Monday, August 22, 2011

João Gilberto: The Early Records (1957-1961)

To say that all roads of modern Brazilian music lead back to João Gilberto would be a stretch; Tom Jobim, who wrote many of the songs João famously interpreted, merits at least as much of a claim as progenitor as João does; and, well, there's that whole century-old tradition of samba out of which both men sprang, which they internalized and then brilliantly reconceived.  But it wouldn't be a huge stretch.  Listen to Caetano Veloso (who refers to João as "mi maestro") sing a song like "O Leaozhino" off Bicho (1977); to the seductive marriage of guitar and voice, the perfect garnishing of nonsense syllables, on the title track from Novos Baianos' Acabou Chorare (1972); to the nasally-sensual singing style of Chico Buarque on most any cut, but especially softly swooning ones like "No Fala de Maria" from the fourth Chico Buarque de Hollanda record (1971): these artists are all João's issue (more than Jobim's, more than anyone's), and all of them are quite outspoken about this fact; while they made albums that sold in far greater quantities than those of the old master, all are more or less made in João's image, and their musical visions pick up where João's leaves off.  What this means is that at the very center of the Brazilian music pantheon is one of the most enigmatic, eccentric creatures in all of twentieth-century pop culture--one who, though he has triggered more scrutiny, speculation, and spilled ink than just about any other figure in MPB, will always remain essentially a puzzle.  Other music traditions from the last century were inaugurated by loud, flamboyant showmen--Elvis Presley writhing his loins on the Milton Berle show, Louis Armstrong pandering to white audiences' fetish for black minstrelsy, Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival.  As the almost single-handed creator of bossa nova, though, João--reclusive, nocturnal, notoriously uncooperative--seems as unlikely a candidate for celebrity as a person can be.  Yet armed with a new kind of music--a languid, sparse music marked by autumnal rustlings--he staged a sudden, decisive coup through sly, subversive whispers.  He was a shy, awkward prophet preaching a gospel of silence, of hushed intimacy; and, on the strength of a couple of singles ("Chega de Saudade" and "Desafinado"), he turned the whole of Rio de Janeiro on its head, cleansing it of the excesses of 1950s samba and ushering in a new dispensation.  It's a dispensation that Brazilian musicians have never really left.

Of course, the style didn't come to him ready-made.  It seems, instead, to have materialized rather the way a pearl does--the slow-building, exquisite product of a sustained turbulence.  He was a guy who first arrived in Rio around 1954, an early twenty-something from a small town in Bahia hunting after musical fame.  But he hadn't found it: few, if any, of the club-owners in Copacabana seemed particularly eager for his services, and even when did score gigs, audiences humiliated him by chattering during his performances and tipping him afterward (he considered this patronizing).  He quickly ran out of funds (he refused to supplement his income with non-musical jobs), and his family, annoyed with his choice of a music career, cut off all financial help; he was fast heading for a crack-up. And then there was the interior violence: his self-loathing, his growing feeling that he was wasting his life.  I imagine he was gripped by the same inner sickness that plagues millions of people in their early twenties: that desperate feeling that he was getting older and had done nothing of merit yet, the keen awareness that he was dying a tiny bit with each passing heartbeat, the constant stabs of lust, the horror of missed opportunities.  He kept up a low profile, wandering the dank, ancient streets of the Lapa neighborhood at night, hunting after reefers he might spend his last money on.  He got high when he could; he slunk.  Those who remember him during those days recall a young weirdo with scraggly hair down to his shoulders, wrinkly clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks, and a habit of ambling down the avenues of Copacabana with his head lowered, muttering to himself.

