Nature of Naná
By N. Scott Robinson
from Modern Drummer 24, no. 7 (July 2000): 98-102,
104, 106, 108.
Naná Vasconcelos (Juvenal de Holanda e Vasconcelos), a percussionist
with gifted creativity, was born in 1944 in Olinda, Pernambuco,
Brazil and began a career in music over thirty-five years
ago. In his early days in Brazil, he worked as a drumset
player with Os Bossa Norte, Sambossa Trio, Yansã Quarteto,
and Agostinho dos Santos and as a percussionist with Luíz
Eça & Sagrada Família, Capiba, Quarteto
Livre, Grupo Construção, Trio do Bagaco, Gilberto
Gil, A Tribo, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Milton Nascimento,
Raimundo Fagner, Teca Calanzas, Jards Macale, Caetano Veloso,
Clementina de Jesus, Geraldo Vandre, and Geraldo Azevedo.
Moving to France in the early 1970s, Naná continued developing
creatively as a percussionist with Manduka de Mello, Mahjun,
Jack Treese, Pierre Akendengue, Chic Streetman, Larry Martin,
Jean-Roger Caussimon, David McNeil, Jacques Thollot, Baikida
E. J. Carroll, and Jean-Luc Ponty. He first ventured into
jazz with Gato Barbieri and developed concurrent recording
careers in the USA, Europe, and Japan with jazz and pop
artists Pat Metheny, Sergio Mendes, Chico Freeman, Chaka
Khan, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen,
Codona, Akiko Yano, Leon Thomas, Gary Thomas, Jack DeJohnette,
Zbignew Seifert, Oliver Nelson, Andy Summers, Fredy Studer,
Trilok Gurtu, Carly Simon, Mukai Shigeharo, Andy Sheppard,
Woody Shaw, B. B. King, Masahiko Satoh, Ryuichi Sakamoto,
David Sanborn, George Ohtsuka, Jim Pepper, Mara, Jon Hassell,
Gipsy Kings, Don Cherry, and Egberto Gismonti. Endorsed
by Paiste and Latin Percussion, first place winner of Down
Beat’s prestigious Best Percussionist in the Annual
International Jazz Critics Polls for nine consecutive years
from 1983-1991, he has contributed to thirty-six film soundtracks,
and has eleven recordings of his own music released to date.
Often describing his
work as having a strong connection with nature, this became
apparent when I met Naná in his Chelsea apartment in New
York City where the air was filled with the smell of incense,
exotic flowers and plants thrived in his living room where
I was greeted by squirrels who darted in and out of the
window stealing nuts from a bowl Naná leaves on a table
for them. Although the phone rang constantly and studio
technicians were coming and going through his apartment
preparing equipment for mixing his latest CD, Contaminacão,
Naná unhurriedly spoke of his career and of music itself
with a child-like fascination . . .
NSR: Did you play drumset in
your early days in Brazil?
Yeah, I did, but before drumset I played percussion. I started
playing bongos and maracas when I was twelve years old.
I played in a cabaret in Recife, with my father. After that,
I bought a drumset and played, then I came back to percussion.
The reason why is because we had a lot of Latin music in
Brazil before bossa nova like Cuban boleros,
mambos, cha-cha-chá, and things like that.
When bossa nova came, Brazilian music started to
get a Brazilian identity. When I started playing percussion,
we played a lot of Latin music, and when bossa nova
came; my dream was to be a drumset player. I bought a drumset,
and taught myself. I used to listen to the Voice of America
radio show every night at seven o'clock. They had this program,
. . . [hums, in blaring theme music fashion, Duke Ellington's
"Take the A Train" while air drumming swing ride cymbal
time]. I started listening to Dave Brubeck, Thelonious
Monk, and Ornette Coleman playing his plastic saxophone,
all those things. I used to go to the American Center [military
base] in Recife to see some jazz there, and I got fascinated.
I said, "I have to play drumset," and then I specialized
in it. I played in 7/8 and 13/8, all these things. Different
time signatures were not related to Afro-Brazilian rhythms,
because these were rhythms of seven or thirteen. Everything
in Brazil is 6/8, 4/4, or 2/4. I started to do those rhythms,
and play Brazilian rhythms in those time signatures in the
early 1960s in Recife. I played in the Yansã Quarteto, Os
Bossa Norte, and the Sambossa Trio; I was the drumset player.
These groups played what they called "bossa jazz."
Then I moved to Rio de
Janeiro and met Milton Nascimento. When I had just met him,
I said, "I came from Recife just to play with you." Because
Milton was alone. Milton arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the
same period that I arrived in the beginning of the 1960s.
Nobody really understood his music because it was not bossa
For me it was perfect,
because drummers were only interested in playing bossa nova.
