Interview: Hermeto Pascoal on Making “Universal Music” and Boxing Miles Davis

Known as "the sorcerer," "the crazy albino" or more respectfully, "maestro," Hermeto Pascoal is a virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist (accordion, piano, flute, guitar, sax). He has flowing white hair, a long beard and eyes that dart off in both directions like excited puppies. As a little boy growing up in Alagoas, Brazil, he would spend hours in the lake making sounds with the water, playing a pipe for the birds or "playing" pieces of scrap metal in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop. Miles Davis once called him "the most impressive musician in the world." Jez Smadja caught up with Pascoal at Ronnie Scott’s in London to chat about his lengthy career.

You began playing music from a very young age, playing frevo.

Yes, I played frevo for people to dance to at the local parties in Lagoa di Canoa, Alagoas. Frevo, forrò, I played a lot of styles. In fact it was more forrò than anything, but I also played frevo. Forrò is a style from northeast Brazil, it's a rhythm. Today, in my group, the majority of musicians play forrò, but with a universal language. I'm not sure how you'd describe forrò, except by listening to it. You can talk about it until you're blue in the face, but you won't scratch the surface. [laughs]

One of the most distinctive elements of forrò is the accordion, which you began playing at the age of eight. I love the story about how you'd play your father's eight-bass accordion in secret, because he wouldn't allow you to touch it. And then the shock your father had when he discovered you playing so well.

When my father saw me playing, he was astounded, so he bought me another one, a new one. And he even stopped playing himself. Instead he'd take me and my brother to parties and it was us that played, taking turns between accordion and tambourine. And he continued all through his life. He came to our shows, played with the group until I was about half the age I am today, 77. Then, sadly, he died... But it was marvellous, the helping hand my father gave me. He was like, "I'm not going to play any more, it's you that's going to play, and I'll be your manager." It was incredible. He never stopped. The eight-bass accordion that I use in my shows, it was his. Such a beautiful instrument.

You're a multi-instrumentalist – you create music from kettles, toys, dentist drills and even your own beard. But after the accordion, you started playing piano, right?

We don’t play commercial music, and we won’t play something because it’s in vogue. We play because it’s beautiful.

Well, I only started from around the age of 20. By that point I'd already moved to Rio de Janeiro to play in the regional (a choro band) of a great friend of mine, Pernambuco do Pandeiro, who was the director at the Maua Radio Station. So he invited me to play accordion with him, and at the radio station where we performed, there was a piano that I would practice on... During the days, I played accordion on the radio, day and night, and then I was invited by Fafa Lemos to play in a club in Copacabana. It was in Rua Rodolfo Dantas. Fafa was a marvellous violinist, and in his band there was a pianist who suddenly stopped playing. Fafa liked my style so he said, "Brother, why don’t you play?" So I started playing piano, not accordion. The club was a very happening [place], you'd see Tom Jobim, João Donato, and so many others who went on to have big success... This was the early '60s.

Was this the early days of bossa nova?

No, bossa nova hadn't started yet. When I moved to São Paulo, bossa nova really began. I mean, it might have existed, but nobody knew what it was yet. Bossa was beautiful... It was a combination of erudite music, classical music and also jazz. All music has its influences. The music I make today I call "universal music" because it contains all these different influences. We play everything. Except that we don't play commercial music, and we won't play something because it's in vogue. We play because it's beautiful.

What's interesting is that tropicália, before it was called tropicália, was known as "universal sound."

"Universal music" isn't mine per se. Universal is the name that people give to any number of different things – there's even the Universal Church (a huge Pentecostal church in Brazil). But tropicália was much more theatrical than what I do. It was more to see than to hear. They stopped making tropicália in the 1970s and Caetano and Gil and Gal are all doing other music now. What I've done is the same thing I've done throughout my life, from the age of eight until now, but with different touches, different rhythms, a mixture, which we call "universal music."

Hermeto Pascoal’s Aura Sound of Yves Montand

There's a clip from a French documentary, Hermeto Pascoal: L'Allumé Tropical, where you're copying speech patterns on a keyboard. In this instance it's French singer Yves Montand. Apparently, when you were a boy, you heard your mother talking to friends and you asked your mother if they were singing...

