JOVINO SANTOS NETO | Ringing the bell at the Hermeto Pascoal’s house
It was a sunny Sunday in November 1977. My childhood friend Jacinto and I looked at the closed gate ahead, on Vitor Guisard St., in the Jabour district, near Senador Camará, in Rio’s West Side. I asked him:
“Should I ring the bell?” He had promised me that there, in the house behind the high walls, lived Hermeto Pascoal. He had come from São Paulo one year ago. I quit hesitating and pushed the button.
I was there out of sheer curiosity. Recently arrived from Montreal, Canada, where I had spent 3 years studying biology and playing music, I found myself back in Realengo, where I was born, right next to Jabour, on my way to a graduate program in the Amazon. I was intrigued. In 1967, at 13, I was amazed by Edu Lobo and his beautiful song “Ponteio”, winner of the Record TV network festival, without realizing that the flute that sounded like a bird chirping away alongside the vocals belonged to a short, neckless albino hiding behind the other musicians. Before leaving to study abroad, I had read a story on O Bondinhomagazine in 1972 about that exotic and quixotic character. That was even before I ever heard his music, which I only did in 1973, at the Fonte da Saudade Theater. I watched one more concert by Hermeto at the Modern Art Museum in Rio in 1975, while on vacation. Once again, I was amazed by what I heard, but confused by my inability to pigeonhole it with any known genre. Back in Canada, I found out about other aspects of Hermeto’s work in his recordings with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. And so, back in Brazil in 1977, there I was, just about the ring the bell at his gate, and a little anxious about what I would say.
I gathered my nerve and pressed the button. Mr.s Ilza Pascoal, Hermeto’s wife and mother of his six children, opened up:
I stammered. “I-i-i-i-s Hermet home? I’m a musician and I’d love to meet him.” She led me to the living room and I found myself sitting alone on the couch while Hermeto Pascoal, in trunks and shirtless, played an electric piano with headphones on and his eyes screwed shut. All I could hear was his tapping on the keys. About 20 minutes passed, an apparent eternity. I was already trying to figure out how to get out unnoticed when he opened his eyes, smiled and greeted me:
“How are you?”
I started to introduce myself. All I wanted to do was tell him how I admired his work. I talked about Mélange, the ensemble I played with in Canada, and said I was passing by through Rio on my way to a graduate program in the Amazon. Did he perhaps know about a place where I could play a little, somewhere with a jam session? I showed him a Mélange tape and he showed me one from his new album, “Missa dos Escravos”. He played the title track, with the pig noises and chords that sounded foreign to me. And asked me:
“Can you read music, ciphers?” I lied:
“Look, I have this Group, and would like to play more flute and saxophone; I need a piano player for a concert this Friday in Urca Hill. Would you be up to it?”
That was not what I had in mind, and I never dreamed he would ask me to play with him. I said I couldn’t take on a permanent commitment because of my graduate studies, that I had a test for a scholarship in two weeks, etc. He replied:
“Look, if you want to play, there’s no need for a permanent commitment. Let me know when you have to leave for school and it’ll be all right.” Then he pulled out a sheet of paper with some chords written on it. I clearly recall the theme, “Campinas”, a beautiful ballad he had written shortly before. He asked to sit at the piano and play the chords. And right there, without being able to form even half of them, we were both sure I couldn’t read at all. My musical experience included a few piano lessons with Ms. Jupyra when I was 12, but since then I had been playing by ear, copying songs from the radio or records, and then there was my own music that I knew by heart. Hermeto smiled wryly and said:
“Yes, I think you need to study a little… can you come by tomorrow afternoon? The boys from the Group are coming over to rehearse and you will learn from them. I home I went, not quite sure what I had gotten myself into. Of course I couldn’t join another band, I had other plans made, a life dedicated to biology research, where music was just a hobby, a distraction. I had tasted a little of a musician’s life in Canada and didn’t think my path lay in smoky clubs, playing for people who weren’t there for the music. And now I was divided. Something inside me really wanted to play, to learn and share those sounds.
At 2 PM on Monday I was back in Jabour. I met bassist Itiberê Zwarg and drummer Peninha. Hermeto made the introductions and we started to rehearse a range of themes: a baião, a frevo, the ballad I hadn’t quite been able to play. Around mid-afternoon a percussionist called Pelé showed up. He and Hermeto had met during while recording Fagner’s “Orós” album, and he got invited to the rehearsal. Hermeto told him:
“Champ, this Pelé business isn’t going to work; we’ll call you Pernambuco. Pelé/Pernambuco had brought a berimbau and a few tumbadoras, but Hermeto, who always called everyone “Champ”, said:
“Look, just sell this stuff. You’re going to be a different kind of percussionist. No tumbadoras or berimbau, there’s too many people playing those. Tomorrow you can go to the Madureira Market and get a few livestock rattles, seashells and cooking pots. We’re going to make new instruments.