I had a background playing percussion, I played congas,
bongos, and things like that, and my uncle had candomblé
in his house, and I knew the rhythms of the rituals well.
Milton's group didn't need a drummer; he needed somebody
to do rhythm that was not samba, that was not bossa nova.
So I started working with Milton, and I got back to playing
percussion, composing rhythms for his music.
NSR: Did you know
Airto Moreira and Quarteto Novo back then?
I knew him, I met him but Quarteto Novo was in São Paulo,
and I was in Rio de Janeiro playing with Milton. Somehow,
Airto and myself, we had that similarity of where we were
going in music as far as mixing drumset with percussion
goes. I understood the drumset so this helped a lot. I think
it makes a big difference if you understand the drumset
as a percussionist, it's very important. If you are a drummer
and you understand percussion; or if you are percussionist
and have some knowledge of the drumset, this'll help you
a lot and you'll think differently. Some drummers are very
difficult to play with. Jack DeJohnette is difficult for
a percussion player to play with just because it's difficult
to find space to play in. Ed Blackwell was more solid rhythmically
and he did colors. With Jack it's different: I have to do
a rhythm, because he's all over, his style does not necessarily
play the "one" [claps a steady beat for emphasis].
I have to play the "one," because he doesn't play it [laughter].
NSR: What about Dom
um Romão, did you know each other?
Yeah. When I got to Rio de Janeiro, you had Dom um Romão,
Edison Machado, Victor Manga, and they were the killer drummers
who were really playing bossa nova or this new way
to play jazz-samba. It was difficult for me to be
a drummer who came from the North, and get in that scene.
I found Milton; he needed me, and I needed him. So I started
to do percussion, and only those kinds of things in Rio,
and in São Paulo it was only Airto doing that. There were
a lot of rhythmists who played one percussion instrument
in Brazil; one cuica player, one pandeiro
player, but not many people played a lot of instruments
or mixed them with drumset. I became a percussion player
not a rhythmist.
NSR: How and why
did you get the instruments that you use now, like the berimbau?
I started to play the berimbau because I was involved
in a play called Memória de Dois Pescadores.
This play was kind of research about the northeastern folk
music in Brazil. Me, Teca Calanzas, and Geraldo Azevedo
would go into the countryside to learn about some roots.
We did that research and put on a play together. We were
showing how rich Brazilian culture was. We did music styles
like maracatú, choro, baião, bumba
meu boi, and then capoeira. So to do capoeira,
you have to play berimbau. That was when I started
to play berimbau to play capoeira for that
I kept that instrument
in my house and started to think that the berimbau
shouldn’t stop just with capoeira. The capoeira
has about four toques or rhythms as far as meter
goes. I thought I should do different rhythms on berimbau.
I started doing the rhythms of candomblé; I started
to play berimbau in different ways, doing something
that was not capoeira. I was very scared to play
that in front of the people, because I thought they were
going to say I was damaging the tradition. To adapt different
instruments, Hermeto Pascoal really inspired us a lot, and
gave us that idea. Not just for Airto, but for myself also.
We could use percussion in different ways for rhythm or
colors and sounds. [The conversation is interrupted by
a squirrel entering the apartment window and making a lot
of noise, followed by Naná yelling in Portuguese, "We don't
have any more nuts!"].
Milton's music was not
bossa nova. He just composed something, and I tried
to understand what he was talking about, in his lyrics.
Milton was somehow talking about black people and slavery.
Now, I have knowledge to say that, but at that time I tried
to visualize that idea. For example, in one song I tried
to imagine a slave boat coming in on the Amazon River. But
I started to use music, or percussion sounds to illustrate
Milton's poetry. That opened the idea that everything is
possible; everything is sounds; everything is percussion.
On the other hand, I was also listening to Jimi Hendrix.
So this whole thing had a progression. But the berimbau
was largely responsible for that, because when I started
to play berimbau differently from the capoeira,
the idea came into my mind that instruments have no limitations.
Berimbau is not necessarily made just to play capoeira.
Berimbau is just an instrument that you can play.
And that kind of idea came very strongly, and I started
thinking, "I can do that with all the instruments." This
idea came from Jimi Hendrix; instruments have no limitations,
and I started to treat music in that way.
I had to play drumset
for some tunes of Milton’s but I had already started to
mix the percussion and drumset together. I had a ganza
in my hands, and the whole drumset was becoming percussion.
I believe that was true for Airto, also. We started to use
cuica not just for samba. And we started to
use all these Brazilian traditional instruments, just as
instruments. It was difficult for us because there were
not many people doing those kinds of music. Airto had Hermeto,
and I had Milton. Airto had instrumental music because Hermeto
had an instrumental quartet, and I had Milton who was a
singer. Milton allowed me to use those kinds of ideas.
