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Hermeto Pascoal's Music Reaches Far Into The Stratosphere

Nov 30, 2017
Originally published on November 30, 2017 12:53 pm

Brazil's Hermeto Pascoal is a legend among musicians and fans for his ability to conjure beautiful sounds out of just about anything — from tea kettles to PVC pipes to traditional woodwinds.

Earlier this May, the New England Conservatory awarded Pascoal an honorary Doctorate of Music degree and in July, the 81-year-old released No Mundo Dos Sons, the first album from him and his group in 15 years.

Pascoal can come up with a melody at the drop of a hat. He says he's written 9,000 compositions and most, if not all, were created on the spot.

"It's because I'm 100 percent intuitive," he says. "I don't premeditate anything. I feel it. When something happens, I don't say, 'Now I'm going to do that.' No. If I want to write the music, I start creating. Every piece of my music, even the one I write on a piece of paper, I consider an improvisation."

Pianist Jovino Santos Neto is a professor of music at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts and agrees with the impromptu nature of Pascoal's work. Santos Neto was also a member of Pascoal's band for 15 years and is now the archivist of his work.

"Hermeto is music," Santos Neto says. "He is the current. He's like a source or a spring that's just gushing that water, and that water is music. ... There's a saying, I think it's a John Cage thing that said, 'Music is playing all the time. Music continues, we just kind of dip into it once in a while.' Well, Hermeto is fully immersed in it. So because of that, whenever you are close to him, you just see [that] the music is just coming out."

Pascoal was born in a small farming town in the northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade — there was no such thing as special education back then for a child with the vision problems that come with albinism. His father taught him to play the accordion and in the early 1960s, Pascoal moved to Rio de Janeiro. By then, he'd picked up piano and flute and began recording with some of the new generation of Brazilian musicians, including Quarteto Novo.

Quarteto Novo's percussionist was Airto Moreira, who went on to play with Chick Corea and Miles Davis. Moreira recommended Pascoal to Davis and together, the trumpeter recorded with the Brazilian on the album Live-Evil.

Santos Neto says one of Pascoal's compositions for Miles, titled "Little Church," was inspired by the Brazilian's childhood memory of hearing his mother and her friends singing novenas to the Virgin Mary.

"[Pascoal] would hear these voices wafting through the walls of the church," Santos Neto says. "He was scared to go inside, so he'd sit outside and listen as his mother was singing. So he wrote this gorgeous melody."

Pascoal recalls an interview Davis gave in which the trumpeter was asked how he'd like to return from the afterlife.

"'I would like to be a musician like that 'crazy albino,'" he says, recalling Davis' response to the question. "[Miles] used to call me 'crazy Brazilian albino.' And to make music like that of Hermeto Pascoal, the 'crazy albino.' I was very happy when I heard that."

That's typical of Pascoal's personality says Santos Neto. In the more than 40 years Santos Neto has known the older musician, Pascoal has never changed.

"He never aged and he's at the same time...a very complex personality," Santos Neto says. "He's both the wise old man, because of the white hair, but he's also the prankster, the 16-year-old who's really crazy to play a prank on somebody and to laugh and to make jokes."

Pascoal doesn't make jokes about his honorary Doctor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory. He says it's one of the greatest recognitions of his life. But this acknowledgement reinforces something he's believed for a long time.

"Hermeto doesn't make Brazilian music, he makes music in Brazil," Pascoal says. "Therefore, Hermeto is a Brazilian citizen only on a piece of paper. But in my music, I'm universal."

And, as the title of his new album says, Pascoal will always be No Mundo Dos Sons — in the world of sounds.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I think it's safe to say that no one looks like Hermeto Pascoal, with his long, frizzy, white hair and beard and his tinted glasses. And no one sounds like him either. He can conjure beautiful sounds out of, well, just about anything, from teakettles to PVC pipes to traditional woodwinds.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUARTETO NOVO ALBUM)

GREENE: Pascoal is a legend among fans and musicians. I mean, Miles Davis called him that crazy albino. And earlier this year, the New England Conservatory awarded the Brazilian an honorary Doctor Of music degree. The 81-year-old recently got together with his group for a new album - their first in 15 years. Betto Arcos has this profile.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Hermeto Pascoal can come up with a melody at the drop of a hat.

