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Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, 1958–1969


      Just before moving to Caruaru Hermeto met his future wife Ilza. The niece of the well-known mandolinist Luperce Miranda (whom Hermeto greatly admired), Ilza and Hermeto met at a musical gathering in Miranda’s home. They were married in 1956 and Ilza bore their first son, Jorge, in 1957. By the beginning of the 1970s, the family had grown to six children: Jorge, Fátima (b. 1961), Fábio (b. 1962), Fabíola (b. 1963), Flávia (b. 1964), Flávio (b. 1970). In 1956 Hermeto and Ilza returned to Recife, remaining there until 1958 when he moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, Hermeto joined his brother José Neto (who had moved to Rio in 1952) playing accordion on Rádio Mauá. Because he had gained much experience with a wide variety of music in Pernambuco, Hermeto had little trouble finding work in Rio, performing with groups led by Pernambuco do Pandeiro, singer Fafá Lemos, and the famous flutist and saxophonist Copinha (Nicolino Cópia). Saxophonist Paulo Moura remembers meeting Hermeto soon after he arrived in Rio. The two future stars performed together in one of the orchestras that accompanied shows at clubs such as the Urca Casino and the Golden Room in the Copacabana Palace Hotel. As Moura humorously recalled, Hermeto was still pretty “crude” (cru) but his playing was very impressive (Moura interview 2000). While in Rio Hermeto continued to expand his stylistic repertoire, playing tangos, polkas, fox–trots, and European gypsy music.

      Looking for more work to support his growing family, in 1961 Hermeto relocated to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis, where the instrumental scene, thanks to the advent of bossa nova, was thriving. He must have felt a little unsure of his professional prospects because soon after his arrival in São Paulo, Hermeto bought a vegetable stand in order to provide for the family’s livelihood. But within a short time he had begun to get so much freelance work, often as many as three gigs a night, that he never ended up selling a single vegetable. Playing in clubs such as Chicote and the Stardust, Hermeto’s repertoire included choro, bossa–nova, samba, and jazz. Concurrently, Hermeto’s intensive course of self–study continued. Besides the piano, which he practiced in clubs during the day (since he did not own a piano at the time), he took up the flute, clarinet and saxophone. “I studied flute in the bathroom of a bar and also by the wall of the Consolação church, [but] because there were some obnoxious neighbors, I [had to] bribe the guardador de carros [the parking attendant] to let me study there. . . . Later I locked myself in my room to study, telling the manager of the boardinghouse to screen my calls, and bribed the guard at the radio [station] to let me practice in the studio” (from an interview with Hermeto in Pipoca Moderna, quoted in L. Neto 1999:41). Hermeto was also beginning to compose and arrange, and his aural acuity enabled him to “visualize a piano keyboard in his mind, so he could hear single notes and chords, and he could also write music anywhere—on the bus, in the streets, even in the bathroom during breaks” (J. Neto 1999).

      Despite his humble beginnings, by the mid–1960s Hermeto had become one of São Paulo’s most respected musicians, active in both clubs and the recording studios, where much to his surprise, he had become as much, if not more, in demand as a flutist than as a pianist. Up to this point, Hermeto had been primarily a freelancer, a musician who could play in any number of styles and musical situations, and a performer respected for his improvisational and arranging skills. In addition, he began to be associated with several prominent instrumental combos: Som 4, the Sambrasa Trio, and Quarteto Novo.

      In 1962, his second year in São Paulo, Hermeto joined Som 4, a quartet that featured Papudinho on trumpet, bassist Azeitona, Edilson (or Dílson) on drums, and Hermeto on piano and flute. Som 4’s playing style was somewhat out of the bossa jazz mold of Sergio Mendes’ groups, featuring a flute/trumpet front line playing classic repertoire such as “Consolação,” “Deixa” (both by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes), “Inútil Paisagem” (Jobim/A. Oliveira), and “Nanã” (Moacir Santos). When this group dissolved he was invited by drummer Airto Moreira to join the Sambrasa trio with Humberto Clayber on bass and harmonica. The Sambrasa Trio, while definitely based in the bossa nova piano trio format, brought a level of sophistication and energy on a par to that of Rio’s Bossa Três. Their lone recording, Em Som Maior (1966), featured elaborate arrangements (including Hermeto’s composition “Coalhada”) and adventurous improvising from all three musicians. Besides employing bossa nova, samba, and baião rhythms, the LP also included several tunes that juxtaposed rapidly shifting meters and tempos.

