Joao Gilberto, the beating heart of Bossa Nova

Gabriele Campani, Músico, compositor

It’s controversial to define exactly Joao Gilberto’s role and contribution in bossa nova, temporary as a cultural movement, but eternal as a music style, besides the recognition of his unique talent. In a certain way, the more I’ve learnt about him, the more it becomes difficult to give an opinion, due to lack the of direct information, because of his remote attitude, and difficult character, not helpful to understand the man behind the hermetic artist. We don’t have a lot from his own words, but mainly through testimonies of people in con-tact with him for a while.

The resulting portrait talks about a difficult man indeed. After his return to Brazil in 1980 from US he spent almost the last forty years of his life in a form of self-exile confined in a quiet residence in Leblon, a Rio South district, where he passed away in July 2019. He performed live rarely (his last concert dated 2008), usually when he was strapped for cash, in the perpetual debts, and housing issues, that followed him all lifelong. A sort of “Hellhound on my trail” as the lyrics of Robert Johnson, the legend of delta blues: quite similar in some way to his character, both pushed somewhere else by a constant need to change location, an endless research of a place to stay, that could have been called “home”. Both lives of these iconic musicians, were surrounded by mysteries and legends. Carlos Lyra is one of the few still alive first generation bossa nova composers.

Talking about Joao Gilberto, he declared in a recent interview:”I called him Dracula, because he was a vampire. He never came out in the light” (Jazz Times Magazine, Sept 2019, p. 20). Maybe his fame was related to an agreement with the devil, like the bluesman of Mississippi did at the crossroad? We never know, but among a tendency to depression, and a misanthropy that followed him all life long, there were also evidences of a kind of hypochondriac obsession on several occa-sions. Like when he left US, after three years of permanence, to come back to Brazil for meeting the speech pathologist Pedro Bloch. He was in a pivotal moment of his career, but he believed that he was loosing his voice…quite a strange thing for his style of singing! The doctor anyway, didn’t find anything wrong with it, but he decided, to stop talking (that was not his special also before that!), answering at the phone knocking on the receiver, in a sort of Morse code. Another example of a possible imaginary disease happened still in a very successful period of his life, after the recordings of the “Getz/Gilberto” album.He was performing every night at the Bussola in Viareggio (Tuscany), possibly the reference venue of the finest musicians during those Italian economic-boom years. His band was probably the best pure Brazilian bossa nova combo ever seen, with Joao Donato on piano, Milton Banana on drums, and Tião Neto on double bass, besides him on guitar and vocals.

All of a sudden he quitted, leaving everything behind, to move to Paris, looking for the acupuncturist, Doctor Zappalla, because of a sprain on his right arm, and once again, the doctor was unable to solve his problem. Maybe it was only that constant desire of quitting, and move somewhere else, that pushed him away. He always refused to learn English, although he lived for so long time in US, and this made the commu-nications with the journalists, or people in the music business, more difficult than they already were. This behaviour, perfectly matched with the fact, that he didn’t seem to care very much about his career, but to keep on working just to stay in funds for the next few months. So, giving for granted that he was not an easy guy to deal with, and despite of all these considerations, how could he have become the most iconic bossa nova musician? How could he rose to be its symbol par excellence, the star? His original songs represent a minimum part of this repertoire, mostly basically forgotten, and confined to the chronological and historical value only.

Carlos “Tom” Jobim, the indisputable Brazilian great composer, that wrote the signature world famous masterpieces of the genre, was a pianist… but bossa nova has never been associated to the piano, as its reference instrument. I don’t like very much stereotypes, but there are trade-marks characteristics that identify every music style: above all the others, bossa nova is the whispering, soft, fascinating Portuguese vocals, and the nylon strings guitar arpeggios, with that steady rhythm, similar to samba, but different…and nobody else like Joao Gilberto represent all this.


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