Ode to Nana is a musical dialogue for berimbau* and double bass, in collaboration with Brazilian-born percussionist, composer and educator Adriano Adewale. Adriano and I have been playing together for 20 years as a double bass and percussion rhythm section within the context of numerous bands and projects such as Antonio Forcione Quartet, Adriano Adewale Group, Subsonic Trio and Nathan Riki Thomson Ensemble, touring with these groups extensively. Our collaborations have also extended into education and community contexts, facilitating projects together with children, people with disabilities and in higher education institutions. Adriano was born in Brazil with heritage from Africa and was based in the UK for 20 years, later settling in Finland. 


During this time we have built a strong musical connection and developed key qualities mentioned earlier in this exposition including trust, respect, openness and willingness to explore unknown territory. This partnership has also been an important framework for me to explore and develop my double bass playing and musicianship. However, the piece presented in this exposition, Ode to Nana, was our first outing of playing as a duo of berimbau and double bass. This new context provided a platform to explore unchartered territory, armed with two instruments that shared the common elements of strings strung across different forms of resonators.

Excerpt of a Recorded Discussion Between Adriano and Nathan (Adewale, Thomson, 2017).

7 April 2017


ADRIANO: By exposing the bass to this kind of research you end up taking it in different directions and then you explore all these different worlds inside the bass…


NATHAN: And that wouldn’t happen in the same way if I was doing it alone. So, it’s this process of working with an instrument like berimbau and a musician like yourself, who has a wide view of not just the berimbau but the ability to see it in new contexts.


N: It’s not only putting the double bass in contact with an instrument like the berimbau but it’s putting the people in contact in the right context, with the right frame of mind, with the right skills as well. 


What we’re talking about here is setting up a framework where this kind of interaction, dialogue, collaboration can happen. It’s like fertile ground. Planting the right seeds and giving it the kind of sunshine or water so that something can grow 


A: And essentially empowering the players to be creators on the spot, and creating a possibility for new things. And not only creating in terms of exploring melody and rhythm but also new techniques. Because this process allows you to look for other techniques.


In the classical world it’s often the composers holding that control….



I first encountered a variety of the berimbau in Tanzania. Known as one of the earliest forms of the instrument, the ndono is played by the Wagogo people of central Tanzania and bears a striking resemblance to the Brazilian berimbau. (see figure 1.11) The photo in figure 1.11 was taken by me outside the house of the Zawose family in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, 1993. The ndono player is Ubi Zawose, who is the late Father of my teacher Hukwe Zawose. During my lessons with Hukwe Zawose, Ubi would often be sitting under this tree playing to himself and occasionally dancing, regardless of being in his 90’s at the time. These moments had a huge impact on me and have stayed with me forever, somehow embedded within my being in many indescribable ways.  


Hearing the ndono for the first time, I was struck by the depth of expression and emotion achievable with limited but perfectly formed resources. This led me to reflect on the essence of music making and musical expression, which in this example was not reliant on a large number of notes or harmonic possibilities. 


What are the phenomena that enable a musician to communicate deeply, given only a bare minimum of resources? This question was the guiding line as Adriano and I began to explore the possibilities of a duet between berimbau and double bass. This is also the question that underpins Adriano Adewale's own artistic research, which is centred around the berimbau. 

Emerging Musical Language

During the course of this dialogue, an interpersonal musical language began to emerge that appeared to be specific to this particular combination of people. If I was to play in duo format with another berimbau player, for example, the language would no doubt be very different. The long previous history of collaboration in various contexts between Adriano and I plays a crucial role here. Another contributing factor can be observed in Adriano’s unique approach to the berimbau, which has been formed over many years of developing his own artistic identity. Over a period of time, using improvisation as a method, specific elements began to take shape as idiosyncratic characteristics of this language, including particular techniques, rhythmic approaches, melodic and harmonic exploration, texture and timbre. 


I use the word improvisation here to describe the method used to search for this emerging language. In practical terms, this at times involved one of us simply beginning to play, to see how the other would react and respond to a given musical idea. This technique was bounced back and forth with the roles of initiating and responding constantly interchanging. Core musical ideas were discovered during this process. It can be noted here that verbal language had not been used in the musical / creative process up until this point, however, when ideas were discovered that we liked, we then began discussing them as a way to remember and refine the ideas. It can also be noted that many musical ideas came and went, falling by the wayside in the process. 


The outcome of this process was a handful of distilled musical ideas, which we verbally agreed on keeping. The first version of the resulting piece of music was performed live as part of my 2nd doctoral concert, Resonance 2, June 2017 (see video example, figure 3.0). The material was partly structured and partly improvised in this performance, whereby we had known material to work with and a skeleton structure, alongside unknown elements that emerged in the moment. This video serves as documentation of a live artistic research process, where the musicians can be heard to discover and explore both known and unknown elements together in real time.   



In contrast, the studio recording heard at the top of this page was completely improvised from the graphic score (see figure 1.13). Listening back to this recording, I can hear aspects of the language that had been created during the time leading up to the recording, as well as new elements and musical ideas that arose spontaneously in the moment. On reflection, the discovery of these new musical ideas in the studio was clearly the result of a much longer process of exploration, which led to uncovering something new in the moment. 


The following discussion between Adriano and myself came about spontaneously as part of the rehearsal process and became an important part of the creation of the music. 


Figure 1.12. (Arola, 2019). Adriano Adewale and Nathan Riki Thomson. Live performance, 2019.

