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The Guardian MARCH 22, 2016 - by John Fordham
Brazilian percussionist who worked with big names across the musical spectrum
Naná Vasconcelos, who has died aged seventy-one, was one of a handful of percussionists to elevate the skill to a high art of orchestral scope and exquisite detail. His career began in the bars of Recife and Rio de Janeiro during the 1960s, and went on to embrace collaborations with jazz stars such as the saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the guitarist Pat Metheny, as well as studio work with artists as diverse as Debbie Harry, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson. He was an amiable Pied Piper of percussion who made the work of his fellow musicians sound deeper and richer wherever he travelled.
Vasconcelos could shuffle complex meters and grooves from African ritual music, American jazz and Brazil's indigenous traditions with the spontaneity of a child at play. He could mimic the chatter of rainforest wildlife or the vocal chants of cowherds, or the Amazon's Xingu tribes, with deep gong sounds and his versatile voice. But if he could be a one-man orchestra, he was most fundamentally a listener and a selfless sharer.
Born in Olinda, north of Recife, at the age of twelve he was playing the bongos and maracas in a band led by his father, a guitarist. He also learned jazz drums as well as Latin percussion from voracious record-collecting, and by listening to Voice Of America broadcasts. He moved to Rio to work with the singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento in the mid-'60s, free to conceive his own rhythms and sounds to complement the vocalist's poetic and political lyrics. Vasconcelos also developed his own techniques for the berimbau - the Afro-Brazilian single-stringed bow-like instrument that had a traditional role in Brazil's capoeira martial art - and made it his constant companion, the notebook on which he would compose, experiment and entertain in any location. He concurred both with the Brazilian bandleader Hermeto Pascoal and with Jimi Hendrix that the potential of all musical instruments should be free, not fixed by history.
In the early '70s Vasconcelos performed with Nascimento and with the singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, and then on the fiery Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri's first American recording, in New York. He made his own debut album, Africadeus, in Paris in 1973 after a Barbieri tour, and then worked in the city for two years as a popular artist-in-residence in a children's psychiatric hospital. In 1976 the classically trained Brazilian guitarist and composer Egberto Gismonti found that his band could not fly from Brazil to Europe for a recording session. So Gismonti invited Vasconcelos into the studio instead, and they recorded as a duo, producing a completely different album than the one Gismonti had first planned.
The success of that recording, Dança Das Cabeças, on the influential German label ECM, launched Vasconcelos's international career. He then played on a session in the cross-genre Tropicália style with the Brazilian singer Joyce in 1976, and between 1978 and 1984 explored blends of American free jazz and African, Latin and Indian grooves with the sitarist Collin Walcott and the trumpeter Don Cherry in the Codona trio. From 1981 to 1983 Vasconcelos's playing and vocals were creative forces in Metheny's popular band, and the American jazz magazine DownBeat voted him best percussionist in 1983, 1984 and 1987.
In the '80s he also worked with the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu in an east-west world jazz ensemble alongside Garbarek, and performed on a drum machine in a crossover project with South Bronx break dancers in New York. In the '90s he teamed up with the Norwegian bass virtuoso Arild Andersen, the French pianist Jean-Marie Machado, the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard - while leading his own Bushdance band. He contributed to many pop, jazz and Latin studio sessions and film soundtracks, and also launched his House of Nana project, enlisting Brazil's regional authorities to house spaces in which he and other artists could work with the country's homeless children. They, and countless others from all walks of life, will know exactly what Metheny meant when he said of Vasconcelos: "Everywhere he went he made friends and brought an infectious joy to the people around him."
He is survived by his wife Patricia.
Juvenal de Holanda (Naná) Vasconcelos, percussionist, born August 2, 1944; died March 9, 2016