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Naná Vasconcelos R.I.P.

 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, who has died aged seventy-one, seemed to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Scotland, so familiar was his presence.

 

The gentle, always smiling, always listening Vasconcelos first appeared here with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s group and quickly followed this with visits with trumpeter-iconoclast Don Cherry and in several line-ups with English saxophonist Andy Sheppard. There was even a solo concert, which reinforced the notion of Vasconcelos as a communicator first and foremost, and later he formed a duo with a Scot, fellow percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie.

 

In a career spanning almost sixty years Vasconcelos appeared with a bewildering array of names , including Chaka Khan, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, Carly Simon, B.B. King, Ryuichi Sakamoto, the GypsyKings, and Pat Metheny. He also worked on dozens of film soundtracks although he wouldn’t necessarily have described his contributions as work. As he confirmed during a workshop in the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow, he was never happier than when he had something to tap or shake or just people to clap in time with – as long as there was a cup of good, strong coffee to hand.

 

Juvenal de Holanda e Vasconcelos was born in the state of Pernambuco in north-eastern Brazil. His father was a guitarist and Naná began playing bongos and maracas in his band at the age of twelve. In his teens he discovered the Voice of America jazz programme on the radio and listening to it every night, he decided he should buy a drum kit. He taught himself to play and became a professional drummer, adding all sorts of ethnic percussion instruments that allowed him to lend colour as well as a beat.

 

With a musical philosophy learned from Jimi Hendrix - anything is possible - and knowledge of jazz gleaned from a serious vinyl habit (his mother once told him he might have to eat records if he kept spending all his money on music), Naná went from his hometown, Recife, out into the world. Along with fellow Brazilian Airto Moreira and with their mastery of an array of instruments including vocals, rather than concentrating on, say, congas, Vasconcelos redefined the term “percussionist”.

 

In one of many happy accidents that led to significant career developments, he moved to Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, after a sojourn in Portugal, France and Angola, and met the emerging singer-guitarist Milton Nascimento, one of Brazil’s greatest songwriters of the past forty years. Nascimento’s music didn’t need a steady pulse and Vasconcelos was the perfect accompanist, playing talking drums, bells, a bunch of llamas’ toe-nails, and the instrument that became his signature sound, the one-stringed berimbau.

 

He always referred to this archer’s bow- like creation as his Steinway and it wouldn’t be the first member of airport check-in staff who was disconcerted to learn that the small-built, bearded chap at the counter wanted to bring his Steinway as carry-on baggage. The instrument was invariably hung over Nana’s shoulder – he didn’t like letting it out of his sight – and he’d turn to reveal this supposed problem with a big grin.

 

Further accidental meetings led to Vasconcelos playing with pop singer-political activist Gilberto Gil and Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who took him on tour to Argentina and after a few days announced that he had just been invited to New York to record his first American album. Naná went with him and found himself in a studio with jazz session heavyweights including bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White.

 

In 1976, having moved to Paris, Vasconcelos bumped into Brazilian guitarist-pianist Egberto Gismonti, who had been studying in Europe. Gismonti had been invited to make an album for the then ascendant ECM jazz label but due to the political situation his band couldn’t leave Brazil. Nana took the band’s place and the resultant record, Dança Das Cabeças became his passport to numerous projects and records, including the trio CoDoNa - with one old friend, Don Cherry, and one new, multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott from the group Oregon - and a period with guitarist Pat Metheny’s group.

 

As well as playing percussion, Vasconcelos was a huge influence on Metheny’s ultra-successful shift towards Brazilian meters and the wordless singing that came to typify his sound. He also recorded with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen and as well as touring and recording with Garbarek and Cherry, he performed in a duo with Gismonti (amiably referred to as “Egg Naan”) before returning to New York and dividing his time between there and Brazil.

 

In recent years he remained the go-to musician for a brand of vocal-percussive colour that found him described as a one-man rainforest and he took particular pleasure in his House of Naná project, working with homeless teenagers in Brazil to show them that life is full of possibilities. No-one knew this more than the delight that was Naná Vasconcelos.

 

Naná Vasconcelos, musician, born August 2, 1944; died March 9, 2016.

 

From The Herald, March 17, 2016

 

 

 

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