Rocha, who were with Hermeto, joined him in paying homage to one of the jazz world's most thoughtful, intelligent, and supremely soulful players. The result is a seven minute flute solo, underscored with the sound of a heart beating and a background of cherub-like voices speaking English and Portuguese. Hermeto manipulated the speed of the taped voices from fifteen inches per second down to seven and a half, to raise pitch and create an aural image of the angels receiving Cannonball. Cannonball's wife wept when she heard the piece and offered her husband's alto sax to Hermeto, which he declined.

A celebrated close-up cover photo of Hermeto, his hands on the keyboard reflecting in his glasses, and an inspired illustration/transcription (note-for-note) of his flute solo on "Canon" house an important and beautiful album that includes, among other inventive works, "Chorinho Pra Ele," a classic of the choro repertoire that Hermeto wrote as an homage to his brother, and the album's title track, "Missa dos Escravos," which features the sound of a piglet orchestrated into the arrangement's instrumental fabric.

One show followed on the heels of another, from the Municipal Theater of São Paulo to the street fair of Caruaru, where unremitting applause brought Hermeto to tears. At TV Globo's 1975 Abertura music festival, Hermeto received the Best Arranger award, and the media was flooded with praise regarding his performances at São Paulo's Free Jazz Festival in both 1978 and 1979. Similar success came on July 20, 1979, when he played at Montreux, a performance which yielded his second album recorded that year.

Elis Regina, having just signed with Warner after fifteen years with Polygram, was there attempting to stimulate her career internationally and fulfill an important facet of her new contract—a live recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival. She performed the first part of the Brazilian Night program with great technique, but little emotion, her trademark. Hermeto came out for the second part and broke the house up, receiving a fifteen minute standing ovation and continuous demands for more. When he was called back on stage, he encountered another spectacular ovation then went to the piano. Regina came back on stage for the encore smiling tensely. After Hermeto prefaced "Corcovado" and Regina joined in, his harmonies started taking unexpected turns that were so sophisticated the old bossa nova classic was transformed, each chorus a little more challenging. Regina, always competitive, responded with precision. So naturally, Hermeto made the route of the unrehearsed tune even more treacherous. It was something that could have only happened under those circumstances—free, loose, crazy. After the end of the third encore—a five-star performance by any standard—they performed "Asa Branca," and Regina, as though it were her last performance and she was saying good-bye to the world, substituted the lyrics, "Adeus, Hermeto. Keep my heart with you."

In 1980, Cérebro Magnético, with Hermeto's abstract cover art, was released and demonstrated as never before his multi-instrumentalist virtuosity on flute, saxophone, piano, guitar, cavaquinho, drums, percussion, and vocals. In 1982, Som da Gente, a label specializing in instrumental music, offered Hermeto the artistic license that persuaded him to resume recording in Brazil and then released Hermeto Pascoal e Grupo, an LP revealing the cohesive interaction and fluid density of his most exhilarating, always intriguing ensemble. The group was a literal feeding ground for young, exceptionally talented multi-instrumental giants like Carlos Malta, Jovino Santos Neto, and Itiberê Zwarg, musicians who played with force, fluency, and fresh ideas that glided across bar lines and compositional sections with risky, asymmetrical brilliance.

Som da Gente released Lagoa da Canoa, Município de Arapiraca in 1984, Hermeto's homage to his birthplace. The album presented innovative forms of musical sound as well as unforgettable pieces like "Mestre Radamés," an homage to the maestro Radamés Gnattali, and "Tiruliruli," a harmonized tape loop of a soccer announcer's play-by-play. Additional homages were made to various journalists and broadcasters on the 1987 Só Não Toca Quem Não Quer, which vaunts guest appearances by the sanfoneiro (accordion player) Dominguinhos and virtuoso guitar player Rafael Rabello. The Brazilian release also displays more of Hermeto's art work lacing the cover's edge.

Brasil Universo brought fans the blazing forró "O Tocador Quer Beber" (The Player Wants a Drink), a tune Hermeto wrote one day as he was coming down from his upstairs rehearsal room and saw his dogs chasing a chicken. At that time he had thirty-five dogs, "twenty on one side of the house and fifteen on the other." Typical of the composer's endeavors to abolish the frontiers between sound and noise, he grabbed his accordion and captured the bedlam with an impromptu soundtrack. The melody came from a tune musicians in the Northeastern region of Brazil used to play whenever they wanted to take a break, a musical signal to the owner of the house to come and ask, "Okay, what would you like?" When Hermeto was a boy playing with his father's group, he always got very thirsty. And even though people were dancing and the musicians really couldn't stop the party, he would drive his father crazy by continually inserting this melody into the middle of their songs.