At last, Luis Telles, a former bandmate and one of his last remaining friends, perceived he was in danger and, taking pity on him, spirited him away to Porto Alegre (at left), the lovely coastal city in Rio Grande do Sul.  Telles, who must have been reasonably well to-do, put João up in a luxury hotel and immediately began circulating him about town, introducing him to influential friends.  See, João was one of those people who, though shy and strange, had an ineffable magnetism about him, a charisma that came out not just when he played music but during everyday interaction.  He went about doing ridiculous, spot-on impressions of people; he quoted Rilke; he talked to cats, and they listened, or appeared to.  So friends were apt to bend over backwards for him because they wanted him around, wanted his conversation and aura.  The kitchen staff at the hotel carried his meals up to him daily, free of charge, because he went downstairs and played music for them now and then.  And slowly but surely, he began to exercise his peculiar grip over the men and women who filled the nightclubs where Telles was taking him--particularly the Clube da Chave (Key Club), his favorite haunt, which became the new hotspot in Porto Alegre.  He had found an audience: at any particular time of night, Joãozhino (as he was called) might walk into the Clube da Chave, guitar in hand, and, provided no one else was performing, play old Brazilian standards for hours, often till sunrise.  Or, sometimes, he wouldn't play at all, but only talk, telling intimate little anecdotes, rattling off half-coherent bits of poetry or mysticism.  And people listened, charmed.  Some, accustomed to going to bed early, adjusted their schedules and became night-owls so that they might absorb João's music and presence.  Together the club's patrons pooled their funds and bought him a new guitar, and when he refused it because he disliked the sound, they simply returned it, unfazed, and bought him a different one according to his whims.  Many starting imitating him, adopting his Bahian accent, his dreamy, dandiacal mannerisms, his ragged dress code.  And, with the help of a few young women who'd taken to him (including at least one who was married), he finally broke in his loins.  Things were looking up.
Yet his old scourge, depression, crept up on him again, like a quicksand that kept threatening to swallow him; the more he struggled, the deeper in he got.  He had started acting especially strangely.  The hotel maid noticed that each morning, as if by a ritual, he strewed tangerine peels beneath his bed--and when she asked him why, he calmly explained that he was trying to attract ants "to keep [him] company."  Telles, worried again for João's mental health, ponied up some more money and persuaded him to use it to buy a bus ticket to Diamantina (at left), the baroque mining town in rural Minas Gerais where João's sister, Dadainha, and her husband lived.  To Telles's surprise he agreed, departing Porto Alegre in the pre-dawn hours one day and arriving, the following day, at his sister's doorstep.  He'd given her no warning of his impending visit, so she was astonished to see him when she opened the door.  Hugging him tight, she released and scrutinized him from top to bottom, immediately perceiving he was in a dark place: he was haggard, gaunt, looked older than his years.  Dadainha let him inside and watched, disturbed, as he walked about in an almost sleep-like state.  Having no idea how to deal with depression, she simply gave him everything she could offer: the spare room upstairs, daily meals, and company whenever he wanted it (which was seldom).  He kept entirely to himself, remaining in his room for days at a time, and--when he discovered it formed a natural echo-chamber with acoustics that pleased him--locking himself in the upstairs bathroom with his guitar.  On certain afternoons, he would sit beside the crib of his sister's newborn baby and play for the child while it slept.  One day late in February, the sun was particularly relentless, and, seeking shelter from the heat, he snatched up his guitar, went into the bathroom, shut the door, and sat down on the edge of the bathtub.

But even in here it was hot.  Condensation hung heavy on the tessellated walls.  Out of the stillness, through the window, he became suddenly aware of a throng of laundresses on their way back from the river, balancing crates of clothing on their heads.  He watched them, mahogany in the sun, their massive hips swinging from side to side as they strode along the cobble; let himself feel the pendulous heft of their bodies while they swayed, iambic almost, in the cruel February heat.  Bim, bom: a sure rhythmic sweep.  His gaze drifted upward, across the hundred whitewashed houses with their russet roofs and, beyond them, the mountains gravid with diamonds.  The day had passed its peak and so would summer, soon.  Already the fruits on the trees, little pequi and jaboticabas, had swollen to the point of bursting, and the branches sagged beneath their collective weight.  If he focused hard enough, he could feel his own flesh, just beyond ripe now, rotting one pulse at a time.  He felt suddenly faint--and, to counter this, began to inhale and exhale slowly, deeply; bracing himself on the rim of the tub, he used yoga breathing techniques he'd lately learned in books.  The regularity of this, its mind-erasing power, steadied him; and for an elusive moment he felt a synchrony with the created world: the expansion and contraction of his lungs corresponded, now, with the punctual growth and decline of everything around him as it teemed with new vigor and then hastened downward to death.  A rhythm and a breath.

And he started to play.  In the super-resonant space of the bathroom, with its tiles saturated by years of steam and humidity, he found that sung melodies and plucked chords rang out with a peculiar richness and intensity.  He discovered that with his guitar alone he could achieve the fullness of a small orchestra--and that by singing in a soft, nasal style he was able to speed up and slow down his vocals at will; he could flirt with the tempo, dallying behind or hurrying ahead of it as he saw fit.  And he devised a new strumming pattern, an evenly-spaced shuffle in which the main stress lay solidly on the first beat.  The thumb simulated a bass, striking the fifth or sixth string on the first and third beat of each measure, while the fingers busied themselves about the neck and body forming diminished seventh, ninth, and thirteenth chords--wistful, mysterious chords redolent of jazz, except that this music didn't swing.  (Check out this video for more details.)  Suddenly the guitar alone was doing everything, keeping the rhythm, making harmonies, supplying its own bass-lines--performing what had traditionally been the roles of loud, boisterous percussion sections and full-fledged bands.  All that remained was the melody, and this João provided in the form of gentle, cooing vocal lines soft enough to sedate a baby.  In this radically stripped-down scion of samba, the emphasis was almost entirely on the singing and the (nylon) acoustic guitar-playing--on the precision-cut, lapidary vocals with their clean enunciation (João was inspired by Frank Sinatra), and the expert finger-work.  The result was a music that, at its addictive best, smacks of pure maple syrup: a concentrated, viscous music, slow-travelling and patient, that clings to you almost insidiously.  Within a couple of years bossa nova ("the new way"), as it came to be called, would become the prime musical craze of Europe and the Americas, a position it held until the Beatles ushered in the British Invasion around 1964.  Few know it was essentially dreamt up in a bathroom.

