Hermeto Pascoal, that crazy Brazilian albino

David Block ventures into the eccentric musical world of the intuitive multi-instrumentalist who became a global jazz name when he played on Miles Davis's 1970 album Live-Evil

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Hermeto Pascoal is an enigma. He creates music out of almost any object that he can get his hands on, from his beard to a knife and fork. He is also legally blind. “I know that he can recognise people from six feet away”, said Bill Smith, president/owner of the talent agency Riot Artists, who has also worked with him for the past 12 years.

Smith and Jovino Santos Neto, who was part of Pascoal’s band from 1977 to 1992, got to know Pascoal and see facets of him that the average fan might not know about. They were both kind enough to share their experiences working with Pascoal for this article.

Hermeto Pascoal was born 22 June 1936 in the small farming town of Lagoa da Canoa, which is in the northeast section of Alagoas, Brazil. Born with Albinism, Pascoal was incredibly nearsighted. He dropped out of school in fourth grade, because his school could not provide him with the special accommodations that he needed in order to be on par with his classmates. However, all was not lost. His father, Jose de Costa Pascoal, was a musician and he taught his son how to play the accordion.

Pascoal’s parents had a farm, which allowed him to figure out how to incorporate animal sounds into his music. He also taught himself how to play the piano and the flute.

One of Pascoal’s strengths was to use everyday objects to make sounds and then incorporate those sounds into his music. Smith said that Pascoal would be sitting in a restaurant or sitting outside and he’d pick up the things within his reach to see what sounds he could make.

“He’d wet his beard and pluck it with the microphone held closely”, said Smith. “He frequently plays a tea kettle filled with water that makes various and unusual sounds. We can be in a restaurant and he will bang on the glass with his silverware. He composes incessantly whether on tour or at home. It doesn’t matter if he’s in Tokyo, Paris or New York”. Smith said that when Pascoal travels to these and other cities, he does not see the sights or get the feel for the place. “He spends all day in his hotel room composing. He has people draw the scores for him and then he places the notes on them”. 

Making music out of anything has always been a Pascoal trademark, even before he played professionally.

Pascoal moved to Rio de Janeiro in the early 60s, where he began recording with some of the new generation of Brazilian musicians, such as Quarteto Novo. He went on to play with such luminaries as Miles Davis, appearing on Davis’s 1970 album Live-Evil.

Despite being legally blind, Pascoal once tried to box with Davis. As a result, Davis referred to him as that crazy Brazilian albino. There’s a video with more info about that playful boxing match.

When Neto met Pascoal for the first time in November 1977, he had no idea that he would end up performing with Pascoal for the next 15 years. At the time, Neto was not a professional. While living in Canada, Neto formed a band, but they were strictly amateur. 

Neto was working on his master’s degree in ecology at the Amazon Research Institute. He had spent the past few years studying biology in Canada and was home temporarily in Brazil visiting family and friends.

“When I came home, I learned that Hermeto bought a house close to where my parents lived”, said Neto. “I just wanted to meet Hermeto and say ‘Hey, I’m a big fan’. I heard his music; I was at a few of his shows. I had to meet him”. 

Neto mustered up the courage to ring Pascoal’s doorbell. To his surprise, Pascoal’s wife opened the door.

Neto would later relive that moment in his article, “Ringing the Bell at the Hermeto Pascoal House.” 

He wrote: “I-i-i-i-s Hermeto home? I’m a musician and I’d love to meet him”. She led me to the living room and I found myself sitting alone on the couch while Hermeto Pascoal, in trunks and shirtless, played an electric piano with headphones on and his eyes screwed shut”. The original story is here.

“I told Hermeto that I had a band in Canada and showed him my tape, so he showed me his latest album Slaves Mass (1977).” To date, Slaves Mass is one of Pascoal’s best-selling albums.

“Hermeto then asked me if I could read charts”, said Neto. “I said yes. That was a total lie. He pulled out this chart, had me read it and I botched everything”.

Being caught in a lie, he expected Pascoal to show him to the door. Instead, …”he asked me if I could play a gig with him that week”.

“I couldn’t believe it”, said Neto. “Hermeto has this amazing set of antennas. When he hears a person play, he can always tell what is possible. He said a person could play given the right environment and nourishment, and the right orientation”. 

After his initial performance with Pascoal, Neto decided to forgo his studies. He spent the next 15 years in Pascoal’s band.

According to Neto, Pascoal has spent years composing some pieces and wrote other pieces spontaneously. One of these spontaneous occasions happened when they were in Montreux, Switzerland in 1979.

“Hermeto picked up a laundry list on the ground and just like that, he wrote a whole piece, right before going on stage”, said Neto. “He performed it on stage”.

According to Smith, Pascoal has not capitalised commercially on his strengths.

“He’s into producing and performing what he calls his universal music”, said Smith. “He’s a multi-instrumentalist – he plays the piano well. You can hand him any instrument and he can play it. I’ve seen him walk on stage and play with two rubber ducks”. At the age of 82 Pascoal is still playing numerous live dates, as his Facebook page testifies.

Neto concluded that he wants people to understand that there are many sides to Hermeto Pascoal. “He’s known for playing with a pig on stage, banging on the teapot, and sometimes being silly, but there is a serious side to Hermeto, like his depth of composition”, said Neto. “Music is part of him”.