Musical Interlude 2: “Velório”
In 1971 Hermeto recorded his first record as a leader, Hermeto (Cobblestone records, later reissued on CD by Muse records as Brazilian Adventure). This was an ambitious project, produced by Flora and Airto, and featured full brass, woodwind and string sections for which Hermeto prepared all the scores. It became a virtuosic showcase for Hermeto’s composing and arranging abilities. One track, “Velório” (Wake or Vigil), depicted a traditional funeral and wake from the northeast, taking the listener from the dead man’s wake through his journey to the graveyard. The track opens with a remarkable section that features all the wind players playing an orchestra of tuned water bottles, each with its own separate part. The arrangement opens with this sound, a cluster of bottles repeating a slow, mournful melody (Fig. 5).
Figure 5: “Velório” opening melody
In the background voices are heard, overlapping sounds of soft crying and wailing, mourners talking about the dead man, a priest chanting a prayer for the dead, another voice intoning “amen.” A bullroarer enters and the sound becomes more chaotic, a swirl of sound that soon gives way to the scrape of what sounds like a rabeca, a folk violin from the northeast. A cuica (friction drum) joins in, bleating out retorts. The sound pans back and forth, as if we are embarking on a journey, a short tour through a small corner of the Brazilian sertão (backlands). Jovino Santos Neto confirmed this idea, telling me that Hermeto imagined this part of the piece as the journey of the pallbearers, who carried the corpse not in a coffin, but in a hammock. They are a bit drunk from the wake, so the corpse is dropped several times as they make their way through the market on their way to the gravesite. Besides the rabeca, the parade of sounds includes a solo flute playing an improvised solo based on a kind of typical northeastern mode, an excerpt of which is shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6: “Velório” flute solo (excerpt).
The flute eventually is replaced by piano playing a baião in a similar vein. Each instrumental interlude advances us through the village until we reach the graveyard, where suddenly the band enters at full strength, playing a mournful line over a slow swing groove. The melody appears first in the brass, and then is echoed by the woodwinds (Figure 7).
Figure 7: “Velório” brass line.
The ensemble continues to build, joined by strings playing overlapping parts that bring back bits and pieces of the folk melodies interspersed with dissonant shrieks. The ensemble descends into chaotic free improvisation and decrescendos as the piano reemerges, playing the short baião refrain before fading out over an E flat bass pedal as the piece ends. Hermeto remembers that “Velório” left a strong impression on the jazz audiences:
I believe that I influenced all these people [American jazz musicians]. For example, when I recorded my first solo record in the U.S., I had an orchestra of 40 bottles with parts created especially for each one. This left an impression on Herbie Hancock. Shortly after, he also recorded with bottles [“Watermelon Man” on Headhunters, Columbia, 1973]. But he did this with a sensationalist spirit. People heard his record and exclaimed: ‘Oh, bottles.” For me, bottles were like other instruments, not any more important that flutes or guitar. I went to the U.S. bringing a way of working and the wherewithal to change this practice that obligates Brazilians to go there to study with North–American musicians. In Brazil, the tendency is to think that the all good things come from the U.S.A. Brazilian musicians go there, listen to jazz, and afterwards return to Brazil and make an LP that are just copies of one of their idols. I wanted to show something that wasn’t jazz, samba, or bossa nova, because all this makes me tired! . . . Yes, I make music and I am Brazilian. (interview in Jazz Magazine, 1984, quoted in L. Neto 1999:54)
Hermeto’s stay in the U.S. was a turning point in his career. Besides the opportunity to record his own record, he had a chance to stretch musically. The opportunity to play and interact with some of the world’s top jazz and improvising musicians, to be able to explore new styles, especially in the area of free improvisation, and to consolidate his arranging skills, opened up new horizons for his musical development. Furthermore, he established an international reputation as a composer, arranger, and virtuoso instrumentalist. Itiberê Zwarg, who has been Hermeto’s bassist since 1977, told me that many times people would ask Hermeto why he did not remain in the United States and forge a career there, as had so many other Brazilian musicians. Hermeto always replies that, yes, he could have stayed in the United States, playing here and there with various different combinations of all the finest jazz musicians, but it would not have been a satisfying experience for him. In order to continue his musical development, he preferred to return to Brazil and organize a working group of musicians with whom he could rehearse, experiment musically and ultimately sustain his artistic growth. In 1971, with this in mind, Hermeto returned to São Paulo and established his first group as a leader.
 The instrument Hermeto played was actually an instrument called a safo harp, an instrument given to him by the American bassist Scott LaFaro. The instrument was described to me by Jovino Santos Neto as a kind of three or four–string instrument that used to keys to depress the strings in order to select different notes. It was played horizontally, either by plucking or bowing the strings. Jovino identified the instrument of being of Japanese origin, but I have not been able to find any reference to it in literature concerning Japanese music. When I spoke with UCLA Professor Jihad Racy about the matter, he speculated that it was probably a Swedish folk instrument called a nyckelharpa.