HERMETO PASCOAL: (Through interpreter) And you can go on like this until your body can't take it anymore and you die of happiness. That's what music is for me.

ARCOS: Pascoal says he's written 9,000 compositions.

PASCOAL: (Through interpreter) It's because I'm 100 percent intuitive. I don't premeditate anything. I feel it. Everything I do is about feeling. When something happens, I don't say, now I'm going to do that. No. If I want to write the music, I start creating. Every piece of my music, even the one I write on a piece of paper, I consider an improvisation.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMETO PASCOAL COMPOSITION)

JOVINO SANTOS NETO: There's a lot of people who make music - people who compose, people who play, people who teach. Hermeto's different. Hermeto's music.

ARCOS: Pianist Jovino Santos Neto is a professor of music at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts. He was a member of Pascoal's band for 15 years and is the archivist of his work.

NETO: He's like a source or a spring that's just gushing that water. That water is music. He is the genius that channels it, but the music really comes from somewhere else. There's a saying - I think there's a John Cage thing that said that music is playing all the time. Music just continues. We just kind of dip into it once in a while where Hermeto's fully immersed in it. So because of that, whenever you are close to him, the music is just coming out.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMETO PASCOAL COMPOSITION)

ARCOS: Hermeto Pascoal was born in a small farming town in the northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade. There was no such thing as special education back then for a child with the vision problems that come with albinism.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMETO PASCOAL COMPOSITION)

ARCOS: His father taught him to play the accordion, and in the early 1960s, Hermeto moved to Rio de Janeiro. By then, he'd picked up piano and flute and began recording with some of the new generation of Brazilian musicians, including Quarteto Novo.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUARTETO NOVO ALBUM)

ARCOS: Quarteto Novo's percussionist was Airto Moreira, who went on to play with Chick Corea and Miles Davis. Moreira recommended Pascoal to Davis and the trumpeter recorded with the Brazilian on the album "Live-Evil."

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "LITTLE CHURCH")

ARCOS: Pianist Jovino Santos Neto says Pascoal's composition "Little Church" was inspired by the Brazilian's childhood memory of hearing his mother and her friends singing to the Virgin Mary.

NETO: And they sing these beautiful hymns. And he would hear these voices wafting through the walls of the church. He was scared to go outside, so he'd sit outside and listen as his mother's singing, so he wrote gorgeous melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "LITTLE CHURCH")

ARCOS: Hermeto Pascoal recalls an interview Davis gave in which the trumpeter was asked how he liked to return from the afterlife.

PASCOAL: (Through interpreter) I would like to be a musician like that crazy albino - he used to call me crazy Brazilian albino - and to make music like that of Hermeto Pascoal. I was very happy when I heard that.

ARCOS: That's typical of Pascoal's personality, says Jovino Santos Neto. In the more than 40 years he's known the older musician, Pascoal has never changed.

NETO: He never aged, and he is - at the same time, he has this, you know, being a very complex personality. He is both the wise old man because of the white hair, but he is also the prankster, the 16-year-old who is really crazy to play a prank on somebody and to laugh and to make jokes and to - so he is exactly that.

ARCOS: Pascoal doesn't make jokes about his honorary Doctor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory. He says it's one of the greatest recognitions of his life, but he says this acknowledgment reinforces something he's believed for a long time.

PASCOAL: (Through interpreter) Hermeto doesn't make Brazilian music. He makes music in Brazil. Therefore, Hermeto's a Brazilian citizen only on a piece of paper, but in my music, I'm universal.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMETO PASCOAL COMPOSITION)

ARCOS: And as the title of his new album says, Hermeto Pascoal will always be in the world of sounds. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMETO PASCOAL COMPOSITION) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.