Naná’s time illuminates everything around it

Guest post by Daniel B. Sharp

Naná Vasconcelos’s superb time surfaced several times when I talked to the producers, engineers, and musicians that knew him best. Arto Lindsay sang his praises, noting that “Naná has this kind of crystal-clear time. It illuminates everything around it. It’s the time itself that is just glorious…It breathes, but it never lets you down.” Underlying this praise is the fact that the beginning of Naná’s career—from the 1960s forward—corresponded to the rise of the click track that anchors most multitrack recording projects with stopwatch precision. Naná could easily work without a click track, or dance around the pulse of a click track, producing parts that don’t feel pinned down by its tyranny. Even during his early-80s stint playing music for breakdancers, he preferred to play his electronic beats with his fingers, without quantizing himself to a machine pulse, like J Dilla would later become famous for. This ability to breathe musically played out in situations where Naná was faced with reconciling the clashing feels of two previously recorded tracks, or mending an arrangement recorded by another musician with a shakier sense of time. Producer Pat Dillett heard this as the ability to listen and constantly give and take: “He would listen and find that flow throughout the entire thing and be able to keep it in his head as if it’s like a 120-bar phrase that he could play.”

Part of what struck bass player Melvin Gibbs was that “There was a certain kind of manipulation of breath that he was doing and I think it was conscious. That was really the beauty of what Naná was doing.” As a bass player who has played with a wide range of African and Afro-diasporic musicians from around the globe, Gibbs locates Naná’s strength in almost ineffable questions of microtiming and feel: “He would play these rhythms, but he would play them in a way that would make them sound open instead of sound like a restriction. It was elastic enough, so it could be multicontextualized.” For Melvin, this openness meant that he and Naná were together playing “in the gap between Brazilian music and African American” grooves.

He elaborated that it’s “the percussionist’s job is to make you breathe a certain way, to make you move a certain way.” His active positioning around the microphones helped Naná in conveying this kinesthetic dimension, linking up sound and bodily movement. It produces an effect that Melvin compares to how a make-up artist helps the contours of an actor’s face show up vividly to the camera: “with percussion, the movement is what gives you the illusion of what it would sound like if you were actually there, hearing what he was doing.”

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.

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