NSR: What about the
caxixi, did you get those in Brazil or France?
One small caxixi is part of the berimbau.
The bigger caxixi, I use two to four at a time, really
come from Africa. When I got to France, I saw bigger caxixi,
and started working with them. I already had technique for
the small caxixi because of the berimbau,
so I just transposed that. The berimbau was very
important for the way I developed. I started to play and
discovered that everything was there in the berimbau.
Nobody ever played that way before. I lived in an apartment
in Rio de Janeiro, so it was impossible for me to practice
my drumset, because of the neighbors. So I practiced on
the berimbau, in different rhythms: seven, six, five
- all those things I had in my mind, I transposed for the
berimbau. I realized that the hand position I had
on the berimbau was the same I had on drumset. The
left hand is the snare, and the right hand is the cymbal.
I had the same situation here on berimbau. So I used
to practice on the berimbau, and then transpose for
the drumset, or for any instruments. I had that kind of
idea of the same kinds of hand positions and movements;
you just change the position for each instrument. Berimbau
was the main thing for that; it opened me to see sounds
as music; to see noise as music.
But it was difficult
for us in Brazil, because Brazil didn't have much improvised
music. The idea of improvised music came from jazz. The
musician who is used to listening to jazz has this idea
of improvisation. But in Brazilian popular music, you never
had that; somebody improvising something like a solo improvisation.
That's what we started to call "bossa jazz." In traditional
samba school music, you'll have breaks for the percussion
instruments to solo. But we considered that a traditional
thing not like the new jazz music that had improvisation
with new song forms, rhythms, and instrument combinations.
NSR: When you left
Brazil and traveled to France in the early 1970s, did you
also go to Angola?
I was there first when I was working in Recife. When I was
in Recife, before going to Rio, I played with Yansã Quarteto
and Agostinho dos Santos. We were vibraphone, piano, bass,
and drumset; I was the drummer, and Agostinho sang. We were
a very successful quartet, and then we said, [chuckles]
like teenagers, [excitedly]: "Let's go to Europe!"
We had no contract; we didn't know anybody; we just put
the money together, and said, "Okay, let's start with Portugal,"
because it had the same language. We got tickets and flew
from Recife to Portugal. We got there, and said, "So now,
what are we going to do?" [chuckles]. We didn't know
anybody. And I was so lucky, because we were walking around
after a couple of days being there, and I saw this Brazilian
singer, Agostinho dos Santos, who was passing by. He knew
me because he used to go to Recife to play on television,
and a couple of times I had played drumset for him. "What
are you doing here?," I asked him. He said, "Okay, so I'm
going to fix a concert for us. I was looking for a band;
I'm here on vacation."
Then things happened.
For me, things always happen naturally. I was in Portugal
with Agostinho, and we went to Angola in Africa. Then we
met Eleuterio Sanches, the composer, and made the recording
Macemba together in 1969. Then we came back to
Brazil, and I went to Rio and played with Milton, Gal Costa,
Gilberto Gil, and a musician from Argentina, Gato Barbieri,
and he invited me to play on a film score, which he had
composed, called Pindorama.
He saw me playing with
Milton, and at that time everybody started to talk about
this guy who made a lot of noise, and played different things;
it was myself playing with Milton. It was something very
unusual in Brazil; the things I started to do were not those
of the traditional rhythmist. So I played, and did
Pindorama, and then Gato said, "I have a tour to
do in Argentina, you want to come?" So I was in Argentina
with Gato. And in the middle of the week, he said, "I just
got an invitation to do my first album in America. You want
to come?" I said, "Yes!"
So everything was always
like that. The next thing I knew, I was here in New York
playing with Ron Carter, Lenny White; all these people that
I was familiar with from records. I used to buy imported
records in Recife. We had a large store where you would
go to buy records. The American Center helped me a lot;
I would say, "I want to listen to Thelonious," or "I want
to listen to Ornette," or "I want to listen to Dave Brubeck."
They helped me to find all those imported records, which
were very expensive at that time. My mother used to say,
[shouting angrily]: "You're going to eat albums!"
Because all my money, I spent on albums [chuckles].
Yeah, she would say, "You don't buy clothes for yourself;
you don't buy nothing, you just buy album, album, album,
album! How much is this album? You're listening to this
music?" I was crazy because everybody listened to Brazilian
music, but my mother started listening to my music! [chuckles].
So my mother listened to John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious
Monk . . . [laughter]. I left home for one week to
go to Rio de Janeiro, and I met Milton, and I never came
back for twenty years [chuckles].
NSR: When you were
in France, you started to play a lot of jazz and different
kinds of music?