More touring (Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, and Portugal) preceded and followed the 1992 release of Festa dos Deuses, the album that formally introduced one of Hermeto's concepts that had appeared in various forms on other recordings—Som da Aura (Sound of the Aura), which regards human speech as music. Says Santos Neto, "Because of its spontaneity, the exact moment a thought becomes speech is an act of creation, a subtle and fleeting melody that not only reveals to the external world what one feels and thinks but that also shows the physical, emotional, and spiritual state of a person. Each pause for breath, each inflection, and each syllable is the audible structure of everything that happens in our innermost being. The Sound of the Aura is a musical halo generated by speech, and it becomes particularly evident when the words spoken are charged by an intense emotional state."

Hermeto received the Sharp (Brazil's equivalent of the Grammy) in 1996 for his arrangement of the Kids of Brazil CD by Duofel. Rádio MEC released, Eu e Eles (Me and Them) in 1999, a disc on which Hermeto plays all parts: piano, cavaquinho, pandeiro, transverse and bamboo flutes, bandolim, bombardino (Bb tenor horn, comparable to the euphonium), triangle, surdo, soprano sax, accordion, flügelhorn, whistles, bottles, and water-tuned pots. Calendário do Som, a collection of 366 pieces Hermeto composed between June 23, 1996, and his birthday, June 22, 1997 (one piece a day for an entire year, including February 29), was published in 2000 by Editora Senac. And now, after many years, Hermeto Pascoal was in Northern California again, sitting next to me in a van that had just pulled into its parking place at the Palace of Fine Arts.

The Exploratorium's Sound and Hearing team hosted Hermeto's workshop. The team is charged with revisiting, reconceptualizing, and rebuilding the sound and hearing area of the museum by means of interactive exhibits and public programs of phenomena related to the perception, physiology, physics, psychology, cognition, and aesthetics of sound and music. In the past, composers like Laurie Anderson and artist/builders like Marco Antônio Guimarães from Uakti have contributed programs or exhibits to the team's efforts.

With so many fans plus their instruments crowded into the Exploratorium's McBean Theater, there was hardly enough room to smile. Hermeto opened with a tribute to both Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk by performing "Round Midnight," not on a trumpet, but a teapot. Improvisations—using his own body as an instrument, the voices of volunteers, and plastic squeaky toys—followed. Later, Hermeto borrowed a tape recorder from a young man in the audience, who cautioned him in Portuguese to "be careful with the microphone," and the subject of Som da Aura cropped up. Jovino Santos Neto assisted by rewinding and replaying the cautionary words while Hermeto picked out its melodic and rhythmic structure then harmonized the "tune."

"Only a sensitive musician like Hermeto Pascoal," explains Santos Neto, "would be able to capture the intention that lies hidden in speech and translate it into the language of music. His geniality shines as he extracts the musical tone inherent in each syllable, always being as faithful as possible to each voice's intonation, diction and range. After establishing the melody that corresponds to each nuance, Hermeto harmonizes it, using chords to coat the melody in the same way that a well-tailored suit coats a body. This is, after all, the function of harmony in a musical context, that is, to emphasize, involve, and embellish every phrase. When we hear human speech dressed like this, we are able to notice that the speakers are literally singing their words. As proof of the power of transformation created by this process, we can listen again to the same voices without any accompaniment and still perceive them not only as words, but as melodies, sometimes exotic and angular, other times soft and gentle."

Questioning was animated; there were no sluggards in this crowd. Instrument cases shed, musicians converged in front of the small stage, and the interactive workshop that couldn't occur within the hallowed walls of academia unfolded. Says project manager, Jamie Bell, "The way Hermeto made his thinking about sound and music transparent was exactly what we were hoping for. It was the kind of direct experience of phenomena and insight into process that the Exploratorium tries to bring to its visitors."

In the car again, our headlight beams washing the road ahead into a sort of ghostly incandescence, we went zigzagging up through the Oakland hills en route to Mike Marshall's. We turned up one of the side streets after only half an hour's drive and squeezed into a parking spot. Soft light from within the house fell upon a tiny lawn, bidding us to come inside and spend a little time. The large front room was receiving a procession of guests with a glow of hospitality and savory aromas. Every detail in this humble story-and-a-half structure, from the family tree above the fireplace to the instruments hanging on the walls to Mike's dark, spiraling hair above his pink kitchen apron, emanated warmth.

Feasting on luscious appetizers, Italian food, and Marshall's homespun merlot was followed by music making. Then, it must have been a little after nine, a van pulled up, and amid a good-natured uproar, Hermeto and entourage piled out. Jamming on bizarre hybrids of bluegrass and baião took a feverish leap, everyone playing an instrument or a kitchen utensil. And when the jamming was at a peak and the young musicians were drunk with enthusiasm, Hermeto looked about him, eyes shining with an exultance, a keenness, and it was magic what he did.

