Vanderlei was born into a musical family in Macaé, Brazil, a coastal city a little over 100 miles north of Rio de Janeiro and began playing professionally as a teenager. He moved to Rio as a young man, where he pursued a multifaceted career in jazz, popular, and classical music, including a six-year performance internship with the renowned Orquesta Sinfónica Brasiliera (OSB).
As Vanderlei’s inherited retinitis pigmentosa progressed and his vision deteriorated, he realized he could no longer continue working in the classical realm, and proceeded to dedicate himself full-time to playing jazz and other non-classical forms of music. He came to be known as one of the top jazz drummers in Rio,as well as being a highly regarded player of samba and MPB, working steadily even after he lost his sight completely.
He moved to New York City in 1988, and quickly became an in-demand drummer on the New York Brazilian music scene. His versatility has enabled him to shine in performances and recordings with numerous outstanding artists, including Toots Thielemans, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Sivuca, Johnny Alf, Dom Salvador, Tito Puente, Leny Andrade, Rosa Passos, Paul Winter, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Claudio Roditi, Bebel Gilberto, and many others.
When asked about the challenges of being a blind musician, Vanderlei says: “I try to keep a positive attitude. I had to deal with losing my vision while continuing to work full-time as a musician. It took over twenty years to truly accept my blindness and develop the ability to see the positive things in everyday life. I try as much as I can to share some of that optimism with everyone I interact with daily. I would hate to think that people feel sorry for me because of my visual impairment. I’m blind, but so what? I’ve still got music and my own way of seeing things, thank God. I try to channel that energy and I think it comes through in my playing.”