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Hermeto Pascoal, Universal Musician

By Andrew Connell

[Professor of Ethnomusicology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia]


Hermeto Pascoal and Any Connell

Andy Connell & Hermeto Pascoal. Photo by David Justh

      Hermeto Pascoal is considered the most visible of all Brazilian instrumentalists. Revered for his multi–faceted and challenging body of work, Hermeto is also celebrated for his larger than life, charismatic personality and appearance. His concerts are events, what one journalist called “happenings” (Calado 1990), in which theater plays a prominent role. Yet his recordings are difficult to find, and most of his catalog is out-of-print. Born in a small town in the Brazilian northeast, Hermeto’s music is deeply rooted in the folkloric and popular musics of his birthplace—frevo, baião, maracatu, among others— that through his influence have come to be integral stylistic paradigms in contemporary Brazilian instrumental music. Hermeto is, as one musician told me, the most Brazilian of Brazilian musicians. Yet he rejects nationalist labels, going so far as to say in an oft–quoted phrase, that “There is no Brazilian music. But I am a Brazilian, and what I produce must be the result of my experiences and my fate” (Schreiner 1993:257). Hermeto prefers to call what he does “universal” music. “I have various musical styles in my head,” Hermeto informed an audience at a workshop in the U.S., “and my music draws on all of them.”[1]

      Hermeto, like many prominent performers, serves as a powerful symbol of  national identity. His musical performances, recordings, and other activities are actively followed by fans, fellow musicians, cultural critics, and journalists. During my conversations with Brazilian musicians, Hermeto’s name was often invoked as a reference (referência), an example of how to live one’s life within instrumental music, and as a musician who pursues his art uncompromised by commercial concerns. Hermeto is truly “authentic” (I heard this from many sources), “he is organic” (P. Santos interview 2000), “Hermeto is a school” (Zwarg interview 1999) “he has no limits” (Moura interview 2000) were just a few of the phrases I heard. Musicians and fans trade stories about his strange behavior and legendary performances, an activity that becomes a kind of exchange of “insider” information. The more bizarre the tale, the better.[2] His fans also emphasize the price Hermeto has paid for his commitment to his art, operating as he does on the margins of the Brazilian music market. In fact, most Brazilians know Hermeto more for his personality than his music. Several people told me that while they liked Hermeto’s persona, they didn’t really understand his music. This public persona has been fueled by the generally sensational and exoticized images promoted in the press (which, it should be added, have often been encouraged by Hermeto himself), that generally focus on his strange behavior and bizarre appearance, referring to him variously as “o Bruxo” (the sorcerer), the magician, musical genius, a rainforest gnome, Santa Claus or, as one journalist wrote, “a freakish mountain hermit” whose “compositions evoke the supernatural and bizarre” (n.a. Jazz Journal International 1985: 22).

            Ultimately, this is the story of a highly creative individual, an influential performer who “tropicalizes” tropes of Brazilian identity. His career spans much of the history of modern música instrumental brasileira, encompassing choro, bossa nova, and the various trends of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Hermeto’s story is one of a quest for a personal subjectivity unbound by traditional representations of Brazilian identity.


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[1] This workshop took place at Sonoma State University, November 12, 2001.

[2] I have found this type of narrative story–telling activity common among musicians both in the United States and in Brazil. Sociologist Howard Becker also found this to be a common social activity among the club date musicians he studied in Chicago (Becker 1951-1952, reprinted in Walser 1999:179-191).