Lost Samba – Chapter 19/01 – Brazil’s musical wizards.
The final year at the Colégio Andrews was completely different to the previous ones and one hundred percent directed at preparing us for the ultimate exam. The classes were in a separate building with the students grouped into four classrooms – two for earth sciences, one for biomedicine and one for the humanities. I had chosen the latter. By now, school was pure stress. The methods were intense with teachers bombarding us with infallible secrets to jump over the massive hurdle that was the Vestibular.
Our schools’ programme had a good reputation, and students transferred there from other institutions in Rio as well as from further afield. One of the new students had come from Chile. Kristof was of German descent and resembled the actor Jack Palance, albeit with long blonde hair. A few days after school began; Kristof and I took the usual bus home and started chatting. For some reason, the conversation turned to Teresópolis and we discovered, to our absolute amazement, that we were next-door country house neighbours in the Jardim Salaco. This was a massive coincidence and it helped to make us instant best friends.
We had more things in common: Kristof was also into music and played the transversal flute (he was to become a professional saxophone player), he also had a European edge and in some inexplicable way we both managed to stay academically in the top quarter of the student body despite being members of the “smoke squadron”. Kristof had come to Rio to live with his dad and, after he joined the music circuit, his flat on a hill at the end of Leblon became the new headquarters of our small brotherhood of musical misfits.
Although for us the rock giants of the 1970s still reigned supreme, we were also into jazz-rock represented by a generation of brilliant musicians such as John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Focus, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. As was the case with so many aspects of Brazilian life and youth culture, we were some five years behind what was happening in Britain and North America and were still completely oblivious to the existence of both punk and reggae. Anyhow, I suspect that even if we had known of these developments, as aspiring musicians, we still would have stayed tuned into those great instrumentalists.
There was also new high calibre local musical talent emerging and our ears were ripe for musicians like Hermeto Pascoal, Nana Vasconçelos and Egberto Gismonti who seemed to be a conduit for the kind of energy I had experienced in the south of Bahia. If Bossa Nova had been a reflection of Brazil’s post-war optimism, this new musical generation reflected a moment of self-discovery and of rebirth emerging from the resurgence of political freedom. Despite being exclusively instrumental these musicians were popular, their concerts attracted respectable large crowds, and for a short while they were the top selling acts amongst the educated middle class.
Of the three, Egberto was my favourite. His talent first became apparent in his father’s musical instrument shop where he demonstrated pianos to customers. As a young adult, Egberto went to France to study classical music. When he returned to Rio, he applied his acquired knowledge and his genius to Brazilian music, going way beyond Bossa Nova. Arguably, Egberto Gismonti became as significant a musician as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest classical composer. Among other things, Egberto was unique in experimenting with indigenous music, going as far as to learn sacred music from a shaman in the Xingu area. The story goes that for Sapaim, the musician/shaman, to accept him, Egberto had to camp outside his jungle longhouse for about a month until he was invited in. Perhaps because of what he learned there, the sounds in Gismonti’s concerts were hypnotic, almost like a solid entity, with audiences always giving their absolute attention.
Hermeto Pascoal was born in the remote and dry interior of the Brazilian Nordeste – the Sertão. As Hermeto was an albino, he couldn’t work under the scorching sun, so his brothers would lock him up in a barn where he channelled his fury and energy into music. Hermeto’s long and curly white hair and beard, and his strong facial features covered by thick glasses, lead to the deserved nickname of ‘the Sorcerer’. His band made insane noises, not only with instruments, but also with everyday objects such as broken bottles, saws and pans. In the midst of this madness, however, there was genius, with valleys of heavenly music brewed from the mysteries of the Indigenous, the Africans and the Europeans.
Of the three instrumentalists, the one with the greatest international success was Nana Vasconcelos. The magazine Down Beat, the most important one in the Jazz world, was to elect him eight times as the best percussionist in the world; he also was to receive eight Grammy awards. Being from Pernambuco and the only African descendant of the three he had a close attachment to the spiritually charged Maracatu rhythm. Perhaps due to both he took percussion to previously unimaginable psychedelic heights.
Egberto, Nana and Hermeto were by no means the only expressions of Brazilian instrumental and experimental music in the late 1970s early 1980s. There were also bands such as Uakti – known for using custom-made instruments, made by members of the group themselves – the name derived from a native Tucano myth of a man/instrument. There were also the more electrical bands such A Cor do Som and the guitarist Pepeu Gomes, both offshoots of the Novos Baianos. Anyhow, after their relatively brief popularity in Brazil, the three main exponents of their generation would fall out of fashion at home but would emerge as stars on the international jazz scene.