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Naná Vasconcelos – autodidata mestre do som

Naná Vasconcelos Recifé Carnival

The Brazilian state of Pernambuco is today in three days of mourning for its cultural ambassador, the percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, and hence my first post since the passing of David Bowie is another tribute. It could have been three in a row as Maurice White provided an important start to my journey through music. I spent a week posting and talking about him on Facebook.

What makes Naná’s passing more personal, however, is the fact that I met him and what he taught me has had lasting impact. Naná Vasconcelos was more than an inspiration. He taught me that my love of percussion was really a passion for what could be achieved with sound beyond scales, chords and traditional rhythms. Although he did possess a deep cultural understanding of the Afro-Brazilian rhythms, from the Maracatu of his native Pernambuco through Samba to Afoxé and so much more.

The American jazz magazine DownBeat named Naná percussionist of the year every year from 1983 to 1991. He established musical partnerships with artists including, Milton Nascimento, Pat Metheny, B. B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, Kate Bush and my friend Orphy Robinson, but what separated him from many elevated artists was the openness that provided a generosity of self, imparting inspiration and broadening horizons.

Of course there was also that infectious laugh that many have referred to in their obits. It was a valuable attribute and perhaps an effective tool in the teaching and collaborative creative process. He may even be remembered for it almost as much as he will be for being the master of the one string instrument, the Berimbau.

Naná Vasconcelos

It’s ironic that someone who was entirely self-taught became such a ubiquitous teacher, working with individual musicians and large groups of children around the world. I’m sure that the manner in which he learned, on the pots and pans in his mother’s kitchen and making his own first berimbau, is what gave him his command of the body and the natural material world as a limitless palette of sound.

It was this specifically Afro-Brazillian and uniquely Vasconcelos ability to turn the world into his orchestra that drew me to Naná. I remember being mesmerised when I first saw him perform “The Bat” with the Pat Metheny Group in ‘84. I was blown away when, at the solo concert I saw next, he used the audience to re-create the evolving sound of rain into a storm.


“Zumbi” by Naná Vasconcelos from the album “Chegada”, 2005

I then sought out his music on record and eventually him when I went to a workshop in Brixton where he taught me the berimbau. He gave me permission to use it as a musical instrument in its own right, outside of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, and opened up the full potential of the instrument. He taught me how to use water, old bits of wood and metal and made sense of my interest in electronics. Most importantly he shared a certain grace that was about relinquishing competitive ambition, making it ok to just create whatever I was inspired to create at any given time, in any given medium.

Naná was diagnosed with cancer last year (2015) and in December received an honorary doctorate from the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE). The significance of this autodidact being embraced by the academic establishment cannot be underestimated. It’s a real testament to his commitment to his craft, his students and collaborators that he continued working through his illness and the effects of his treatment, among other projects leading the opening of the Recife carnival only a few weeks ago.

In return, a testament to how well loved and respected he was is the mass devotion shown at his wake and funeral in his home town of Recifé, despite the city being in the grips of and at the epicentre of the dreadful Zika virus epidemic.

His legacy is not just his music, but the artists and children whose lives he touched and whose practice he influenced. I know my journey would have been a very different one if I hadn’t met him.

Rest In Eternal Peace and Power Naná. Your spirit will live in every sound we hear.

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