Yeah, playing with Gato was really the first time I got
involved in that, in real improvisation. With Gato we tried
to make South American world jazz. Because the repertoire
was tangos, shakaleras, all Argentinean roots. And
he was very good at improvising in these styles. I remember
the first time I was playing with Gato in the USA, we played
at the Village Vanguard, and Latin musicians were coming
to check it out. They would ask, "What kind of music is
that?" [chuckles]. Or, "Where's that coming from?"
Because it was tangos, shakaleras, and carnivalitos
. . . these were the styles of the rhythms with improvisation.
It was a different kind of jazz for Americans. I remember
this famous writer from The New York Times, Robert
Palmer. We finished playing, and he came backstage, I didn't
speak any English, and he said, [in a highly agitated
voice]: "What is this? What kind of music is that? And
this guy up there with this bow an arrow" . . . because
I had my berimbau [chuckles]. He was so confused,
because he didn't know what he was going to write in the
newspaper because he had to do a review. He wrote a very
good review, but he didn't talk much about the music. He
mentioned more about the gentleman, who was me, who had
these strange instruments because it was very unusual for
Americans. Earlier, there were percussion players that would
just play congas, bongos, timbales, cowbells, guiro,
claves, and maracas with Dizzy Gillespie in Afro-Cuban
In 1969-1970s, there
was Airto, who played with Miles Davis, and Dom um Romão,
who was mostly a drummer, and played with Sergio Mendes
but later played percussion with Weather Report. Airto came
in, and really opened everything up. When Miles listened
to him play for the first time, he was on stage, you know,
and somebody talked to him about Airto when he used to come
in with his cuica, and those things, and Miles used
to say, "Wow!" [chuckles] "Something new!" And that
was the start of that period of creative percussion developing.
NSR: In France, besides
jazz, you also worked with some rock artists, and blues
artists, and different kinds of music?
Yeah. I started work with Jean-Luc Ponty, he used to live
there, because . . . [Visiting squirrels cause a commotion
in the room, and Naná yells "No!" at them.]
NSR: What I'm trying
to get at here with the different kinds of music is, if
you are a bass player, you know what you have to play; if
you are a drummer, you know you play time, but percussionists
. . . there's no clear thing you're supposed to play in
blues, or rock, or jazz.
[Naná claps loudly
and shouts at squirrels].
NSR: So how did you
deal with that?
The thing that was very important, for me, was the fact
that I played bongos and maracas, and then I played drumset.
When I played drumset, I played for dances, folk groups,
the theater, and that really opened my mind to play anything,
to be involved in any kind of situation. I think it's very
important for musicians to have that experience; to play
for dancing, in a bar, with folk groups, or in the street.
This was a really incredible background, which gave me the
know-how, to be involved with music of all kinds. I think
the big thing was that I learned to listen; when I listen
I find space because I played in different situations. I
played in theater, which is a big part of that . . . to
use the imagination to play different, not just the rhythms,
but to try to do sounds.
NSR: In France, you
worked with kids in the hospital; what exactly did you do?
I worked for two and a half years. This was because of the
berimbau when I did Africadeus, my first
solo record. They invited me to do a kids’ TV program. That
day they were going to talk about dreaming. They invited
a doctor, a psychiatrist, to talk about what dreaming is.
I was invited because of the sounds I get on the berimbau.
NSR: Like the gourd
Yeah, the . . . [makes sliding and "wah wah wah" sounds
with his voice]; all those sounds. And the psychiatrist
was fighting to legalize his ideas of therapy for children,
he had a new way to deal with that.
NSR: Through music?
Using music but no technique, no music therapy. The idea
of it was that there was no technique. He was influenced
by somebody who worked here in America called Bruno Bettelhiem.
They didn't want somebody who was a music therapist. When
he heard me play, he said, "I have this project." It was
outside of Paris at a center for children with psychiatric
problems. And he invited a painter, musician, and dancer
to work together with children.
And this was incredible
for me, because it gave me financial stability, so I didn't
have to go to play in the cafés and clubs a lot. It opened
up a new dimension for entertainment. In my studio there,
I had music from all over for the kids to listen to, and
I had my instruments to play. The idea was no technique,
everything was free. That showed me how to deal with the
situation. The kids could come in anytime to my room; you
didn't have to say, "Can I go there," or "Can I touch that,"
or "Can I go to the painter" . . . they didn't establish
the time to do music, or to paint, or to dance; the kids
were free. The kids always went straight for my studio to
listen to music or to ask me to play. I played and sang,
and they'd say, [in a demanding tone]: "More!" And
I'd play and sing, and they'd say, "More!" And I'd play
and sing, and they'd say, "More!" [chuckles]. So
I'd say, "Come on, sing with me!" I realized that the main
thing was that we become friends because the music put us
together. Some kids had problems with coordination; some
had problems saying certain words. But the music worked;
you play and sing with them, and they would join in. And
then I developed a program. I had to have a sense of composition;
a beginning, middle, and ending; just for kids.
