João Gilberto, the Voice of
Brazilian Music, Is 80 Today
João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira, the singer whose delicate voice and masterful use of silence led a revolution in Brazilian music, has already etched his name as one of the world’s most expressive performers. Without dancing, without three-octave Cs, without even writing his own material, he still managed to record some of the definitive songs of the 20th century.
The fact that he has outlived his partner and co-architect of Bossa Nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim, has absolute no relevance to his own position at the top of Brazil’s rich musical tradition. That is mostly because since the late 1970s, João Gilberto made a point in rerecord and reinterpret the same group of songs over and over again. And that’s a great thing.
Even though it’s hard to identify the subtle changes and improvements he’s made to them along the years, all the while perfecting the art of using silence as an integral component of singing, he did perfected such songs to exhaustion, without ever sounding tired or repetitive.
It was the artistry of his interpretations combined with the sophistication of Jobim’s compositions what distinguished Bossa Nova from all other musical movements of the period in Brazil and elsewhere. Infused by jazz harmonies, with a touch of Chet Baker here, a tad of Debussy there, all packaged in the rhythm of the samba, its syncopation and deceptively simplicity, the bossa became the perfect soundtrack for Brazil’s incipient urbanization of the 1950s.
Except that nothing in the music was ever as explicit and loud as the culture of the country from which it was generated. João Gilberto’s lilt voice, his impeccable guitar playing and the musical artistry of the songs proved to be an irresistible combination, and a fitting counterpoint to the vibrancy the emerging Brazilian culture was beginning to represent to the world.
It influenced everything that came after and set a high standard for Brazilian musicians, now known not just for their taste for the party music samba will always inspire, due to its roots in shantytowns and the black culture, but also for their often intuitive talent for intricate melodies.
It all goes back to Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim, both from Brazil’s most culturally intense centers of that time. Joao Gilberto is from Juazeiro, Bahia, the country’s most African-centric state, and Jobim from Rio de Janeiro, known then as now as the marvelous city, rampant criminality and social inequities that came after notwithstanding.
Perhaps it was their talent to go against the grain that distinguished their partnership. Brazil in the 1950s was a country of big-voice singers, belting verses of exacerbated romanticism in the tradition of the Italian bel canto and aided by a generation of radio-orchestra trained composers and musicians, still connected to the country’s imported classical music traditions.
Then again, perhaps rock and roll had a part in it too, with its option for the individual soloist, self-taught and musically illiterate. Even though from the outside, the two movements had very little in common, they shared a post-war sensibility and a youthful desire for independence from the old mold. They just expressed themselves with a radical difference.
The indoor Bossa Nova and the arena-bound Rock and Roll have even more in common than many realize.
Both have roots in the 1950s but exploded in the 1960s. And New York City was the place where they found the echo chamber that would carry them to a wider audience.
The performance of a group of Brazilian musicians led by João Gilberto and Tom Jobim at Carnegie Hall, in 1962, helped establish that new, apartment-bound music as a cosmopolitan expression of the times, as much as The Beatles’ performance on Ed Sullivan, two years later, announced to the world that Rock had officially made it.
So, João Gilberto may be the one who’s completing 80 well lived years, but we too have plenty of reasons to celebrate his life. And there’s no better place to get your quick fix on his art than the YouTube, with all respect for those who wouldn’t think about listening to him without the proper, expensive and high-quality audio equipment.
Here’s to you, Bom Baiano. Feliz Aniversário!