Introducing motivic ideas in an eloquent and subtle fashion, Hermeto constructed and clarified a hypnotic composition, involving considerable intricacies, yet with a spacious harmonic vocabulary. Like a kaleidoscope reassembling, the various sections evolved, then coalesced into an imaginative samba. Hermeto has created inconceivable sambas before with luminescent colors and in odd meters like 3/4 and 7/4, which have caused a re-examination of the long-held opinion that the samba has to be in 2/4, but this was entirely different. Only afterward did we realize Hermeto was musically photographing the feeling, the mood, and tone of the gathering and everyone there joyously taking part. Interaction between the musicians was deep, touching on the profound.

It is difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood that was established. Suffice it to say that even the stoutest atheist could believe that divine inspiration was in Mike's home that night. No one said it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in that house, and each one felt it warm him. We left some time before dawn, deliriously humming the samba's melody. The air was brisk, but the stars were warm and friendly; they seemed to hang lower over us, be closer to us. The sensuous drowsiness of the night upon us, we drove far down the sharply curving streets, trailing wisps of "Samba da Noite na Casa do Mike."

The next morning, I was moving again, leaning back and roaring through vast panoramas. The road, greeting me like an old friend this time, was full of delicious surprises, a delight. Dazzling sunlight inflamed velvety grass and pierced rounded, circling hills. Highway 5 had majesty, breadth. I tend to remember best the things I've felt most deeply, and the drive gave me the time at last, the leisure, to contemplate the past two days. Everything was coming together, becoming a single thing in my mind, when the outside world intruded again. I was back in Los Angeles, jolted from memories, so recent, yet already far-away, unreal; it was as if I had traveled not merely from one city to another, but from one state to the next.

Selected Discography:


Artist(s)  Title  Label  Date
Zé Ramalho  Nação Nordestina  BMG  2000
Various  Finding Forrester (soundtrack)  Columbia  2000
Duofel  Duofel 20  Trama  2000
Hermeto Pascoal  Eu e Eles  Rádio MEC  1999
Sérgio Mendes  Oceano  Verve/Forecast  1996
Pau Brasil / Hermeto Pascoal  Brasil Musical Série Música Viva  Tom Brasil  1996
Duofel  Kids of Brazil  Velas  1996
Sérgio Mendes  Brasileiro  Elektra  1992
Galo Preto  Bem-Te-Vi  Leblon Records  1992
Elis Regina  Mestres da MPB  Warner  1992
Hermeto Pascoal  Festa dos Deuses  PolyGram  1992
Maria Bethânia  Canto do Pajé  PolyGram/Verve  1990
Hermeto Pascoal  Mundo Verde Esperança  Som da Gente  1989 (never released)
Heraldo do Monte  Cordas Vivas  Rio Records  1988
Hermeto Pascoal  Por Diferentes Caminhos  Som da Gente  1988
Hermeto Pascoal  Só Não Toca Quem Não Quer  Som da Gente  1987
Hermeto Pascoal  Brasil Universo  Som da Gente  1985
Hermeto Pascoal  Lagoa da Canoa - Município de Arapiraca  Som da Gente  1984
Hermeto Pascoal & Grupo  Hermeto Pascoal  Som da Gente  1982
Elis Regina  Montreux Jazz Festival  WEA/Elektra  1982 (Recorded 1979)
Hermeto Pascoal  Cérebro Magnético  Warner  1980
Hermeto Pascoal  Montreux ao Vivo  Warner  1979
Hermeto Pascoal  Zabumbê-bum-á  Warner  1979
Hermeto Pascoal  Missa dos Escravos (Slaves' Mass)  Warner  1977
Cannonball Adderley  Lovers  Fantasy  1976
Hermeto Pascoal  A Música Livre de Hermeto Pascoal  PolyGram  1973
Airto Moreira  Seeds on the Ground  Buddha Records  1971
Hermeto Pascoal  Hermeto  Buddha  1970
Antônio Carlos Jobim  Tide  A&M  1970
Edu Lobo  Sérgio Mendes Presents Edu Lobo  A&M  1970
Miles Davis  Live Evil  Columbia  1970
Quarteto Novo  Quarteto Novo  Odeon  1967

Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil magazine, received his Master's degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He is the recipient of three government grants that have allowed him to research traditional music in China, India, and Brazil. His articles on Brazilian music have been translated and published in Spanish, German, Serbian, and Portuguese. You can reach him through his e-mail: 

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