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Hernâni Almeida: “I don’t feel like a musician with a capital M” 26 Agosto 2006

Although he is considered a prodigy of Cape Verdean music, Hernâni Almeida still does not feel that he is a “musician with a capital M.” A Guitarist, composer and “sideman” of Tcheka and Bau, the São Vicente-based musician feels a certain discomfort now that the spotlight has begun to shine in his direction. “It’s not a priority for me to be worry about positive or negative criticism, I have to work,” he says. With his debut album in the works, Hernâni reveals in the following interview how he “cooks up” the vocabulary of the different artists with whom he works and acknowledges the importance of silence in his life, in addition to the lessons learned from his mentor Paulino Vieira.

Hernâni Almeida: “I don’t feel like a musician with a capital M”

Interviewed by Rita Vaz da Silva

How did music enter your life?

There aren’t any musicians in my family, but when I was a kid, on vacation in Portugal, I met a cousin of my mother’s who had a little tiny keyboard. I immediately started to pick out a Stevie Wonder song that was playing on television by ear. My father came up to me, saw this and asked me, “Do you want one of these toys?” Right then he went out and bought a keyboard larger than my cousin’s. I was seven and I had to stand up on something to reach it. That was how it started...

Until years later, you left São Vicente, where you grew up, and headed to Porto, in Portugal, to study music. What motivated this choice?

I decided to study music because I always found it beautiful to see people dedicating themselves so fully to it. I thought that by studying I’d also turn into a MUSICIAN with a capital M and would understand what actually goes on with the phenomenon music better, but it hasn’t worked yet!

Why hasn’t it worked?

Simply because I still don’t feel like a musician with a capital M. I think that it’s something you feel, and I haven’t felt it yet!

Not even in Porto? You played jazz with a band, which must have been a good learning experience. You must have performed live on various occasions and made contact with tons of artists...

I played in a jazz band with colleagues from school: songs by Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul, among others. It was great! Jazz was just one of the courses we had at the Porto Music Conservatory, in addition to musical education, classical guitar, music history, acoustics and composition techniques. But truly the best contact I had was with my jazz professor, Manuel Garcia, who has influenced me for good, both technically and in relating to other musicians. When I finished school, I brought all the books I could gather with me, and I’m always buying new things to study. Jazz is just one more element I use to make music and so I have to keep studying permanently, by listening to old-timers’ records as well: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, among others.

So far, your career is similar to that of many other Cape Verdean artists who “lend” their talent to lend body and creativity to other artists’ compositions. You’ve worked with Bau and now with Tcheka. In accompanying them, have you ever felt subjugated or without room to forge your own path? Or has being beside them helped you evolve?

Yes. So far what I’ve done is help others have a reason to smile. I take their songs and make them my songs on the level of arrangements, dynamics, colors, textures, instrumentation. Of course at the end of it all the public thinks that the person who did all of that was the headliner: it’s kind of a little white lie, but that’s OK. That way I always have peace, while the others are always on TV giving tiring interviews. (laughs)

I’ve never felt subjugated. I’m doing the work that I have to do. But sometimes I feel strange because some people demand all the credit, as if I didn’t exist. I think they could be more honest. Careful, I’m not talking about anyone in particular. It’s just a message to musicians who appear at the forefront and don’t respect those who are behind their work. I learn a different vocabulary with each artist. This way I build up an interesting vocabulary that I hope will become even vaster some day.

You’re very close to Paulino Vieira. Did the fact that both of you essentially help other musicians in production and arrangements bring you closer to one another? Or do you share Paulino’s way of being: very reserved, an experimentalist, a creator...

I see Paulino as a father. People are strange, have you ever noticed? And often I meet Paulino to remove my doubts about behaviors, relationships, attitudes. He knows everything about everything, I think. Indeed, I don’t remember ever having talked to him about music. Music is work, and instruments are tools. But what interests us most is talking about the person behind the instrument, that being that is the artist. That’s why I don’t believe that it was music that brought us together. I had been seeking out Paulino since I was a kid and when I met him, he told me he was waiting for the right moment to meet me. That’s the way it is with all of the pupils whose paths cross mine: Sara Tavares, Cau Paris, Tito’s nephew. They’re Paulino’s kids as well.

What was the most important lesson Paulino gave you about people, about behaviors, relationships?

To always remain quiet so you can listen to and observe others better and learn with them. I love to observe people, many of them remind me that I should never be like them!

Is there cooperation (on the artistic level, but also in the defense of authors’ rights, of works and of Cape Verdean culture) amonf Cape Verdean musician and composers or not?

None at all. The only person who talks to me about this is Paulino, and now, more recently, the sculptor Idá Abreu, an émigré residing in Paris.

Specifically what did they talk about?