NSR: What about your
current work with kids in Brazil, the House of Naná, could
you say a little bit about that?
I wrote this project, and gave it to the different
governments of the states in Brazil. The first one that
came out was in Bahia, they gave me a three-floor building,
and I have one house in Recife. In Recife, it's just friends
of mine, we asked some artists to give a freezer, another
one gave me a kitchen, and another one gave food.
And the music is there,
because I am a musician, and now artists have started to
come for a one or two month residency. I'll bring a painter
who works with ceramic and paint for two months. At the
end of the residency, he has to show the results of that.
He goes away; I bring somebody else: an instrument maker,
or a video maker. And that way the kids have different options
for learning. And you have different choices for the kids
to have something positive. Maybe someone is going to be
a musician, another one is going to learn how to make instruments,
another one will go to learn how to paint, or another one
wants to learn how to dance. That way, they can think to
have a future, and maybe think to themselves, "I can do
something." They are not just street kids; they’re kids
who live in the streets!
NSR: About studio
work, how much preparation, or rehearsal, is there when
you do recordings with Egberto Gismonti or Jan Garbarek?
I met Egberto a long time ago in Brazil, but we had never
played together. I was living in Paris, and one day Egberto
called me from the airport, saying, "I am here in Paris.
I'm going to Oslo to do my album." And I was working with
the kids here, and I had a percussion group called Assum.
And so I invited Egberto to stay in my house. He was there
to pick up a new guitar. He said, "I asked them to make
an eight string guitar." Egberto always had this idea for
different acoustic guitars. So he was staying in my house
for a couple of days, on the way to go to Oslo, and he was
waiting for his band, which was in Brazil. The musicians
in Brazil were not allowed to leave the country because
in the early 1970s, the Brazilian economy was very political,
and for any Brazilian to go out of the country, they had
to pay a deposit. And then Egberto said, "You have to do
this album." So we just played together. I had known his
music from Brazil before and I really admired him. But when
we started to play together, it was a big change for his
music. Because it was something he had never experienced
before. He was used to playing with a quartet that was drumset,
bass, saxophone, and himself. When he started to play with
me, because of my instrumentation and sounds, the Afro-Brazilian
element was in his music for the first time. Egberto was
coming from a schooled concept; he went to the conservatory
in Vienna to be a classical musician. I come from the street
so I brought those elements to his music. We both realized,
how that was so different, but at the same time it was together,
because of the way we think.
We jammed for awhile
to learn his compositions. I would listen a couple of times,
and then decide what instrument to play. It was a discovery
for both of us, it was great. We did the album for ECM,
Dança Das Cabeças, and it won a prize in Germany,
and everybody started talking about the two Brazilians.
I started to record more
with improvising musicians like Jan Garbarek, Codona, Don
Cherry, Arild Andersen; Codona was the best collaboration
in my life because it was a really unpredictable situation.
Codona was true improvisation; freedom. Because it was true
collaboration, three different persons, three different
backgrounds put together. Then everybody started inviting
me to play pop music in the studio to record. Sometimes
they'd say, "I want you to play this berimbau," and
the berimbau had nothing to do with the song. I try
to avoid that because sometimes I get the idea that I play
more when I don't play. If I have to play with Jan Garbarek,
I have to compose a rhythm for a Norwegian folk song. I
have to think, "That song should stay Norwegian." I composed
a rhythm, but it was important to me to put the flavor of
the samba but not to change the music to become Brazilian.
So I have to think about using that silence as a percussion
element. Because Garbarek always plays music long notes
and uses space. So you don't need much, but you need something
very solid and clear, you have to be very clear. But it
was a great experience for me to play with Jan Garbarek.
The big experience was with Don Cherry and Collin Walcott
NSR: What about when
you're in a studio situation with an artist that you don't
know their music, how do you go about choosing instruments?
I usually ask for a tape to listen to. I prefer that because
that way when I get in the studio, I have choices to show
the composer. To say, "You want it to go that way, or this
way?" Percussion can change the sound to put it in different
directions. I've had a situation, for example, with Joachim
Kühn; we just went to the studio without knowing each other.
We did that with Codona, but we knew each other. We knew
each other's sounds; each other's style. But when you don't
know, sometimes it becomes producers putting names together.
The music doesn’t happen because it was just names, and
everybody's egos and energies are not in balance. I try
to avoid those kinds of situations, but I often to do it;
the main thing is I don't have to prove anything; if the
music is there, I play. I don't look for competition, "Who
is playing faster, or louder?" In those kinds of situations,
people's enthusiasm gets so excited, and the ego sometimes
gets stronger than the music. You know, and there is no
need for that [chuckle].
