Legendary Brazilian drummer and berimbau player Naná Vasconcelos died in São Paulo on March 9 after being diagnosed with lung cancer seven months prior. Over the course of his 71-year life, Vasconcelos won eight Grammys, was named DownBeat magazine’s percussionist of the year every year from 1983 to 1991, and he played with everyone from Clube Da Esquina founder Milton Nascimento, to outré jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, to Paul Simon.
Vasconcelos was born in Recife, in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, in 1944. By the age of 12, he had taught himself the drums, and soon set off for Rio. Before long he was playing berimbau with the luminaries of the Tropicalia movement, such as Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil, and other giants of Brazilian music in the post-bossa nova era like Nascimento and Egberto Gismonti.
Vasconcelos would never be bound to a single genre, and his list of collaborators spans musical worlds. He played with jazz greats no lesser than Miles Davis himself, as well as experimental downtown New York musicians like Arto Lindsay and Talking Heads, all while putting out his own albums and work with frequent Brazilian collaborators such as Mauricio Maestro.
Beyond being a uniquely talented musician, Vasconcelos’s engaging personality purportedly also made him desirable to work with, a fact many of the emerging impromptu eulogies and homages attest to.
Pat Metheny, an American jazz guitarist who collaborated with Vasconcelos in the 1980s, commemorated the maestro on his Facebook page, stating “In addition to being one of the best percussionists in this music, Nana was also an amazing, wonderful person. Everywhere he went (berimbau always nestled on his shoulder) he made friends and brought an infectious joy to the people around him. His laugh was contagious and his ability to bring happiness to any situation spilled over to the bandstand. And what an incredible musician. …We will all really miss Nana!”
In recent years he would return to kick off the Recife’s Carnival festival. When Jason Gardner visited the city’s Carnival for Afropop in 2014, it was a Vasconcelos song that filled the air, drummed and sung by the attending crowd. In response to the musician’s death, Jazzfm.com reported that the governor of Pernambuco decreed three days of mourning.