After playing in every imaginable context from symphonic orchestras to street bands in his hometown, Nana moved to Rio de Janeiro and began to play with one of Brazil's greatest singers, Milton Nascimento. In 1970 the Argentinian tenor player Gato Barbieri was in Rio and invited Nana to join his band.
They played in New York and then toured Europe, starting at the Montreux Jazz Festival where Nana caused a sensation. When the tour finished Nana decided to stay in Paris. During his time in the city he made his first recording, Africa Deus. Nana returned to Brazil and recorded his album, Amazonas, and began a collaboration with guitarist Egberto Gismonti that lasted for eight years and produced three albums of duets. Back in New York he formed Codona with Don Cherry and Collin Walcott, as well as touring and recording with Pat Metheny's band. Since 1975 Nana has recorded with everyone from B.B. King to Jean Luc Ponty to the Talking Heads, but has never allowed himself to become a studio musician. His contributions to each project are special and go beyond the usual role allotted a percussionist.
While working with Gismonti, Nana recorded his third record, Saudades, where he is accompained by a symphony orchestra. In 1983 he released Zumbi, an album where he highlighted his work with voices and "body percussion", using the sounds only he can make by slapping and otherwise provoking his own body.
In 1983 he began to work with drum machines after being inspired by the break-dancing scene going on around him. He toured Europe with a group of break dancers from the South Bronx. Nana's very original use of the drum machine is distinguished by an unusually careful tuning that makes it sound almost organic and by his ability to play it live, typing out polyrhythms instead of programming them layer by layer.
In 1986 Nana Vasconcelos returned to Brazil for the first time in six years and his solo tour was enthusiastically received by enormous crowds. He continued to extend the field of his collaborations, being featured on soundtracks for films by Susan Seidelman and Jim Jarmusch (Downbylaw). Nana's work over the past few months demonstrates the breadth of his musical talents. He has been a member of Norwegian saxophonist/composer Jan Garbarek's Quartet recording and touring extensively. He has continued to work with long-time collaborators Don Cherry and Trilok Gurtu, as well as forging new associations, for instance, with the Norwegian bassist Arild Anderson, with UK saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and with the French pianist Jean-Marie Machado. Amongst many records he appears on Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints album.
His own projects remain his first concern, however. His group, Bushdance, recorded for Antilles and worked extensively in Europe: and he is currently developing a unique solo performance, a theatrically staged piece that explores the full, fascinating range of sounds and songs that lie at the heart of his music, and which is based around his unique rapport with his audience. A further dimension to his work lies in his continuing committment to his work with children and people with learning difficulties, through workshop residencies in the UK and Italy.