Corona’s Phonic Diary Nr.:62 – Naná Vasconcelos – Zumbi

Naná Vasconcelos – Zumbi | Image Courtesy of Author 2021

If we were to start a debate about which of the many albums of the great Afro Brazilian composer and performer Nana Vasconcelos was the best, we could easily spend a few days just debating. Not really because this is a subjective choice, but because Vasconcelos did actually produce a few very powerful albums which could stand the test of any qualifier’s rank of best. I personally have difficulties in choosing my best from his at least 16 solo albums as leader and his countless albums in collaboration with Codona, Pierre Akemdengue, Harry Belafonte, Don Cherry, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, or Milton Nascimento… to name but a few.
Today, I have chosen to highlight the 1983 released album “Zumbi” truly because it is one of the best, but for several other reasons I will like to elaborate on in a bit.
First and foremost because this album is an album of embodied music. The album is almost exclusively done as a percussive album with the body being one of the central percussion instruments, but also Vasconcelos’ voice, his berimbau and other percussion instruments are the main characters in this album.

That the body — including the voice — is the human’s first musical instrument is something that ethnomusicologists of all kinds have written about. In the 1920 classic by ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin, Kamba Simango, and Madikane Cele “Songs and tales from the dark continent” based on recorded singing and the sayings of C. Kamba Simango, Ndau, East Africa and Madikane Cele, Zulu, South Africa, they write about body percussions, as “tinted with many tonal effects produced simply by hitting one hand with the other in different ways. Sometimes a hand is cupped in order to hit the other, emitting a low, thick sound; on other occasions, handclaps are given with open palms, with a dry, sharp sound. Such sonic contrasts and the gradations in tone and volume are launched into the air with such a unique sense of their dynamic values that the white listener is astounded by these forms of artistic expression (…).

Surely, it seems as if all the possible combinations of rhythms, stress and tones, formed by such simple means, are turned into art this percussive orchestra formed of human hands” (as pointed out by Francisco Javier Romero Naranjo in “Science & art of body percussion”). In Betty Warner Dietz, Babatunde Olatunji, and Richard M. Powers’ seminal 1965 published “Musical instruments of Africa: their nature, use, and place in the life of a deeply musical people” in which they write about music as a vital part in the quotidian of African peoples and music as a means through which African peoples and cultures could be understood, they dedicate a whole chapter to Body Percussion. Humans have always used bodily sounds and rhythms percussively to communicate with each other, to make music to defend or mark their territories. Just by clicking the fingers, hitting the chest, clapping the thighs, buttocks or hands, patting variedly shapes of open palms, stamping feet on the floor or just snapping or stomping other body parts like elbows and knees, one can create an incredible spectrum of sonic worlds. I can’t speak for/of other peoples, but I know that African peoples situated no matter where in the world have mastered the art of bodily percussions to the very apex. And that is the case with Juvenal de Holanda Vasconcelos dit Nana Vasconcelos.

When Vasconcelos released the album “Zumbi,” he was already 39, and had already a few albums and impressive experimental collaborations and tours under his belt. The legendary albums “Africadeus” and “Amazonas” were already out in 1973, and “Saudades” in 1979. One could say that in almost all his solo albums, Vasconcelos tackled a part of Afro-Brazilian/ African history and present, in some way or the other. At age 39, he was about to tackle one of the most powerful episodes of Afro-Brazilian history, and he chose his body as the narrator of that history. Of course I have to go back to Esiaba Irobi’s illustrious statement in “The Philosophy of the Sea: History, Economics and Reason in the Caribbean Basin,” where he most boldly wrote:
“What all this means is that centuries before Hegel wrote Phenomenology of the Spirit or Husserl started wrestling with the discourse called “Transcendental Phenomenology” or Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre started exploring its meaning as a philosophical concept or possibility, African cultures, like the Yorubas, whose phenomenological constructs we can see in its full complexity and splendor in Bahia, Brazil, Havana in Cuba, in the USA or United Kingdom, had known the power of this concept, this philosophy of the body as a site of transcendent discourses, and used it to regulate thought and feeling and ideas of identity within their cultures. They knew that the body had a memory more powerful than the retentive capacities of the cognitive mind, hence their privileging of the meta-languages as the semiological vehicles for expressing the values most precious to their perception of a fully-lived communal life, a holistic life not a partial, dysfunctional one in which the mind races ahead into prozac and schizophrenia while the body lags behind, balloons or sags and cannot even pick up simple musical rhythms.”

It seems to me that with this album “Zumbi,” Vasconcelos was activating the memory of his body and advocating for his body to be that site of transcendent discourses. Zumbi transformed his whole body into the skin of a drum, into a power source that could generate vibrations. His limbs, abdomen, diaphragm, ribs all became oscillators for the sound. In school we were taught that sound emanates from the simple interruption of airflow, that when there is vibration, there is a potential for sound to be produced as air particles are instigated to move and bump into each other due to the vibrating object. That is what happens when we hit the drum, and the body or any other instrument for that matter. And even the voice. When we exhale, our vocal chords are brought close together and set to vibrate and they interrupting the flow of air. Like percussion.

