Hermeto Pascoal: ‘Music is like the air we breathe’

The great Brazilian musician — who left a big impression on Miles Davis — is coming to the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival

Music flows out of Hermeto Pascoal like a river in flood. Since his earliest days, the great Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and composer has been immersed (sometimes literally) in music, attuned to the music of the everyday, whether it’s the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer, a bird call or a pig’s snort, or even the ordinary speech of his fellow humans. It’s all music to Hermeto Pascoal.

Now in his 85th year, with a hugely influential career and a shelf full of groundbreaking recordings behind him, Hermeto continues to be a conduit for what he calls “universal music” — always composing, rehearsing and touring, always moving forward and searching for new sounds. Playful, child-like, unpredictable, the man who Miles Davis called “one of the most important musicians on the planet” lands in Cork next week for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. And no one knows what will happen, not even Hermeto.

Speaking to The Irish Times via Zoom from his home in Rio de Janeiro, and expertly interpreted by Portuguese jazz guitarist José Dias, Hermeto — as he is universally known — is immediately likable, talkative and friendly, with none of the guardedness or ego you might expect from such a senior figure in world music. With a big white beard and snowy mane, he bears a striking resemblance to God.

“Music is everywhere,” he says, leaning into the camera. “Music is like the air we breathe. Music is everywhere but each person has their way of creating and thinking. I’m not a theorist. I am totally intuitive and self-taught, and that means that I’m free. It even feels like I am a child, it feels like I’m still eight years old.”


From his first steps as a musician, Hermeto has been his own teacher, picking up whatever object is to hand and making music with it. There’s a clip online of him sitting down to dinner and playing a samba groove on his crockery. Raised in simple circumstances in rural Alagoas in northeastern Brazil, he was only seven when he picked up his first real musical instrument.

“My father worked at the farm, so he used to go to work, and when he would leave, I would pick up the accordion without him knowing. One day, my mother was listening behind the door and she thought it was my father who had returned from work. But it wasn’t, it was me playing! And when my father came back, he listened and he asked me who I had learned to play with. I said, ‘No, I just started playing on my own.’ I was afraid he would tell me off, but he didn’t. He was overjoyed and he said, ‘Look, I’ll buy you an accordion, and one that’s even better than that one.’ I still have it.”

By the age of eight or nine, Hermeto was playing in bailes, popular free dancing parties in the locality. “My brother and I were a duo of albinos called Os Galegos do Pascoal. People with this skin colour”, says Hermeto, pointing to his startling white arm, “they call us Galegos. And it was beautiful. From then on, I never stopped playing.”

If there is one discernible influence in Hermeto’s otherwise sui generis style, it is the forró music of northeastern Brazil which he grew up playing. Traditionally performed by a trio of accordion, triangle and zabumba (a kind of bass drum), forró is music for dancing, a product of the cultural melting pot of rural Brazil in the 19th century, encompassing African, Portuguese, French and Sephardic influences.

“It’s as if it’s my musical breathing,” says Hermeto of his beloved forró. “And that will never become old, because the beginning of something is like a first step on a ladder, it must be very sturdy. If the first step breaks, the whole ladder will fall apart. And today, thank God, I always, always, always take comfort in remembering those days.”

There have been many steps in Hermeto’s ladder since then as he has added a bewildering array of instruments to his arsenal, from conventional instruments such as piano, guitar and flute, to everyday objects such as kettles, plastic toys, empty bottles, balloon pumps and much more besides. He rose to prominence in his homeland in the mid-1960s, working with then little-known musicians such as singer Elis Regina and composer Edu Lobo, and recording two now-legendary albums, Em Som Maior with Sambrasa Trio (1965, on piano and flute) and Quarteto Novo (1967, on flute) which would be hugely influential both in Brazil and internationally. It was Airto Moreira, drummer and percussionist on those albums, who would bring Pascoal to the US a few years later, where Hermeto left an indelible impression on the great Miles Davis.

“It was something very spiritual, something very universal. It changed me a lot,” he says of his meeting with the great trumpeter. “There was that wonderful thing between us because that meeting between me and Miles is not a thing from Earth, it’s from the universe. We were brought together by God. I tried a few rounds of boxing with him. He gave me the whole gear. We just played around.”

Legend has it that Hermeto hit Miles, who was a huge boxing fan, with a sucker punch because, with the Brazilian’s cross-eyed stare, Miles couldn’t figure out which way he was looking. But if Miles was impressed by Hermeto — the famously cryptic trumpeter later referred to Pascoal as ‘a genius’ — the meeting was also a turning point for Hermeto. He would go on to record with Miles, including two studio sessions in June 1970 which would be included on the famous Live-Evil album, which features three of Hermeto’s compositions. That put him on the map internationally, and among musicians, Pascoal is revered as a master composer, whose influence may be heard in many of today’s most respected jazz composers.

Today, Hermeto continues to compose at a prodigious rate. There are stories of the maestro at the back of the tour bus, furiously scribbling down tunes that the band will play that evening. The back catalogue of music is now compendious, and the band know that any tune may be called.

“When the music comes to me, I just start writing. When I’m writing it down on a piece of paper, I won’t stop to try to understand it. The music comes as if I’m improvising with the instrument. With me it’s like that. It’s more creative, more intuitive. That’s why that when I remember my village it’s as if it’s today, as if it was happening today. I’m not into numbers, I’m into sound. So, the wind, the stars, that is the music. That is what I call universal music. Music comes from the universe. It comes and goes, and you just play it. And the audiences know, they feel wonderfully well.”

Those fortunate enough to get a ticket for his concert in the Everyman next weekend will find out just how well.

Guinness Cork Jazz Festival 2022

The 44th Guinness Cork Jazz Festival marks the debut of Mark Murphy, impresario at Dublin’s popular Sugar Club, as festival director and signals a determination by the sponsor to build a younger, hipper audience for the festival. As usual, the big shows — like The New Power Generation (the band formerly known as Prince) and Afrobeat legends Seun Kuti and Fela’s Eqypt 80 — aren’t actually jazz per se, but this year they have undeniable musical heft and will satisfy those who like a well-placed backbeat, while the Triskel Arts Centre, also as usual, flies the flag for the more creative end of the jazz spectrum.

Here’s six gigs worth catching over the weekend:

Notify & Aoife Doyle, Triskel Arts Centre, Friday 8pm

Double bill featuring six-piece contemporary trad ensemble Notify, fronted by concertina player Pádraig Rynne; and acclaimed vocalist and composer Aoife Doyle with her trio.

GoGo Penguin, Everyman Theatre, Friday 10pm

Minimalist Manchester piano trio mine a dance-influenced seam with a new drummer.

Amaro Freitas, Triskel Arts Centre, Saturday 2pm

Rising star Brazilian pianist distils Abdullah Ibrahim and Thelonious Monk into his own unique sound.

Ralph Towner, Triskel Arts Centre, Saturday 8pm

Legendary ECM guitarist turns solo acoustic guitar into a Zen-like meditation.

Hermeto Pascoal e Grupo, Everyman Theatre, Sunday 2pm

See main article; one of the towering geniuses of world music with his own group — unmissable.

Andy Sheppard East Coast, Triskel Arts Centre, Sunday 8pm

Famed British saxophonist and composer unveils a new international quartet.

Cormac Larkin

Cormac Larkin

Cormac Larkin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a musician, writer and director