      Hermeto had several opportunities to record a solo LP during his early years in São Paulo. Continental Records offered to produce a solo project with him, but when Hermeto arrived in the studio, the producer handed him a list of tunes that he wanted Hermeto to record. When Hermeto demurred, saying that he would only record his own music, he was told that since he was an unknown artist, his music would not sell. Despite the fact that he had a growing family, little money, and many bills to pay, he refused to be coerced into playing music he did not like and politely declined Continental’s offer, leaving the studio without recording a note (Capella 2000).[8]

      The first recording to fully feature Hermeto’s talent was the single recording put out by the landmark instrumental group, Quarteto Novo. The group began as a trio (then known as Trio Novo) formed by singer/composer Geraldo Vandré and bassist Theo de Barros to “defend” their song “Disparada” at the Second Festival of Popular Song (II Festival de Música Popular) competition. Hermeto joined at the invitation of Airto Moreira, his colleague in the Sambrasa Trio who was playing drums in the quartet.[9] Besides Barros (who played both acoustic bass and guitar) and Airto, Quarteto Novo also included Hermeto’s old friend from Pernambuco Heraldo do Monte on guitar and viola caipira (a small ten-string guitar). Hermeto himself contributed flute and piano. The song festivals, which took place in both São Paulo and Rio, were important events in Brazil, not only in the number of new artists who were introduced to the public at large, but as vehicles for social and political protest under the Military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Attracting some of the best of Brazil’s popular composers, the competitions, which were nationally televised, were watched closely by the public. In 1966, the first prize was shared by “Disparada” and Chico Buarque’s “A Banda.”

      Philosophically, Quarteto Novo followed Geraldo Vandré’s nationalist position. Vandré was among the new generation of musicians who saw bossa nova as having lost touch with Brazilian popular culture, especially in light of the increasing political repression applied by the military government. As an alternative, Vandré and Quarteto Novo looked to the music of the rural Brazilian northeast: frevo, baião, and maracatu, for inspiration. This music was primarily modal, with an emphasis on an “organic” sound using acoustic guitars and percussion. As Airto put it, “It was a new Brazilian music, but with our roots fully incorporated” (Mitchell 1974:18). While fans of jazz, the group shunned the use of foreign musical elements, a point of view that Hermeto criticized:

“When I played a really modern chord, the group was very critical, [telling me] that we couldn’t play jazz chords. But it wasn’t a jazz chord, it was what I was hearing in my head. Music belongs to the world. We don’t own it. To want Brazilian music only for Brazil is like trying to bag the wind; no one can capture sound in a sack” (L. Neto 1999:44). 

      In many ways, Quarteto Novo was drawing on an older conceptualization of Brazilianness that equated “authentic” artistic expression with an imagined construction of a “pure” northeastern, rural culture. For Hermeto, being brought up in the northeast, this ideological romanticization of rural Brazil seemed hollow and limiting. The life he had grown up with was neither “authentic” or “primitive,” it was just his reality, and bore little resemblance to the picture painted by the nationalists in the south of Brazil. Hermeto, who was not happy with any musical limitations, would later state that he believed that Quarteto Novo’s ethnocentric philosophy contributed to the group’s short duration together. Music, he would later tell Jovino Santos Neto, is like the clouds in the sky. If a cloud drifts across the border to Argentina, is it an Argentine cloud or a Brazilian one? (Jovino Neto, personal communication, May 14, 2002).


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[8] Som 4 and the Sambrasa trio were not Hermeto’s first appearances on record. In 1960, he recorded an LP entitled Batucando no Morro with the Rio-based singer Pernambuco do Pandeiro. He also played flute on “Caminho” (1965), a record featuring a Bahian singer named Walter Santos. Roberto Torres, a writer from Pernambuco who is currently working on a biography of Hermeto (tentatively titled Do Fungado do Fole à Música das Esferas, From the Sound of the Accordion to the Music of the Spheres), claims to have found a 1956 recording that Hermeto made in Pernambuco with the conductor Clóvis Pereira, a session that Hermeto says he had completely forgotten (Cardoso 2000). Hermeto may have also recorded with his brother José Neto (L. Neto 1999).


[9] The festivals handed out a number of prizes, but the top prize was for composition. While Vandré and several other singers performed their own compositions, many composers had their songs performed, or “defended,” by other artists. Thus the festivals served to not only launch the careers of singer/composers such as Vandré, Chico Buarque, and Caetano Veloso, but also for a number of interpretive singers such as Elis Regina.