With every clapping, stamping, bitting, tapping, whistling and singing, Vasconcelos was asking his body to speak… and speak of, from, by, through, with Zumbi. Zumbi dos Palmares.
Nana Vasconcelos was born in 1944 in Recife and died aged 71 in Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil. Pernambuco was the centre of his life, like that of Zumbi (1655 – November 20, 1695), whose life I will revisit in a few other posts regarding Brazil and Black Consciousness. The story and legend of Zumbi dos Palmares, the Brazilian quilombola leader of Kongo origin who fought against the Portuguese in Brazil, who liberated Africans from the bondages of enslavement, who freed enslaved people from the plantations is one to be told over an over again. It is the story of the king of the Quilombos, Zumbi, that Nana Vasconcelos tells in this album, tangentially, metaphorically, somatically. And in listening, one can imagine Pedro Almeida, governor of the captaincy of Pernambuco, in 1678, trying to convince king Ganga Zumba to accept a freedom deal for the runaway slaves of Palmares so as to get some peace, but place Palmares under Portuguese authority. One can imagine Zumbi, then commander-in-chief of the Kingdom since in 1675, opposing his uncle Ganga Zumba and advocating for the freeing of ALL enslaved people and for total autonomy. One can imagine Zumbi killing Ganga Zumba in 1678 and taking over the kingship. It is said that as king of Palmares, Zumbi set up economic, political and cultural infrastructure reminiscent of his Kongolese origins. One can imagine these cultures flourishing in Palmares over 15 years despite the heavy pushback by the Portuguese.

One can imagine the final storm and crack on Palmares in 1694 and after the fierce battle of 42 days they overthrew Zumbi and took his territory of Angola Janga. On 6th Feb 1694, the Portuguese destroy Zumbi’s Kingdom’s historical core settlement Cerca do Macaco/ Cerca Real dos Macacos situated on the peak of the Serra da Barriga in the state of Alagoas. And it is at this site that Nana Vasconcelos begins the album “Zumbi” with the piece titled “Macacos “Corpo”” in praise of, in lament of both Macacos and the body. One can hear the plot thicken. The pace gets faster and faster. The monkeys scream and come closer. The rhythmic clapping intensifies, and the hums and twitches persist. What is coming is eminent… but the end is the beginning. The battle only continues. Thus the laughters, as if to ridicule those who thought that this episodal win is all. The chorus of laughters wind into a cry, an outcry, a ghostly laughter. Undecidability reigns. Is it Zombi or Zumbi?
The second track on the album is the title piece. It starts solemnly with a spiritual chant as the drum finds its own voice. There is a battle of the human voice’s percussivity and the drum’s. It is an entrance. Not an outlet. The ground chant carries the battle between the voice and the various drums that pace on. The rhythms of the mbaya meet those of the mbaghalum. The voices of the drums could be the voices of the omele ako or batá or the Gangan. At any rate, they have assumed the prosody and tone of human speech. It could as well be Zumbi speaking. An autobiographical piece? The highs and lows are close by. But the whole piece breathes determination in all the layers. Zumbi leading and resisting.
All the songs on this album, “Dida”, “Pregoes “Rua””, “Terreiro”, “Nos Olhos De Petronila “Ondas””, “Passo” deserve to be qualified as masterpieces. Nana Vasconcelos employs the tools of onomatopoetic poems in all the songs to take us on a historical journey. Voice and the whole repertoire of percussive instruments from Brazil (Agogô, Alfaia, Apito, Atabaque, Berimbau, Caixa / Snare, Caixa de Maracatu, Caracaxá, Cuíca, Ganzá, Gonguê, Pandeiro, Prato-e-faca, Repinique, Shekere, Surdo, Tamborim, Timbau, Zabumba) seem to find their space in the album. But it is a particular Vasconlosian vocalism and bodily percussion that really cement this album’s space in the history of music. Vasconcelos employs poetic technics of rhythmic reiteration, and plurivocality especially in the piece “Nos Olhos De Petronila “Ondas”.” A true convocation. Sometimes one can’t help but having the feeling it is ecclesiastic. It is a kind of mantra. Maybe a litany for Petrolina. The voices come from afar, and in their multitude the are gripping. They come not fro your ear, nor your brain but your whole body. In entirety.

The closing song of the album “Chegada “Corpo”” takes us back to the beginning reflections on the body. It is the end, but the arrival. After the revolution is the beginning of the revolution. The beats of the drums also transpose us to the West African coast and central Africa sonically — one hears some ‘masikulu’ music, traces of ‘Engundele’ music and many more. Here, too, Vasconcelos transforms his mouth into an acrobatic machine. His laps and chest feel the beatings of his palms repetitively. It is operatic. Theatrical. Overwhelming. We are slowly arriving a destination. The sounds invoke the Quilombos of Palmares in the 1600s. The body finds itself, offers itself, frees itself. It arrives in a higher state of being. It is healingAnd here one is reminded of a scene in Heile Gerima’s seminal film “Sankofa” in which Nunu/Alexandra Duah says you can do whatever you want to do with this body, but you can never touch our souls. In “Chegada “Corpo”,” one has the feeling the soul finally resettles in, re-takes possession of the body. At any rate, there is a repairing, healing, retreating when one listens to this album, and then you realise Nana Vasconcelos developed or ameliorated his body percussion techniques as a means of communicating with children in a psychiatric home in France while he was working there between 1973 and 1974.
#nanavasconcelos #zumbi #afrobrasileiro #brazil #brasil #gangazumba

Author: Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung |