They’re dropping like flies. Now Nana Vasconcelos, the great Brazilian percussionist, is no more. Dead from lung cancer at the tender age of 71 – which would have made him about 45 when The Good Wife and I went to see him at The Leadmill, Sheffield.
Apparently a converted flour mill, The Leadmill is, by popular vote, one of the UK's favourite independent live-music venues. It always struck me as a rather seedy spit-and-sawdust type of place in a rather seedy part of the city centre down by the railway station. This was in the late '80s or early '90s, in the days before coffee bars appeared in the station precinct and the creation of an arts cinema just opposite the ill-conceived and short-lived Museum of Pop Music lent the area some respectability.
I'm not sure that I'd even heard of Nana Vasconcelos nor his band of the time, The Bushdancers. Brazilian music still meant mainly Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto and gentle strum-along bossa nova. But being curious, we went to see him. Probably on our own, since it might have been not too long after we moved oop to the grim north from Brighton: a time when we would have worn our Paddington Bear-style labels on our duffel coats saying PLEEZE BE OUR FRIENDS.!(upload://yDzpHib9km2c63nUat6cV1Ahm84.jpg)
Before The Daughter came along and made us think twice about evenings out, it was a brief but rich era for music concerts. Artists like Hugh Masekela, Gil Scott-Heron, Hilton Ruiz, Roy Ayers, Pharoah Sanders and the fabulous Bundhu Boys appeared at The Leadmill or the University or what was then still the Poly. Oh, and a Kajagoogoo spin-off – but that wasn't our doing: a visiting friend from Manchester persuaded us to go along, much against our better judgement, you understand.
And Senõr Vasconcelos, the dark-skinned native of Recife, with his gourds and bells and shakers, his bird calls, yodels, drums and the one-string berimbau, was particularly memorable. If you half-closed your eyes that evening, you could imagine that the gloomy Leadmill had been magically transformed into a tiny clearing somewhere deep in the Brazilian rainforest.
And it’s Nana V’s myriad percussion effects that help to turn Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints of 1990 into a masterpiece of modern world music. Only the best for the diminutive New York minstrel. Vasconcelos had already picked up countless critics’ awards and worked with the likes of Pat Metheny, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Brian Eno and Talking Heads when Simon recruited him for his follow-up to Graceland.
Some – including the Queen Mum – would probably argue that Graceland was the better album, but I've only got it on cassette, so it doesn't count. Besides, I believe that Rhythm builds on its predecessor by shifting the whole operation to Rio de Janeiro. While preserving that beautiful singing, ringing guitar sound associated with central and southern Africa, Simon adds to the mix the element of Brazilian percussion – in the form of Nana Vasconcelos and his crop of gourds and the arsenal of home-made instruments (such as a glass rather than the customary wooden marimba) used by the percussion group, Uakti – to create something even more extraordinary.
The quality of the song-writing throughout is as one would expect from a master craftsman like Paul Simon. As a callow youth at university, I secretly sneered at my friend Jacqui's love of his early solo albums – thinking they were every bit as soppy as the Simon & Garfunkel song book – but I came to realise that she was right all along. These days, I'm so liberal and enlightened that I can listen to 'Mrs. Robinson' et al without the slightest sneer, while positively relishing There Goes Rhymin' Simon and all his later mature work.!(upload://cGzqTAD8eFEp8Hnvs07ui3DOsph.jpg)
But it's the guitar arrangements and the percussion effects throughout that take his songs to a new dimension. Consider the glorious, mysterious second track, for example, 'Can't Run But'. There's a fantastic image – 'A winding river/Gets wound around a heart. Pull it/Tighter and tighter/Until the muddy waters part' – that captures for me the way the crystal guitar sound and the ceaseless pattering percussion interweave to suggest something seductively liquid.
Yes, that's it. The Rhythm of the Saints is one mighty Afro-Brazilian river. An Orinoco of percussion. A Niger of guitars. A Limpopo of limpid native sounds. An Amazon of astounding musicianship. Right from 'The Obvious Child', in which the thundering sound of the massed samba drums of the Grupo Cultural Olodum suggest the falls at its source, the album seems to flow effortlessly but relentlessly like an imagined river.
Taking the whole journey and listening to the record from start to finish rather than cherry-picking individual tracks has an effect like some benign and mildly hallucinogenic drug that gently turns your world inside out for 45 minutes. Although he's not there on every track, Nana's there – with the likes of Hugh Masekela, the Brecker Brothers and the great Congolese guitarist, Ringo Star – on the exceptionally beautiful 'Further to Fly', with its 'days falling backward into velvet night...'
Days continue to fall backwards on the next track, the equally beautiful 'She Moves On' – the delicate percussion this time swollen by a powerful bass line and a chorus of female African voices – and on down 'The Cool, Cool River' with all its haunting 'Spirit Voices' as far as the lazy hypnotic title track, where Uakti and Nana Vasconcelos appear together again to steer us through the delta and out into the endless ocean.
Time like the river marches on. Paul Simon keeps going for now and one day perhaps I'll get to see him live, preferably on a summer's day live in Central Park, New York. I suspect I've missed the boat and anyway it wouldn't be alas with Nana Vasconcelos, who teamed up so felicitously with the pint-sized songsmith, with his ear for exotic ethnic sounds and his way with evocative imagery, to create one of the great musical codas to the 20th century.