Hermeto Paschoal

Jan Vercruysse, M(M10), 1993


Miles Davis, who played with Hermeto, called him “the most impressive musician in the world”

This month the illustrious son of Lagoa da Canoa (AL), Hermeto Paschoal, received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa at one of the most famous music schools in the world: the Juilliard School, from New York. The title, delivered by the great jazz player Wynton Marsalis, recognizes the Brazilian master's powerful influence on contemporary music.

No wonder Miles Davis, who played with Hermeto, called him “the most impressive musician in the world”. And there were so many great people who marveled at the amazing creativity of Hermeto Paschoal that a list here would be endless.

But where did it come from, how was this phenomenon formed? Well, think of a short, albino, almost blind guy, born in the hinterland of Alagoas. The attraction to music, or rather to sounds, is determined by poor eyesight, as it happens in all cultures. And Hermeto Paschoal's incredible trajectory begins by making castor bean and bamboo flutes, paying attention to the singing of birds, frogs and water. An older brother, José Neto, also an albino, already played at family parties. Their father's eight-bass accordion was shared between the brothers, with tambourines and zabumbas.

At the age of 24, Hermeto left home, sensing that his future was music. What else could a poor kid do but play in a rock'n'n' band... oops, no, we are in Recife, 1950. It is there that Hermeto Paschoal forms the trio The world on fire, with his brother Zé Neto and another talented multi-instrumentalist, Sivuca. Three albinos playing forrós, xotes, tangos, foxtrots... survival in bars and nightclubs wasn't easy, as it still isn't today. Unfortunately, there are no records of this trio setting the Recife nights on fire.

Hermeto Paschoal devoted himself to the accordion, and from there he switched to the piano. He met guitarist Heraldo do Monte, and played with Orquestra Tabajara in João Pessoa. In 1958, he went to Rio de Janeiro, a mecca for all musicians at that time, and played in the Fafá Lemos and Copinha groups, among others. His interest in wind instruments began to emerge, especially the flute.

In 1961 he went to São Paulo. He plays at night, forms a few groups, but it is in 1966, at the beginning of the Festival Era, that Quarteto Novo appears. The old friend Heraldo on violas, acoustic guitars and electric guitars, with Theo de Barros on bass and Airto Moreira on percussion. And Hermeto Paschoal dominating the keyboards and wind instruments. An expert in the art of combining timbres and rhythms, his evolution into an arranger was natural, with an influence still not sufficiently recognized in Brazilian popular music.

At the Third Festival of Brazilian Music, there was Quarteto Novo, accompanying Edu Lobo in the victorious bridge. enriched the General Corner by Geraldo Vandré, recorded the group's first album and left for other paths. And Hermeto Paschoal shone more and more.

He recorded with Flora Purim and Airto Moreira in the USA, played with several jazz and blues musicians, and started to be recognized as a witch (one of his nicknames). Easter hermetisms (an expression invented by Caetano Veloso) start to incorporate increasingly unusual instruments, such as pots, teapots, percussed water, wires and even beard hairs. Hermeto never erased the childlike curiosity of extracting sounds from things and marveling at them. It is evident, in footage and videos, this permanent enchantment with making music, which he knew like few – very few! – keep in the mature musician.

Arranger of one of the most beautiful and less known albums of Taiguara (Imyra, Tayra, Ipy, 1975), Hermeto punctuated his career with a series of authorial albums in which he explored many forms of Brazilian and universal music. Northeastern roots mix with the urban experience of Recife, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and, later, America.

He invented choros, like the famous Drink, and many unclassifiable compositions, although several exhibit the rhythmic origin of their hinterland. In 1978 he played with Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Stan Getz at the São Paulo Jazz Festival. In 79 he shone in Switzerland, and even gave a historic piece of cake with Elis Regina. He played with Dizzie Gillespie in Buenos Aires and Sadao Watanabe in Japan. the documentary Hermeto Champion, directed by Thomaz Farkas and released in 1981, shows Bruxo composing a song live, writing on the score, in addition to filming an unusual concert with frogs on the edge of a pond. A classic, available on Youtube. As a matter of fact, at one time Hermeto called all musicians and friends “champion”, hence the nickname.

In another documentary, Alto Ribeira Symphony (1985), Hermeto Paschoal and group perform a session inside the river, percussing the water and blowing bottles. Hermeto Paschoal dips his fife in the water and produces an unusual sound. Just seeing to hear, or just hearing to believe!

Between 1996 and 97, he performed yet another heroic feat: he wrote a composition a day, for a year, and released it in the book Calendar of Sound (1999, Senac). There are 366 songs (he didn't forget the leap year), dedicated to all birthdays in the world.

It is not easy to delve into Hermeto Paschoal's creations, mainly because he was never given to ease, never made music to be played on the radio. The work as a whole impresses with its ability to expand the sonic limits, beyond traditional instruments, in addition to the amazing mastery of various instruments. Their shows would go on for hours, to the dismay of the producers and the ecstasy of the public. The title awarded by Juilliard School recognizes, on a planetary scale, the talent of this genius who, even in Brazil, is still little heard and understood. Hail, champion!

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

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