And so we passed the week, rehearsing, playing the same theme 20, 30 times. I kept thinking we were doing fine and could try different themes, or just improvise – which was what I really wanted to do –, but Hermeto insisted there was still much room for improvement. On the second day of rehearsals, Cacau, a saxophonist and flutist that had been playing with the Group for some time, showed up. I had never played in a group like that before, where all the parts were set out and rehearsed over and over, while the Champ (we called him by the same name he called us) changed a note here, a beat there, and everyone rewrote their parts on the spot. Often, the “kitchen” (piano, bass and drums) would rehearse the entire theme with no winds. I was used to having other musicians to cover up my mistakes and suddenly started to feel very vulnerable. In this new musical scenario, the drummer didn’t keep time: he played free form, coloring the phrases, which left me a bit insecure and not quite sure what to make of all those simultaneous voices. Hermeto would take over the piano and play, sometimes improvising with the band for 15 or 20 minutes, leaving me crazy to do t he same. One day I asked him:
“Would you teach me the technique, some exercises to let me play this fast and clean?” He smiled:
“No, there is no technique separate from music. The themes you have been rehearsing demand technique, and so we have to repeat them over and over again to let the mind and the hands learn them naturally. But if you study the technique alone, you’ll become a robot, playing automatic scales and phrases.”
Friday finally came. The show was at Concha Verde, an open-air amphitheater at the top of the Urca Hill. We had to take the Sugarloaf cable car, a Rio de Janeiro landmark. I was there early, happy to see the place full of people, some of them perched on trees to catch a better view of the stage. I had never been part of anything similar, and was anxious to show everything we had rehearsed during the week. I asked Hermeto which song we were playing first and he answered:
“I don’t know, let’s get on stage and do a thing.” I was confused:
“What do you mean? What about all those themes we’ve been rehearsing all week?”
“Here and now is not a good time for those. We’ll play different ones.” And suddenly there we were on the stage, coming up with brand new riffs, ad-libs and solos. More musicians showed up: Mauro Senise, José Carlos Bigorna, Márcio Montarroyos. All of a sudden, an entire score of winds was there, playing things I had never heard before. At a certain point Hermeto told me to go on stage and play a clavinet solo. I asked him:
“What kind of solo? Soul? Funk? Rock?”
“None of those – bring it down, play what you are feeling at the time.” Off I went, not quite sure what he meant by “bring it down”, and as soon as I started to play he stopped the band and pulled everyone off the stage, leaving me there alone with hundreds of listeners. That was when I realized that a change was under way, something mysterious I didn’t quite understand, but that felt great. Of course it was nice to get applause, but most of the satisfaction came from finding an inner intuitive answer to a challenge that involved the mind, the body and the heard, all together. I played without thinking about pre-built phrases, so that the spaces between notes became as important as the notes themselves, perhaps even more important.
At the end of the concert we were all exhausted and exhilarated, and Hermeto asked me:
“Well, did you enjoy it?”
“Sure I loved it…”
“Man, if you’re up for it, next Saturday we have another concert in São Paulo. Do you wanna play?” And I, imagining what might happen, answered:
“I’d love to, Champ, but that’s when I have that test for the scholarship here in Rio, it’s an all-day thing…”
“What time is your test?”
“From 7 AM to 4 PM.”
“There! We play at 9 PM in Sao Paulo. You can do your test, catch the shuttle and get to the Portuguesa Gymnasium in time, we’ll wait for you… there’s at ticket waiting for you at the airport.”
And so I took my test in Rio, caught a plane to Sampa and a taxi to the concert venue. There was some kind of festival going on at Portuguesa, Clementina de Jesus and Xangô da Mangueira were singing, while Hermeto and the rest of the band stood backstage. I was happy to see them again, and Hermeto greeted me:
“I am, Champ.”