Paulino challenged me to create a way of recording and selling records without going through he hands of a producer. And Idá is teaching me how to deal with producers, seeing that there are other institutions prepared to defend artists.

So you’re going to record a CD. Tell me a little about this project.

OK! It’s not a dream for me to have a CD, I want to make this clear, because I’ve come to realize that recording a CD has become a dream for many people, like a you cut a slice of cheese! What happens in my case is that people are always asking me when my CD’s going to come out, and I always reply that I’m not ready. But a few days ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a strange revelation: I’m never going to be ready for anything in life. That’s why you should mark phases, make history, or else time will keep passing by and you’ll never do anything for yourself, just for others. In twenty years I’ll be 48, in twenty more I’ll be 68, in twenty more 88, 100 something.... Brrrr! I’ve got to do it now. At the moment, I only have the compositions and I’ve chosen the musicians, a Cape Verdean and an Angolan. It’s not anything like what people call Cape Verdean music, mornas and coladeiras... I want something that’s pleasant, without any name, just expression and sounds. Maybe later someone will give it a name!

So are you all ready to record then?

Not yet. I’d like to record this year, but I don’t have any money and I’ve never asked for sponsorship. I don’t have the courage to ask for help to record and I don’t want to go through producers. Now in Cape Verde I’m going to request sponsorship and I hope to record this summer. We’ll see...

If people ask you about your CD it’s because they want to hear Hernâni by himself. Do you have any trepidations about the moment the spotlight shines on you?

I have respect for this moment, when the lights will be shining on me. It’s not a case of being ready or not because no one is ever ready. I’ve always been used to observing and not being the object of observation. It was by watching others that I learned what I’ve learned, and that’s how I keep learning. Maybe I’m worried I’ll stop observing the day I notice that they’re observing me too.

But you’re already being observed. I Googled your name and almost all of the references, whether they’re in French, English or Portuguese, say the same thing: “young guitar prodigy.” Critics and the public have praised your talent, which always comes to the forefront in Tcheka’s concerts.

There’s nothing I can say. That’s what the public says, I just play!

But do they, do they say it to you? How do you feel when you’re the object of praise?

I’m not sure they say anything. It’s not a priority for me to concern myself with positive or negative criticism, I’ve got to work! When people compliment me? I feel like I’m in strange territory, because there’s a struggle inside of me. There’s an ego that makes me puff up my chest, and on the other hand there’s the Hernâni who’s extremely critical, who tells me to sit down and be quiet. It’s an almost total state of discomfort, I don’t deal well with either vanity or humility.

Your name is increasingly associated with Tcheka. You did the arrangements for Nu Monda. What is it like to work with him, both in the creation of the arrangements and in the live shows?

It’s fun. Tcheka’s the innocent clever type. He knows what he likes, but sometimes he doesn’t know how to get there. He’s got good compositions, he had a good musical education at home. Sometimes he’s like a rock, it seeks like he’s going to break his guitar, he plays with power, but he’s got very good taste, which he inherited from his father. He educates himself and quickly learns how things work, which makes my working with him much easier. You could say he’s a good employee for me. (laughs) I should also comment on the excellent work carried out by Kizó Oliveira, the bassist and someone who’s always supported Tcheka’s work, and Raúl Ribeiro, percussionist, as they’re part of the foundation that gives the CD its good sonority.

There’s complicity between you and Tcheka that comes out in the way the songs are performed on stage. I’d say that you complete one another: Tcheka grabs on to the rhythm, and is more impulsive, while you are more melodious and methodical. Is that right?

Exactly. Tcheka and I playing is as if we were cooking the same dish in the same pan, for example, each of us with his own ingredients and secrets. I see things from one side and he sees them from the other, and we test the flavor of what’s cooking and react to it. It gives us incredible pleasure to make a song into a dish, with Tcheka working on the base, behaving like cooks. We really do have a lot of fun on stage.

Was this tour of Africa and Europe positive for you? How do you think people receive Cape Verdean music?

It’s been positive. People react very well. We were even shocked, it was like we were doing something from out of this world.

Were there any funny incidents that marked the tour?

Yes. We were almost killed in a plane accident between Malabo and Brazzaville because of bad weather. In Angola too: the plane actually slid off the runway. In the Congo, we traveled in a Boeing that smelled and had fish blood running down the walls. It was incredible. In Chad, we managed to escape being murdered by a man who was a rebel from the opposition party, feared by everyone because he was the type of person who kills people for nothing, hides in the forest and comes back months later after everyone’s forgotten the crime. He pushed Tcheka just out of rudeness and Super Tcheka, who had no idea who this guy was, punched him in the face. We were prohibited from leaving the hotel room. But right then the director of the French Cultural Center resolved everything. And the next day the rebel was already talking friendly to us, telling us not to worry because he wasn’t going to kill us and actually really liked Cape Verdean music...

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