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.
Vasconcelos may appear as a playful, free-wheeling character, and in a sense he is, albeit with a relentlessly keen ear for objects with the right sound, be it his single-stringed berimbau, or a plate found in the kitchen, or simply the murmuring of the waves before they crash upon the cliffs right below where he has posted himself, microphone in hand, ever the eager listener.
This indefatigable hunt for the perfect sounds brings to mind the unaccomplished quest of Pete Townshend of the Who, who once in his youth heard the roar of waves merged with that of an outboard boat engine, and has been trying to emulate the power of that particular sound ever since. May Townshend never succeed. His career is living proof of the hunt (probably) being a bigger thrill than the capture. The same could be said of Naná Vasconcelos. The thought of him finally sitting down to rest one day, content with the sounds he has already found and made, is a disconcerting one.
“Where’s the Stradivarius of the dishes?” he asks one of the elderly women to whom he pays a visit, talking about how she once developed her sense of rhythm.
These women embody the culture and music played throughout their own lifespan, as well as being a valuable link to eras we normally associate with history books. When a woman here (born in 1909) tells us about her greatgrandmother being brought over from Africa, tied up in a cargo ship, then what is usually perceived as abstract historical facts becomes a real fate.
In the book of clichés, there are a few that never seem to diminish the phenomena they describe. Here’s one: singing, dancing or drumming seems to be more organically integrated in the daily communication of these people. A communication “full of energy”, as Naná observes, when describing the room in which they just have performed a little piece of improvisation. What they do is “a fondo spiritual”, according to him. No matter how squeamish one might be about concepts and phrases like “spiritual”, there are only two things to do when they are spoken by a musician like Naná Vasconcelos: shut up and listen.
So, a charismatic leading man, cultural lectures on musical roots, many of which are performed along the way – what more could you ask for? Well, since I ask: More. Many more documentaries about this immense and manifold musical heritage. About this region. A full-length portrait of Vasconcelo and his career wouldn’t hurt, either. This is in no way meant to belittle the approach taken in Naná’s Diary, but rather a wishful appeal for supplementary footage. There’s room for both approaches. The people of Bahia and their constantly evolving musical cultures are screaming for documentation, even in the basest sense of the word: for the purposes of preserving their stories. Judging by the rumours, the cultural, musical wealth of the Bahia region sounds too abundant to last.
Now that we finally know almost everything about the Beatles’ preferred nutrition, toothpaste and choice of shoelaces from the late fifties onwards, maybe there’s a chance of somebody broadening the scope. Maybe sending Scorsese some Brazilian records would do the trick?