NSR: At the Creative
Music Studio in Woodstock, what kind of interaction was
there between you and other teachers like Collin Walcott,
Adam Rudolph, Trilok Gurtu, and Don Cherry? Did you learn
from and play with each other, besides teaching students?
When I was there, I was playing twenty-four hours; we played
almost all the time. I would do my workshop for a couple
of hours, and after that I would just go outside; the place
was beautiful in the woods. I would just be playing all
the time with musicians who were there. It was an incredible
way to learn! For the workshops, sometimes there was not
much time, and there were so many people it was difficult
for everybody to get the information I wanted to give to
them. But when we played spontaneously afterwards just playing
and trying things, that was better. That's what the beautiful
thing was there in the Creative Music Studio. Everybody
played all the time. After class, you'd just go outside
and jam. That was the best class, better than the workshops
because in the workshops there was more knowledge, and you
could take notes, and learn about the forms, and things.
But I believe you learn more with your own body. When you
learn it with your own body, you have the possibility to
never forget. When you learn it by the book, you have a
tendency to forget. With your own body, it's like learning
how to ride a bicycle; after twenty years go by, you get
on a bicycle and your body remembers. I have the experience
of doing workshops where everybody learns with their body,
and then, after they learn, they write it down. But when
they write it down, and compare it, it's different [chuckles].
I think it's very important to learn with your own body.
To use your own way to feel the rhythm, what's the "one,"
for you? Because the "one" depends on the way you feel it.
In Brazil if you sing a song, everybody's going to clap
on the downbeat [claps], naturally. Here in America,
if you sing a song, everybody naturally is going to clap
on the upbeats [demonstrates]. This is organic. So
you have to learn it with your body; where the "one" is,
So everybody just tried
to understand more of what we were talking about in the
workshops by doing because otherwise they forget about the
intellectual part, the didactic part of the music. But by
playing, I remember I saw some students say, [excitedly]:
"Oh! Oh! Now I get it! That's the depth he's talking about.
I can do it, but now I understand what I'm doing."
The Creative Music Studio
was great, because of that freedom, because it was very
open. It was too bad they lost the grants because it was
a great, great, great, great ambience, and I think it was
a pioneer of world music.
NSR: About your work
with Collin Walcott, Don Cherry, and Codona, what is it
about the process of improvising?
This was happening all because I had a berimbau,
Collin had the sanza, and Don had a doussn'gouni
[donso ngoni]. First, Codona started because it
was Collin's album; he was supposed to do an album for ECM.
He invited Don, and he said, "You should invite Naná." So
Collin invited me. Collin was playing with Oregon and living
here, on 19th St. We listened to each other. We could listen
to each other and find space. It had to do with security.
When somebody doesn't feel this idea of competition. Musicians
have to flexible. They have to be comfortable with themselves.
That's a big, important point. When you're okay about yourself
and the things you're doing, you don't need to prove anything.
Sometimes musicians, especially younger musicians, they're
anxious to get the recognition. I play a lot to accompany
people. When you have those kinds of experiences, you can’t
forget that you are there to collaborate, and not to dictate
[laughs]. This has to do with spirituality or how
religious you are with yourself. Religious, in that sense
of you and yourself, your situation. Collin had that, Don
had that, and I have that quite strongly. When I got in
the studio to record with Codona, I was just listening.
I listened because they had already played together before.
And I had played together with Don before. So that was a
very good help. When we worked on the first song, Collin
said, "This is not my album! This is not mine, this is ours."
Collin just had the sanza. It was the beginning of
his playing sanza, because he didn't play sanza
in Oregon. I was amazed because Don already had the doussn'gouni
for a long time, and me and Don used to play berimbau
and doussn'gouni. The sanza was this high
pitch in between the doussn'gouni and berimbau.
So it was a perfect combination. It worked just like that!
Collin got interested in knowing Brazilian rhythms to play
on tabla. Collin and me were always like that. You
cover for me, and then I can change instruments, and sometimes
he'd start to play tabla; I'd play berimbau
and sing. Then he could go to the sitar, and I would
come to a drum. We always had this idea of one thing becomes
another. That comes from my work with Milton and Egberto.
The secret of this is simplicity. Not many people have the
patience to play simple and groove and believe in the groove.
NSR: How do you practice
to develop all these techniques you have with your voice
I practice by myself a lot. Everyday I go to my studio,
and I practice. I like to practice the basic things, and
sometimes I don't have an instrument with me; I just use
my voice. Then I can transpose that to an instrument. This
made me start to make poetry in organizing sounds. I'm always
organizing sounds, and these sounds can be transposed for
another instrument. I work with berimbau, and then
there's a rhythm thing, then I can transpose it to the drum.
