Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos is known for his ability to find music in everyday objects but for him, the human body is the most important musical instrument of all. In Diário de Naná, the filmmakers follow Vasconcelos on his quest for the spiritual and ethnic origins of his music in Recôncavo Baiano, in the north-eastern state of Bahía. Slowly but surely, we see how various ethnic backgrounds, the colonial past, nature and religious rituals have become lodged in the rhythms of the Brazilian musical tradition.
Any viewer not particularly fascinated by music or Brazilian culture, or Brazilians in general, might easily be bored stiff by this hour-long documentary: just another pile of footage wherein some guy travels around talking to people, laughing and playing a little music here and there. For the rest of us this is quite a treat, in more than one sense.
The protagonist, legendary Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos deserves a documentary of his own; the equally legendary Bahia region in the north-east of this vast country is a cultural phenomenon, famous for its multitude of musical genres, subgenres and varieties spread around like dialects (by the hundreds, according to a Brazilian musician I had the pleasure of talking to a couple of years ago). The geography being what it is, it’s tempting to compare the region’s impact on world music with its neighbouring forests’ effects on the air we breathe all over the globe. Most of all, Naná’s Diary gives us a taste of some of the many musical influences themselves, their genealogy, not to mention the people who keep these constantly developing traditions alive.
As mentioned, 68-year-old Naná Vasconcelos is himself a worthy topic, a celebrated musician, long since established in the jazz festival circuit, having played with the likes of Gato Barbieri, Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette and Milton Nascimento to name a few.
He knows, to say the least, a thing or two about music and its many influences, and he also happens to be a charming and charismatic tour guide for Samora’s film. Thankfully, Samora has the sense to show him as the craftsman that he is, as opposed to the indulgent celebrity suck-up that many an artist portrait deteriorates into.
Where’s the stradivarius of the dishes?
It is Naná Vasconcelos who calls the shots, Naná the musician, the cultural explorer or simply Naná, the convivial fellow human. He has a way of communicating with people that quite a few talk-show hosts could envy him. Add to that his wholehearted enthusiasm for music, and you have the making of a pedagogical talent, as can be seen in the scene where he’s telling a group of local youngsters about the different instruments and the ways they’ve taken through history, over land and sea.
His inquiries and spontaneous lectures on the different instruments’ backgrounds, add up to something we never can get enough of: musical influences described in terms of their sociocultural genealogy, their historical/ geographical roots, and even better: described by performance. Here is talking, here is singing and here is jamming – with any object at hand.
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