Cart 0

Childhood, 1936–1949


      Hermeto Pascoal was born on June 22, 1936 in Lagoa da Canoa, a city in the municipality of Arapiraca in a tobacco growing region in the state of Alagoas in the northeast of Brazil. His parents, Pascoal José da Costa and Virgilina “Divina” Eulália de Oliveira, owned farmland and a small grocery store in Olho D’Água, a village near Lagoa da Canoa.[3] It was there, in Olho D’Água, that Hermeto spent his early childhood. Divina gave birth to eleven children, but only five survived to adulthood, perhaps evidence of the harsh environment of the Brazilian northeast—an area of enduring poverty, extreme heat and periodic droughts that have driven many of its residents south in search of better economic opportunities.

      Hermeto’s family, while not poor, lived a fairly humble existence. Yet despite a lack of material wealth, Hermeto’s musical world was rich. Everyone in his family played or sang, and the rural environment provided a rich ambient source of natural sounds. The geography, culture, and daily life of his upbringing also provided Hermeto with ample material from which he has constructed a kind of personal myth—honed by years of dealing with the media—that is at once poetic, humorous, and exotic.[4] The following is a small sampling of his accounts of childhood in Lagoa da Canoa:


I began to be a musician the day I was born, when I cried. . . . There was no electricity [in my house], so my radio was listening to the birds, frogs, horses, and oxcarts going by—those were the sounds that shaped my growing up. (Pareles 1989:C1)
The frogs . . . those frogs were a marvelous audience. There never was a more faithful and sensitive audience than those frogs. They are very intelligent. . . the frogs are a perfect orchestra.” (Backstage, Feb. 1998, quoted in L. Neto 1999:36). 
As a young kid of seven, I already had contact with music. . . . My father played a type of accordion called an oito baixos [eight basses], or a pé de bode [goat’s foot, as it is known in the northeast of Brazil], and I played a pife [a bamboo flute] that I had made from the cane of a castor oil plant. Being albino, I couldn’t take much sun. [But] I was stubborn, always disappearing into the countryside when my father went off to work in the fields. I was like the Indians, but a different kind of Indian. . . . As I was musical, I felt at ease playing and I wanted to know if the birds liked [my music]. When my father took me to the fields in his oxcart, I brought some flutes that I had made in order to play with the birds. . . . To this day, when I play in a place where there are birds, I can communicate with them. (From a 1998 interview in the newspaper O Globo, quoted in L. Neto 1999:36)[5]


       As Hermeto notes, he is albino, and his skin is extremely sensitive to the sun. He also suffers from one of the common side effects of albinism, strabismus (or walleye, the inability of one eye to focus with the other), leaving him with very poor eyesight. In his master’s thesis, A Música Experimental de Hermeto Paschoal e Grupo (1981–1993): Concepção e Linguagem, Luiz Neto writes that Hermeto’s visual deficiency may have helped intensify his obsession with sound and music.

        At the age of eight, Hermeto took up the oito baixos and quickly become so proficient that his playing inspired his father to give him his own instrument. Hermeto currently owns two oito baixos which, he told me, are similar to the instrument he played as a youth (see Figures 1 and 2). A small wooden accordion (sanfona), the oito baixos features eight small left hand buttons arranged in two rows of four that produce major, minor, and dominant chords that are used for harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. The right hand plays a set of twenty–one larger buttons (arranged in two rows of eleven and ten) that produce single notes in a diatonic scale. The oito baixo is not a chromatic instrument and since each of Hermeto’s two instruments uses a non–standard (i.e., non–equal tempered) tuning, he rarely uses them in an ensemble, reserving them primarily for solo performances.

hermeto pascoal accordion

Figure 1: Hermeto’s two oito baixos accordions. Photo by Andrew Connell

       By age eleven Hermeto and his brother José Neto (also an albino) were accompanying their father at weddings and parties that would often, in Hermeto’s words, “start on a Friday and only finish Monday afternoon” (Capella 2000). Considered one of the best groups in Lagoa da Canoa, the trio played baião, frevo, embolada, xote, maracatu, and other northeastern genres, each musician trading off playing oito baixos, triangle, and pandeiro.[6] For Hermeto, these gigs constituted his early education in popular Brazilian music.

In my land, up north, I went to pé–de–pau festivals [literally, wood–foot, a popular term for an informal party or dance]. On one side of the room would be a guy playing accordion. On the other you’d see another cat playing guitar. On another, repentistas [repeaters, a kind of musical duel]. And there it went, you had everything [happening] at the same time: embolada, repente, pagode, and baião. I heard it all together and it still remains in my head. (Chrysóstomo 1976:98)

            Hermeto also had access to his grandfather’s blacksmith shop, spending hours banging together bits of iron, fascinated by the timbres and harmonics created by different sizes and shapes of metal. By all accounts his family encouraged him in these activities. Hermeto says that after discovering what he was up to, “my mother cried, my grandfather cried, everyone was overtaken with emotion, with happiness, you know? Knowing what happened, my grandfather gave me so much iron to play that I didn’t have any place to put it all” (interview on Radio MEC 1997, quoted in L. Neto 1999:36). Outside of what he learned from his father, Hermeto is a completely self–taught musician, driven by a lifelong curiosity and the will to better himself. Hermeto’s longtime keyboardist Jovino Santos Neto believes that the combination of triads from his small accordion, the non–harmonic sounds generated by the iron in his grandfather’s shop, and the natural sounds of Lagoa de Canoa, were vital to the development of Hermeto’s extraordinary harmonic conception.


hermeto pascoal accordion 2001

Figure 2: Hermeto Pascoal playing the accordion, 2001. Photo by Andrew Connell

   1    2    3    4    ...    17   


[3] I was puzzled by the fact Hermeto uses Pascoal rather than Costa as his last name. Jovino Santos Neto explains: “The reason for the first/last name switch is strange: Apparently, the notary public who wrote Hermeto's birth certificate liked to drink a bit, and somehow he meant to describe the baby as ‘Hermeto do Pascoal,’ or ‘Pascoal's Hermeto.’ That got written [on the birth certificate] as Hermeto Pascoal, without the Costa family name. By the way, all his brothers have the Costa [surname]” (personal communication, May 29, 2001).

[4] I use the term ‘myth’ as derived from the Greek word root mythos. Hence, a myth is an account meant to help us comprehend a grouping of ideas or the cause of a particular set of circumstances. While myths imply a level of fiction, this is not necessarily so. Rather they are a way of shaping a story in order to achieve a particular effect or result. In Hermeto’s case, his personal myth became a way of explaining how he arrived at his distinctive musical style.

[5] I witnessed this type of communication on several occasions. Hermeto owns several small parrots and other birds who live in cages outside his kitchen, and their chatter provided a constant background during our conversations. During my first interview with him, Hermeto stopped to whistle a couple notes. Suddenly the birds stopped. He whistled again and they answered him with a chorus of chirps. They went back and forth like this several times, much to everyone’s delight.

[6] This instrumentation is typical of northeastern forro parties, though generally a zabumba (small bass drum) is used in place of a pandeiro.