By Rebecca Kleinmann
Picture a man who looks like a wizard with long white hair, a huge frizzy white beard and pale skin, writing music symbols directly on a wall with a marker, his nose practically touching the wall due to his blurry vision. He hums to himself as he works steadily, without referencing a musical instrument and without pause, as if he was writing a stream-of-consciousness letter. The notes and chord symbols almost look like a child’s scribbles, but when musicians gather around to interpret his creation, a gorgeous melody with rich harmony emerges! This is one of the scenes from my recent trip to Brazil at Chacará Riacho Doce near Ubatuba, where I had the privilege of spending time with this wizard, Hermeto Pascoal and musicians inspired by him.
Hermeto Pascoal is one of my favorite composers, improvisers and inspirations of all time and across all genres of music. As an Albino born in Alagoas, Brazil (1936), he was unable to play or work outdoors, so spent his childhood indoors or under the shade of a tree practicing the accordion his father gave him. He became a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and improviser. When I say multiinstrumentalist, I mean it! I have seen this genius play piano, flutes, drums, accordion, a glass of water, a bottle cap, and turn an audience into a musical instrument. This is a man who has chased pigs around on stage. You name it: Hermeto will turn it into music.
The compositions of Hermeto’s creativity captivate me. His melodies have a child-like, playful quality while harmonies whiz by with a complexity that could have stumped Wagner. The rhythms are rooted in diverse genres of Brazilian music including baião, choro, samba, and extending into odd meter expressions of Brazil’s cultural music. Hermeto’s improvisations are compositions themselves. When he improvises on any instrument, the music takes a journey into completely unexpected territory. His knowledge and technique are mind-blowing, and he uses them in support of his wild expression. It always seems as if he is telling a story through his solo.
I have been fascinated with Hermeto’s music for years, so when I heard of an opportunity to spend a week at a workshop with him in Brazil, I did my best to get there. I sold a flute, arranged a fund-raising concert, sent off for a new Visa, and bought my ticket. The travel itself was an adventure! After getting stranded in Panama City, missing the only daily bus from Rio to my destination, and jumping on series of packed, sweaty local buses, I finally arrived at the workshop’s remote location outside of Ubatuba just in time for dinner and happy to be greeted by many familiar faces.
I was welcomed first by Jovino Santos Neto, amazing pianist, arranger and composer who played with Hermeto for 15 years in Hermeto’s famous “O Groupo” (“The Group”). This famous group rehearsed eight hours a day unless they were on tour, resulting in astounding compositions. Jovino has notated many of Hermeto’s compositions and expanded the popularity of Hermeto’s work outside of Brazil. Soon I saw Dennis Broughton, co-creator of the Ubatuba Brazil Camp and director of the California Brazil Camp. Dennis is somewhat of a visionary who puts seemingly far-fetched ideas into action, bringing together great musicians and students, and creating a strong community. With him was Mestre Marcelo, co-creator and leader of the Capoeira segment of the Ubatuba workshop. I scanned the hotel dining room and saw Brazilian percussion master, Jorge Alabe and friends from the California Brazil Camp: many had traveled a long way! Hermeto, his girlfriend Aline Morena, and his son Fabio Pascoal were eating in the center of the dining room. They remembered meeting me before in Salvador and Seattle (stories for another time), and offered a warm welcome.
The following days consisted of classes with Jovino and Hermeto, Choro classes with guitarist Alessandro Penezzi and mandolinist Ted Falcon, cooling off at a beautiful mountain stream, group meals, and fantastic nightly music jams. Classes with Hermeto were exciting and unpredictable: he taught spontaneous arrangements by ear, a piece he had written in the morning, played drums to the melodica, and cheered as he listened to us play his music. Our ensemble of guitars, winds, mandolins, bass, drums, and percussion played by accomplished musicians made the experience a joy. Jovino led us through Hermeto’s compositions and translated Hermeto’s jokes.
It strikes me that Hermeto is at once genius, humble, hilarious, and kind. He is positive and encouraging in a way that brings out the best in musicians, throwing his hands up in the air and cheering when someone takes a solo. There are no expressive markings in his music because he wants musicians to express themselves. “We all have different blood running through our veins,” he told me. His philosophy is that if you play a sour note you turn it into something beautiful with what you play next, an attitude similar to Miles Davis’ quote “there are no wrong notes” (Hermeto played with Miles and recorded on his album “Live Evil” in 1971.) Hermeto is constantly interacting with the world of sound. Sitting next to him in a car on the way to play our camp’s concert for the city of Ubatuba, I noticed how when a car whooshed by he made a little buzzing sound, and was always making bird noises. “Som é Tudo” he says: “Everything is Sound.”
I was excitedly accepted an invitation from Hermeto and Aline to visit them in their home in Curitiba after the workshop. We played music and visited the town, everywhere greeted by smiles. We dined at their favorite Italian restaurant and where Hermeto had written several pieces music on the walls. While Hermeto gave me two Brazilian flutes and wrote two beautiful pieces of music for me: “Rebecca, welcome to our home” and “Real intuition is like this.” Wow!
Then something awful happened. While taking me back to the bus station, driving over a cobblestone road, I suddenly felt sick and threw up in their car. I was horrified!! Within seconds Hermeto began to tap out a rhythm on the dashboard and sing a song about my visit: “Rebecca chegou, Rebecca tocou, e Rebecca sim vomitou…” Five improvised verses later, we were all laughing hysterically. A very uncomfortable moment was transformed by Hermeto’s music and humor. My trip rounded out in Rio where I had the luck to see more of Hermeto’s musical progeny. I heard the Itibere Family Orchestra, an amazing group of young musicians who learn and perform music by ear, lead by Hermeto’s long-time bass player. The next night it was Carlos Malta, incredible winds player and part of “O Groupo,” for 11 years, joined by harmonica phenomenon Gabriel Grossi, and clarinet great Paulo Moura. I see a definite thread of lineage in musicality and attitude in the musicians Hermeto has influenced. They have in common cultural depth and outstanding virtuosity in service of a playful spirit. I am grateful to have witnessed a chapter in continuation of the legacy of this great artist.