Creation Process

Figure 1.13. Graphic Score (Thomson, 2018)

These discussions reveal a willingness to explore unknown, liminal states, with the knowledge that they hold within them the potential for new discoveries. It could be argued that this is a fundamental aspect of humanity, the search for the unknown. In many ways this is nothing new and has been a trait of musical development throughout history. However, I would argue that without the qualities of openness, a willingness to explore and the ability to listen and engage in dialogue with others, our chances for developing and discovering become more limited. 

 Ode to NanaA Collaboration with Brazilian Berimbau Player, Adriano Adewale 

This musical case study took place during two periods from January to June 2017 and October to December 2018. 

Figure 1.16. (Kallio, 2017)

M u s i c a l   C a s e  S t u d y  O n e 


Ode to Nana 2 (out-take). Studio Recording, 20 December, 2018 (Adewale, Thomson, 2018).


N: What I’m trying to dig out is…because we know this stuff very well from having experienced it many times and being in many different situations, so this process happens very naturally. But how do you learn these kinds of skills that are needed to do what we are doing now. Because if you start to break it down, it’s not just about 2 musicians getting in a room and improvising, it’s a whole lot of other stuff that’s going on. 


You’re coming with your berimbau technique and knowledge of berimbau playing. But when you come into this context where we’re creating a duo piece for berimbau and bass, and the bass has a buzzer on it and is using different kinds of techniques then you have to be open to also finding new techniques on the berimbau, and what you do affects me and what I do affect you. But here’s a whole lot of layers of skills there to do with careful listening, meaning listening, openness, respect.’ 


A: Creating an environment where the players feel safe

N: And free to explore and be inspired somehow

N: I have the feeling that of course you can learn these skills. It’s not just relying on, some musicians can do this and some can’t, it’s all to do with the way musicians are trained and the kind of skills you are equipped with. Technical skills are one thing one part of music, but what about all these other layers that you need for this kind of thing to happen?


A: Sure, yeah I think it’s like, it’s almost like demystifying the figure of what it means to be a double bass player or a percussionist.







Figure 1.10 (Kallio, 2017). Adriano Adewale and Nathan Riki Thomson. Live performance, 2017.

Ode to Nana (studio recording)

Figure 2.0 (Adewale, Thomson, 2019)

Working with Adriano has had a profound effect on me as a musician and person. Given this long and fruitful history of collaboration, I was interested in opening up unexplored territory between us to see how new musical impulses might develop out of this strong foundation. Although I had heard Adriano play berimbau many times, we had never had the opportunity of playing together based on this instrument. I therefore suggested this as a starting point for a new collaboration and was particularly interested in what would happen if we were to reduce the elements to using only berimbau and double bass as tools for collaboration. Berimbau techniques are also transferred to the double bass in this piece, through the use of a shaker held in one hand while playing, as well as a berimbau stick used to strike the strings. 

A: I think we need to be open, in the deepest level. Because if you play really well and you are not open, you’re not going to do it. If you are very open but also you don’t have the skills to do it you’re not going to achieve much. Respect, listening big time, deep listening. I think there is something about not conforming…in the sense that there may be lots of things there but still finding a new angle.


N: Some kind of willingness to look to the unknown and explore new territory. That makes you quite vulnerable. You put yourself in a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen or if it’s going to work. 




N: So, you have to have that willingness to throw yourself in. 


A: Yeah. It’s a real privilege to be asked to do this because we are here creating new stuff, exploring new things you know. It was very powerful. 


N: Hidden gems, hidden flowers that you can only uncover if you are willing to put yourself in this kind of situation, otherwise it stays hidden. 


A: I agree completely, it makes you vulnerable big time. But we find a way to understand this that in order to go there we will be a bit vulnerable, but it doesn’t trap us. It’s exciting to be able to go there, discovering, finding out.


I think it’s to do with the actual people. To a degree the backgrounds can help or not but it’s the people.

Figure 3.0. (Adewale, Thomson, 2017)

Figure 1.14. (Thomson 2017)

Figure 1.11. (Thomson, 1993)

Ubi Zawose playing the ndono from the Wagogo people of Tanzania. Photo by Nathan Riki Thomson, Bagamoyo, Tanzania, 1993

Figure 2.1. (Adewale, Thomson 2019)

Live video example, 1st performance of Ode to Nana, Black Box, Helsinki Music Centre, 2nd June 2017. Click on the image to play the video. (Adewale, Thomson, 2017)

Figure 1.15. (Arola, 2019)

Excerpt of Further Discussion 

(Adewale, Thomson, 2017).

31 May 2017 


A: The tool I think are the instruments in our case but then it’s not enough, you have to find a way to go to the pot of ideas. And it’s not like you open the pot and the ideas are there. It is there somewhere, this pot, but you have to shape the ideas, they are there but you have to shape them. 


N: Somehow being open to letting the ideas come. 


A: It’s like there is a constant overflowing of ideas, like the waterfalls of the world. By playing and researching sometimes we create the situation where we go under the waterfall and drink the ideas. In order to do that you can’t go with ready-made formats because you lock yourself away from the waterfall.


Diary Entry

December 2018


So far we have explored several different rhythmic ideas, working on unison and interlocking patterns. I wonder how I can now stretch the harmonic and melodic content given the restrictions of the berimbau in this area? What happens if I start to play with dissonance and try to imply harmonic shifts through moving the bass notes around? How would Adriano respond to this?


Maybe a graphic score or drawing or bit of text would enable something new to happen in the studio? (Thomson, 2018)

*A one string musical bow, the Brazilian berimbau is able to produce a limited number of notes, played by striking the string with a wooden stick held in the right hand and a metal coin held in the left hand, pressed against the string. Endless sonic and rhythmic variations are achieved as the player moves the gourd resonator on and off the body, as well as utilising all of the percussive sounds found on the various parts of the instrument. 

Nathan's Working Notes, June 2017