Everything for me comes from the berimbau, about
sounds and things. The berimbau gave me the idea
of mixing organic sounds of instruments. Every instrument
has a certain sound, which goes together with the voice
in a certain way: for the conga, [drums on table while
imitating conga drumming and imitates the sounds with his
voice]. For the berimbau, [imitates berimbau
in a whispery voice]. For the cuica, I just do
the same thing with my voice, it becomes a duet, those kinds
of ideas come from the berimbau. I started to mimic
the sounds of my instruments with my voice first with the
berimbau, then conga, cuica, caxixi,
gong, and my body; it became spontaneous.
I never went to music
school. I learned everything by myself. Sometimes I ask
myself, "Why me? Why did I get the berimbau, and
play it that way?" The berimbau is the main thing
that led to my way of playing. When I worked with children,
I started to think, "What I can do to help these kids who
have coordination problems?" Kids were always coming, I
would sing for them, and then they started singing with
me. One kid comes in, he says, [shouts]: "Pah!" I
say, [shouts back and claps]: "Pah-pah! Good!" If
I played like this: [demonstrates coordination game,
using clapping and voice sounds], then I could compose
like that, and I started to compose Zumbi based
on the body and my imagination of the first slave ships
coming to Brazil. It was like some spiritual thing put me
in that direction. The kids came to do it with me, and I
practiced with them. That’s how I composed my album Zumbi,
with those kids in France. It was amazing!
NSR: What about the
songs that you sing, where do they come from?
They come from the gong [laughs]. Well , the gong
[sings a low tone, imitating the sound of a gong]
. . . is a drone for me because I have no harmonic instruments.
When I worked with Don, he talked about the concept of Ornette
Coleman's harmolodic system; that melodies already have
the harmony themselves. So I have a pedal pitch with a Zildjian
Turkish gong in D: [sings a long, low tone, imitating
a gong . . . then hums a fast melody, then imitates the
gong note]. I always compose like that. But it's funny
because I know harmony, but I don’t know harmony. I imagined
four aboios singing, [North Brazilian cow-herders],
in different parts of the field. Not together but their
singing comes together kind of like a fugue but due more
to the natural occurrence of several people singing in a
large field. I like to sing that in my concerts! So I wondered
how to deal with that. The Xingu Indians in the Amazon have
a similar way of chanting real low so that’s where I got
that idea with the gong. I think it's a tendency of people
to make music based on their surroundings, what is around
NSR: Since you constantly
travel the world working in music, is this reflected on
your new CD [released only in Brazil on the Estudio M. Officer
Yes, the new CD is called Contaminacão. On this
album, I took a different approach. I recorded everything
acoustically, and I have a rap, techno . . . it has everything.
It has my rap. I haven't showed you the rap?
. . . and so the
day continued with Naná playing several tracks from his
latest two projects, singing along new parts, excitedly
telling me about his daughter Jasmine, his work in an annual
fashion show in Brazil with M. Officer company, a film score
he had to finish that afternoon, plans to have Zakir Hussain
perform with him at Perc Pan 1999 in Brazil, and plans to
have a Perc Pan 2000 in New York City. He invited me to
the studio where he was mixing his new CD, and on the way
we stopped by the late Collin Walcott's apartment and a
restaurant where Codona used to eat. When we got to the
studio, without taking a break, Nana went right to work
on his CD, which is a diverse assortment of acoustic guitar,
chanting, rapping, singing, and his ever tasteful and creative
percussion . . . the nature of Naná.
Naná Vasconcelos Selected
Sagn CD 1991 ECM 1435 78118-21435-2
If You Look Far Enough CD 1993 ECM 1493 78118-21493-2
Arv CD 1994 Kirkelig Kulturverksted FXCD 133
Codona (Collin Walcott,
Don Cherry & Naná Vasconcelos)
Codona CD 1979 ECM 1132 78118-21132-2
Codona 2 CD 1981 ECM 1177 78118-21177-2
Codona 3 CD 1983 ECM 1243 78118-21243-2
Agostinho dos Santos & Yansã Quarteto [Naná
Agostinho dos Santos CD 1967 InterCD Records R 31001
Eça & Sagrada Família
Onda Nova do Brasil CD 1970 Lazarus Audio Products
Eventyr CD 1980 ECM 1200 78118-21200-2
Legend of the Seven Dreams CD 1988 ECM 1381 78118-21361-2
I Took Up the Runes CD 1990 ECM 1419 78118-21419-2
Egberto Gismonti & Naná Vasconcelos
Dança Das Cabeças CD 1977 ECM 1089 78118-21089-2
Duas Vozes CD 1985 ECM 1279 78118-21279-2
Jazzbühne Berlin '84 Vol. 6: Duo Gismonti-Vasconcelos
CD 1990 Repertoire Records RR 4906-CC
Pereyra Lucena & Naná Vasconcelos
El Increible Naná con Agustin Pereyra Lucena LP
1971 Tonodisc TON-1020
Metheny, Lyle Mays & Naná Vasconcelos
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls CD 1981
ECM 1190 78118-21190-2/4
Tostão, a fera de ouro LP 1970 Odeon 7BD1202
[Naná's first recording with berimbau!]