“Let’s go, then.” The concert was entirely different from the one in Rio. The audience in São Paulo had a very different way of listening. For the first time I realized that every note I played resonated in someone in the audience and came back to me like a vibration. Everything the band played was amplified not by the loudspeakers, but by the people standing there and drinking up sounds. And I saw how Hermeto feasted on that vibration. Back then he played a flute with a pickup and an effects case he could manipulate to find microphony and distortions I had only heard from Jimi Hendrix before. That was when I understood why he was Hermeto was called the “Wizard”. The flute was a magic wand. He used it naturally, without affectation, playing and pointing at the amp, using microphony as a source of melody. At that concert I heard other themes I didn’t know before, including the beautiful “Aquela Valsa” that Mauro Senise played on the soprano sax. I didn’t play the piano all the time: Hermeto often came and shooed me away from the keys, saying:
“Go get a percussion instrument and stand next to Pernambuco, but keep an eye on me.” I went and while playing the triangle or a rattle, I watched how he could pick up a beat or style and add something new, a novel tone, until the tide settled down again and he waved me back:
“Now keep it going like this, but don’t drop the ball again!”
I never even realized that the ball had dropped, and thought everything was fine, but he was listening to it all and firmly but tenderly corrected my many mistakes and later said:
“Look, sometimes I yell on stage and may seem a bit rude, but the Sound is going on and the Sound is sacred. Don’t think I’m angry, I’m just minding the Sound.” His nurturing handling of everyone in the Group made it clear, but he never let a second go by without every piece in that complex puzzle in its precise place, coming and going to make the tiniest adjustments.
I São Paulo I saw Hermeto as a traveler. While at home in Jabour, he never went out, but stayed home watching soccer on TV and playing. On the road, however, he became what Native-Americans refer to as a “Coyote”, a playful trickster, the multicolored jester who challenges anything that stands in the way of the Sound. The morning after the Portuguesa concert I went to his hotel room and he said:
“Listen to this beautiful choro I wrote.” And he sat on the bed and played a 3-part chorinho on the soprano sax, while I thought: How come I never heard it before? Finally he said:
“I just made it up¸ I improvised the whole thing.” That, to me, became the epitome of the Hermetic essence. Improvisation so solid it feels like it’s sheet music, writing so fluid it feels like it is coming from free-form improv.
Another thing that drew me to Hermeto was his Northeastern Brazilian fiber. As the grandson of a man from Sergipe, I grew up with the Northeastern was of talking, thinking and acting, and Hermeto stood for the archetype of the Badlands cowboy overcoming the weather, the distance, physical limitations, and everything else he runs into while on the path of fate. Hermeto reminded me of a farmhand on a wild horse, racing across the spiny desert after the loose steer of melody, using the mesh of harmony and the beat of the zabumba to reach his goal.
As 1977 came to an end, everything happened all at once for me: the discovery of a musical universe I had never even suspected, and my appointment for a Master’s degree in ecology in the Amazon Research Institute. I had to make a choice, and make it soon.
A fork in the road in the woods without any signs to point me in the right direction. Should I go on with my studies, using the mind to explore the many links between nature and living things, or plunge head first into the musical adventure, an apprentice to the wizard with the silver wand and countless tricks in his hat? Those were weeks of deep reflection and insecurity. I gradually realized that I was a passenger on the platform, watching two trains go by, apparently in opposite directions. And at that moment, I could spot a space between cars, like a window cracked open. It was my chance to take a leap, to trust my intuition and face the challenge of music, of which I knew nothing or almost nothing, leaving the straight path of science, a paved road where I knew how to travel, for the winding river of music, full of surprises, floods and droughts. Swim or sink…
Crucially, I had my parents’ support, and they never opposed my choice. I clearly remember telling my father that I was turning down the grant to live in Realengo, rehearsing with a mad troupe day in and day out. He quietly told me:
“It’s your life. Make your choice and go ahead. Just don’t come back in six months to tell me you want to be a biologist again, OK?”
And so a new chapter began, an apprenticeship that took 15 years of my life and gave me the key to the Universe of Music in return.
Jovino Santos Neto (Brazil, 1954). Musician, composer, arranger and producer. For 15 years, working full time with Hermeto Pascoal, as a pianist, flutist, co-producer of seven albums and toured internationally responsible for the group. Created a file to document and preserve thousands of Hermeto compositions. In 1993, Jovino moved to Seattle in the United States to study conducting and develop his career as a composer, pianist and arranger. Between 95 and 97 played with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim albums and toured all over the world. Edited albums Alma do Nordeste (2007), See the sound (2010), and Current (2011). He published the book Everything is sound, with 32 music of Hermeto Pascoal. He teaches piano and composition at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Here we report the opening chapter of his book in progress. Translated by Allan Vidigal. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Page illustrated with works of Unica Zürn (Germany), guest artist in this issue of ARC.