"Naná Vasconcelos: The 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?

NV: 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 nova.

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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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 play.

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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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 jazz.

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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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 scrape?

NV: 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?

NV: 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 Bettelheim. 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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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 in Codona.

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?

NV: 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?

NV: 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, for you.

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?

NV: 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 and instruments?

NV: 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?

NV: 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 them.

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 label]?

NV: 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 Discography

Arild Andersen
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 on drumset!]
Agostinho dos Santos CD 1967 InterCD Records R 31001

Luíz Eça & Sagrada Família
Onda Nova do Brasil CD 1970 Lazarus Audio Products CD-2015

Jan Garbarek
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

Agustin Pereyra Lucena & Naná Vasconcelos
El Increible Naná con Agustin Pereyra Lucena LP 1971 Tonodisc TON-1020

Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays & Naná Vasconcelos
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls CD 1981 ECM 1190 78118-21190-2/4

Milton Nascimento
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

Masahiko Satoh
Randooga: Select Live Under the Sky ‘90 CD 1990 Sony Epic ESCA 5171

Andy Sheppard, Naná Vasconcelos & Steve Lodder
Inclassificable CD 1995 Label Bleu LBLC 6583

Naná Vasconcelos (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 MF 1000
Naná Vasconcelos e Itamar Assumpção: Isso vai dar repercussão CD 2002 Elo Music ELO 0009/AA0002000
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
4 Elementos CD 2013 As Is 2553082

Café no Bule CD 2015 SESC

Naná Vasconcelos, Steve Gorn, Badal Roy & Mike Richmond
Asian Journal CD 1981 Nomad NMD 50303

Naná Vasconcelos & Antonello Salis
Lester CD 1987 Soul Note 121 157-2

Selected Videography

Didier Grosset (director)
Goree, On the Other Side of the Water film 1990 Unesco (Documentary about Naná in Africa).

Toby Talbot (director)
Berimbau film 1971 New Yorker Films (Documentary about berimbau featuring Naná).

Various Artists
Woodstock Jazz Festival DVD 1981 Pioneer Artists PA-98-596-D
Batouka '86: First International Festival of Percussion video 1988 Rhapsody Films

Percussion Instruments of Naná Vasconcelos

African Talking Drum - Small Nigerian model.

Balafon - Large West African xylophone.

Bateria - 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 accompaniment.

Berimbau - 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.

Body & 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.

Cameroon Bean Pods - Various sizes strung up and shaken.

Caxixi - Large basket shakers with a gourd bottom from Brazil and Angola. Made for Naná by Italian percussionist Peppe Consolmagno.

Conga - Latin Percussion.

Cowbells - Various sizes and models, usually laid out on the floor and struck with mallets or sticks.

Cuica - Brass model from Brazil, used in duet with his voice.

Cymbals - Cymbal Tree and various cymbals from Paiste.

Gong - Large 24" 1950s A. Zildjian Turkish gong tuned to D.

Hindewhu - Hollow wooden tube, which is a 1-note Pygmy whistle blown in-between chanting with the voice from Central African Republic/Cameroon.

Indian 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.

Pandeiro - Brazilian tambourine.

Tabla - A pair of small hand drums from Northern India. Naná used them frequently in his early recordings.

Thunder Sheet - A medium sized piece of thin sheet metal shaken for various effects.

Udu - 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.

Woodblocks - 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.


©1999-N. Scott Robinson/New World View Music-BMI. All rights reserved.

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