Milagre Dos Peixes CD 1973 Intuition CDP 7 907902
Miltons CD 1988 CBS Luxo 231163
Randooga: Select Live Under the Sky ‘90 CD 1990
Sony Epic ESCA 5171
Sheppard, Naná Vasconcelos & Steve Lodder
Inclassificable CD 1995 Label Bleu LBLC 6583
(Juvenal de Holanda e Vasconcelos)
Africadeus CD 1972 Omagatoki TR 49015927
Amazonas CD 1973 Omega 2074
Naná Vasconcelos, Nelson Angelo & Novelli
CD 1974 Omagatoki 49015927
Saudades CD 1980 ECM 1147 78118-21147-2
Zumbi CD 1983 Omega 1701
Nanatronics: Rekebra/Nanatroniko LP single 1984
Bagaria BAG-X 0190784 (Italy)
Bush Dance CD 1987 Antilles CCD 8701
Rain Dance CD 1989 Antilles 7 91070-2 ANCD 8741
Storytelling (Contando Estorias) CD 1995 EMI Hemisphere
7243 8 33444-2
Fragments: Modern Tradition CD 1997 Tzadik TZ 7506
Contaminacão CD 1999 Estudio M. Officer
Naná Vasconcelos e Itamar Assumpção:
Isso vai dar repercussão CD 2002 Elo Music ELO
Minha Lôa CD 2002 Net Music NET0027
Chegada CD 2005 Azul Music AMCD332
Trilhas CD 2006 Azul Music AMCD432
Sinfonia & Batuques CD 2010 Azul Music
Vasconcelos, Steve Gorn, Badal Roy & Mike Richmond
Asian Journal CD 1981 Nomad NMD 50303
Vasconcelos & Antonello Salis
Lester CD 1987 Soul Note 121 157-2
Goree, On the Other Side of the Water film 1990
Unesco (Documentary about Naná in Africa).
Berimbau film 1971 New Yorker Films (Documentary
about berimbau featuring Naná).
Woodstock Jazz Festival DVD 1981 Pioneer Artists
Batouka '86: First International Festival of Percussion
video 1988 Rhapsody Films
of Naná Vasconcelos
Talking Drum – Small Nigerian model.
– Large West African xylophone.
– Pearl bass drum usually on a stand orchestral style, Yamaha
brass snare drum, hi-hat, various Paiste cymbals, and small
toms all played standing up with sticks or mallets for drumset-style
- Musical bow with a gourd resonator, struck with a stick
while a stone changes the pitch of the string. A caxixi
is also held in the same hand as the stick. From Brazil,
made by Naná.
& Voice – Naná often claps, stomps, and beats different
parts of his body for rhythms and sounds. His voice is used
for singing, chanting, and creative vocal percussive sounds.
He also will combine this with a mic through a Boss digital
delay for electronic sound collages.
Bean Pods – Various sizes strung up and shaken.
– Large basket shakers with a gourd bottom from Brazil and
Angola. Made for Naná by Italian percussionist Peppe Consolmagno.
– Latin Percussion.
– Various sizes and models, usually laid out on the floor
and struck with mallets or sticks.
– Brass model from Brazil, used in duet with his voice.
– Cymbal Tree and various cymbals from Paiste.
- Large 24" 1950s A. Zildjian Turkish gong tuned to
– Hollow wooden tube, which is a 1-note Pygmy whistle blown
in-between chanting with the voice from Central African
Bells - From large individual Noah bells with a clapper,
temple bells, or camel bells to hundreds of tiny brass pellet
bells in various sizes strung up and shaken.
– Brazilian tambourine.
- A pair of small hand drums from Northern India. Naná used
them frequently in his early recordings.
Sheet - A medium sized piece of thin sheet metal
shaken for various effects.
– Round clay pot drum, various sizes made for Naná by a
woman in Nigeria and Italian percussionist Peppe Consolmagno.
Currently Naná has an udu made of glass by members of Uakti.
– Large pieces of wood from a shoe factory in France played
with a pair of vibe mallets in one hand.
©1999 - N. Scott Robinson.
All rights reserved.