I was eight at the time, standing with my mother, who was with her friend. And I was tugging at her, saying, "Mom, she's singing, she's singing." She said, "No, son, she's not singing, she's talking." The woman thought I was crazy. "Som Da Aura," this thing I do where I copy speech patterns, came from that. It's a thing that comes from me, that was born from this vision, from this perception.

What "Som Da Aura" shows, I think, is that our true singing is speech. We're like beast, birds, animals, we have our way of singing. Except that on this planet, as soon as we're born, we're conventionalized. We lose that essence. When you speak now, you're singing. But when you sing "do, re, me, fa," this is conventional.

Nothing you do is conventional.

I don’t need a time and a place to make music, I do it because it’s what I do, because it comes, almost on tap.

I'm the kind of person who doesn't believe in the first thing he sees. I like to feel something before I do it. That's important for me, because it facilitates my creativity, my spontaneity. I could be eating a sandwich, and suddenly I get the inspiration for a song. I don't need a time and a place to make music, I do it because it's what I do, because it comes, almost on tap. It's delicious, and my inspiration is music.

It puts the rest of us to shame.

No, it's what I was saying before, there are others who create other things too, beautiful things. There are a lot of musicians who are capable of doing the same as me, but they don't want to. They don't want to because they think no one will understand. When we started doing "Som Da Aura," my word, the musicians were like, "What's this madman doing?" But then I did it in Brazil with the football commentators on the TV. I even did it with the Pope, not this one, the one before who resigned. I've got a recording of it, but they didn't allow me to put in on the album. I'm going to try to see if I can put it on my next record. But I'm not going to notify them. I'll let them know once the thing comes out.

Can we go back to Quarteto Novo that you joined in the late '60s, and which combined American jazz with north-east bailão rhythms. There was you, Airto...

It was me, Airto Moreira, Heraldo do Monte and Theo de Barros, who played bass. I joined Quarteto Novo after playing with Airto in the Sambrasa Trio. They were all in São Paulo and it was there that I discovered my own capacity to create. A lot of the times when they showed up at rehearsals, I already had the arrangements ready... but we'd all collaborate together.

And then was Airto who invited you out to New York?

Music isn’t complicated, it’s people that complicate things.

Him and Flora [Purim] invited me to write arrangements and compositions, for them and for me. We did a cool sound, really different. We were really well received and we did great work. That was the early '70s. Everything started then for me. Bossa nova was at its peak. That was where we met and recorded with Tom Jobim... I was invited to play flute on his record. I remember this occasion when I was in a lift with him, and we heard bossa nova playing over the speakers. He took my hat off, like so, and placed it under his arm, and said, "I'm already tired of this music." In 1970. Imagine! "Why?" I asked him. "Because when your music becomes elevator music, you know it's not relevant any more."

I explained to him that what he had to do was create a polemic, because Brazil is a mixture of musical styles. Tom had always been a "big city" musician, never music from the interior... He had an amazing musical vision. From this conversation, he said he wanted to do something like the Quarteto Novo, with its mixture of northeastern [Brazil] influences and everything else. When I told people back in Brazil that Tom was saying that he was bored of bossa nova, his family were furious with me. But I told him to have courage and conviction, and then no one can argue with you... So later I played bass with him. We recorded "Quebra Pedra," a lovely song which has a Bahian lilt, and "Chovendo na Roseira." It all came from that conversation. Music isn't complicated, it's people that complicate things.

You also played on the Miles Davis record Live-Evil, where you contributed two tracks. Can you tell us about Miles?

Miles was one of the most important things to happen to me in my life, in my story – knowing him, playing with him. He was a guy who's very light, who has an emotion, who has a capacity to create that was very beautiful. He could give a pianist a part to play without playing it, just singing it, to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, later with Keith Jarrett, crazy pianists. Playing with Miles was very nice. It was a collaboration, as much with him as with the pianists, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Great musicians. I knew Miles at a really interesting stage. He'd stopped taking drugs, he was looking good.

And you two boxed together?

It was at his house. He gave me gloves, bwoy. He looked at me and said "do it like this." I took off my glasses and because my sight was so bad, my eyes were rolling all over the place. We started boxing, and he was looking at me, waiting for my move, and he thought I was looking away in the other direction, so he didn't expect me to hit him right in the face. But I almost broke my hand. From that time on he started calling me "albino loco"!

By Jez Smadja on August 6, 2013

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