João Gilberto, the Voice of Bossa Nova, Dies at 88


João Gilberto (1931–2019)

(Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Elektra Musician/DownBeat Archives)

João Gilberto, whose serene, intimate vocals and gently insistent guitar playing made him the archetypal voice of bossa nova, died July 6 in Rio de Janeiro. He was 88.

His son, João Marcelo Gilberto, confirmed the death on Facebook, writing, “My father has passed. His fight was noble, he tried to maintain dignity in light of losing his sovereignty.”

Gilberto Gil, one of Brazil’s leading singer-songwriters, as well as the country’s former minister of culture, described him in a Facebook video as an “extraordinary genius.”

Although he was often referred to as “the father of bossa nova,” a title he shared with Antônio Carlos Jobim, the genre’s preeminent composer, it was Gilberto’s unique voice and guitar style that became synonymous with the genre. His recording of Jobim’s and Vinícius De Moraes’ “The Girl From Ipanema,” with his then-wife Astrud Gilberto, Jobim and Stan Getz, became one of the 20th century’s biggest hits and launched a bossa nova craze, introducing Brazilian music to millions worldwide. The 1964 recording on which it appeared, Getz/Gilberto, won the Grammy Award for album of the year.

“Bossa nova”—which approximately translates to “the new groove”—contained elements of samba and other Brazilian styles, European classical music and American jazz. The songs, whether upbeat like “One Note Samba” or full of longing and regret, like “How Insensitive” (both composed by Jobim and recorded by Gilberto), were written in a deceptively simple style that masked their harmonic and rhythmic sophistication. With poetic lyrics mostly about love, bossa nova reflected the optimism of Brazil in the period between military dictatorships.

In his book, Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World, journalist Ruy Castro described the impact of Gilberto’s version of “Chega De Saudade,” which became the first bossa nova hit upon its release as a 78-rpm single in 1958: “Jobim’s melodic sophistication, in itself, was startling enough ... . But what really caught people’s attention was the gently dizzying interplay between Gilberto’s voice and his guitar. Shamelessly unadorned by vibrato or emotion, that voice danced with breathtaking precision around the quiet beat of the guitar, which in turn danced unpredictably around the conventional rhythms of the samba. A generation of Brazilians listened raptly.”

Gilberto’s soft voice, inspired by American jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, was understated, often little more than a whisper. “The way he sang, and especially his phrasing, was an enormous influence on my singing,” pianist and singer Eliane Elias told DownBeat. “He kept the groove with his guitar, but he phrased over the bar line in a way that had not been done before, even in Brazil.”

His characteristic guitar style, using quiet, plucked chords, implied the rhythms of samba in simple, spare fashion. Guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, quoted in The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil, said, “[Gilberto] imitated a whole samba ensemble, with his thumb doing the bass drum and his fingers doing the tamborins and ganzás and agogôs [tambourines, shakers and bells]. The rhythm was right there with his voice and guitar alone. You didn’t feel anything was missing.”

Born João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira in 1931, he grew up in the small town of Juazeiro da Bahia, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, the son of a local businessman and left boarding school at 15 to play music.

By 1950, Gilberto was singing with a vocal group in Rio. He developed his original guitar technique and introspective singing style while living with his sister in Minas Gerais state during the mid-1950s.

At 25, however, with no success in the music world and battling depression, he returned home. His father, concerned about his son’s mental state, had him visit a clinic for counseling. According to Castro’s book, João stared out the window and said to the psychologist, “Look at the wind tearing out the trees’ hair ... .”

“But trees don’t have hair, João,” she said.

“And some people have no poetry in their souls,” he replied.

After spending a week at the clinic, he returned to Rio, where he eventually met Jobim and pianist João Donato, both of whom became his musical partners.

Bossa nova composer and Gilberto contemporary Roberto Menescal told DownBeat, “Certainly Brazilian music has two distinct moments, before and after João Gilberto. He changed the way we sing and play our music. In 1955, our group of young people, looking for a more modern music, was very happy with João’s arrival, because he provided the guitar swing that we were looking for and a style of quiet singing that allowed us composers also to become singers and interpreters of our songs. American jazz enthusiastically received our music, which greatly helped us reach the world. We owe much to João.”

Reached in Rio, the legendary Brazilian bossa nova singer Wanda Sá described meeting Gilberto and singing with him at small gatherings for musicians in Rio, circa 1960. “What an experience to sing with such a master,” she said. “His voice and guitar were so pure. There was no noise in his guitar; it was technical perfection. But always very emotional. Although he said that he sang without emotion, I don’t believe him.”

Gilberto’s last public performance was in 2008, after which he rarely was seen in public and developed a reputation as a recluse.

His perfectionist nature and his deep respect for music are evident in one of his most famous quotations: “Não se pode machucar o silêncio, que é sagrado.”

In English, it translates to, “You must not injure silence, for it is sacred.” DB

(This article was updated July 10.)

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