Guest post by Daniel B. Sharp
Of the over 300 recordings that Afro-Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos made over five decades, there is one in particular that best offers a glimpse into his life, his artistic vision, and his priorities. At least I think so, based on his ex-wife Merrie Robin Monroe’s description—I haven’t yet been able to hear it, despite Merrie’s and my best efforts to find the lost recording. My hope is that this post might lead to finding it.
While living in Paris in the mid-1970s, Naná received a commission from the French Ministry of Culture to do the music for a filmstrip on the influence of African art on Cubism, consisting of a series of photographs with music and narration. He traveled to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, and spent some time comparing the African masks with Picasso’s cubist paintings. Right there in the museum, he took out his berimbau—a one-stringed musical bow that resembles a bow and arrow—and registered his vibrating musical response to this resemblance and its implications. When he returned home to Paris after a long day, his then wife Merrie Robin Monroe told me, his inspiration was electric:
“Naná arrived really late. He saw those images and the music just flowed out of him. He would go to the bathroom at night, tiny little bathroom. He had a tape recorder in there and he would sit in the bathroom and do the recordings. It just came out and it’s some of the basis of his most popular work, it’s so exquisitely beautiful. I saw when it was completed. So it’s stills of a lot of Picasso, but it’s so elegantly done.”
Being the soundtrack to an educational filmstrip, perhaps it was its humble format that hastened its obscurity. In the absence of the recorded sounds, I can only imagine what is found in that late-night bathroom recording session that later made it into future projects. But considering how often his work features an expansive, three-dimensional sense of the stereo field where he stretches the underlying pulse and choreographs his light instrument’s distance from the microphone to create a parallax effect, it’s safe to say that he did that in the lost recording.
The fact that Naná was so energized by the assignment makes sense, since it brought together several of his longstanding concerns. Throughout his life, he worked to reorder the boundaries between European and African creative forms, to explore the relationship between the sonic and the visual, and to dismantle the dishonest division between the so-called erudite and primitive arts. For Naná, rethinking the erudite and the so-called primitive meant entering and leaving his mark within elite spaces. Sounding his artistic response within a customarily hushed, hallowed European museum space represented one such fulfillment of this aspiration. The way Merrie describes it, the lost recording represents a kind of key to understanding Naná’s creative output in the years to come, the musical ideas found within serving as the basis for subsequent recording projects such as Saudades, the album that my book revolves around.
This is what we know about the lost recording:
Subject and possible title: “L’influence de l’Art Africain sur le Cubisme” (“The influence of African Art on Cubism”)
Commissioned by: the French Ministry of Culture
Minister of Culture at the time: Michel Guy
Filming location: the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgique
Year: Sometime between 1974-1976
Format: Educational filmstrip/documentary using stills
Dan Sharp is Associate Professor at Tulane University, USA, jointly appointed in music and Latin American studies. He is currently chair of the Tulane music department. He is the author of Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse: Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil (2014)
Spanning the genres of samba, tropicália, rock, hip hop, forró, bossa nova, heavy metal and funk, among others, 33 1/3 Brazil is a series devoted to in-depth examination of the most important Brazilian albums of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Learn more here!