His time in Diamantina had drawn to a close.  Dadainha, concerned like most everyone else for his sanity, pressured João to return to his father's house in Bahia, which he consented to do.  But he was already well on his way to shaking free of his melancholy, though only he knew this; he had in his possession something wholly new and strange, a kind of grenade waiting to be loosed on the musical world--and the excitement of this sustained him.  Arriving, then, at his childhood home, he tried playing a couple of songs for his (stern, impatient) father in the style he'd just devised.  "That's not even music," his father snarled, "that's just nhenhenhém."  Concluding his son was out of his mind, he sent him to a sanatorium shortly thereafter, where he was subjected to a battery of psychiatric tests.  In the course of one interview with a doctor, he simply ignored the questions the man asked him and, gazing out the window absently, remarked, "Look at the wind frisking the hair of the trees."  "But trees have no hair," the doctor said, to which João responded: "And there are some who have no poetry in their souls."  He was released after a week.

He decided instinctively he was ready to move back to Rio.  There he resumed the semi-itinerant lifestyle he'd had two years before, and for which he would become famous: he became anew the bizarre, unkempt nightwalker filching meals and beds off friends and acquaintances, half-compensating them with conversation that was three parts bullshit and one part existential truth, and with some of the most original music they had ever heard.  Little by little, among the bohemian sub-culture that flocked about Copacabana, word began to diffuse about this cryptic hipster who'd invented a new style of guitar-playing and who didn't sing so much as whispered.  All sorts of stories have accumulated about João during this time; the most fun--and exemplary--is probably that which tells of his random appearance one night on the doorstep of future musician-legend Roberto Menescal, a friend of a friend who was hosting an anniversary party at his downtown apartment.  "I'm João Gilberto," he said simply.  "Edinho gave me your address."  Menescal, who'd heard of him, let him inside reluctantly, and the two of them cut through the dozens of guests to an empty back room where, at João's behest, Menescal handed him a guitar.  He played "Ho-ba-la-la," an original composition he'd recently perfected, and Menescal listened in wonder, then asked him to play it ten more times; and when he'd done that he took him by the arm and led him back past the guests, out the door, and to friend Ronaldo Boscoli's flat, where he repeated the miracle in front of ten other people.  This group, in turn, escorted João to one flat after another in a pilgrimage that lasted until around 10am two mornings later.  This, in a sense, epitomizes the heydey of bossa: groups of twenty-something hipster cariocas, riding a wave of decadence and optimism that came with Brazil's newfound economic and political stability (the military dictatorship was still eight years away), smoking hashish, sipping cachaça, and showing up on each other's doorsteps at 2am, guitars in hand, saying, "Dude, check out this new riff!"  Freshly rolled joints, guitars, and ideas changed hands freely.  It was a fun, feckless, and ultra-cool subculture, and in João they'd found an apostle and a spokesperson; in his works they'd found their sonic scriptures.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that he would secure a record contract before long.  This came through his friendship with Tom Jobim, whom he met in 1957 and who recognized, immediately on hearing "Bim Bom" and "Ho-ba-la-la," the potential that inhered in this new style.  He saw how, by relegating the percussion and horns to the back burner, it opened up space for the nuanced, understated vocals, as well as for the sophisticated jazz harmonies with which he'd been experimenting.  Jobim wasted little time, therefore, in arranging for João to cut a 78rpm single containing the aforementioned "Chega de Saudade" and "Desafinado," which he'd co-written with Vinicius de Moraes.  These songs were already a couple of years old--in fact, Elizete Caroso had released her own version of "Chega"--but it wasn't until they came to be filtered through João's imagination, his sleek new musical apparatus, that they found their fullest embodiment.  The record was a sleeper: after two months of waiting around, the listening public finally awoke to its entrancing grip, its uncanny power.  Sales shot up, and he was commissioned to record a succession of three full-length LP's--Chega de Saudade (1959), O Amor, O Sorriso e a Flor (1960), and João Gilberto (1961)--that became the bedrock of bossa nova and made him a global sensation.

This is where the story ends.  Or rather, it's where João's bildungsroman ends and the other, decidedly different story of his new life as a reluctant celebrity begins.  That story, and a commentary on the records he made during his long years as an expat in the U.S. and Mexico, will be taken up in the sequel to this post.  For now, I simply want to clarify that I'm featuring the three albums just mentioned under the guise of the collection The Legendary João Gilberto (O Mito in its Brazilian iteration), an anthology that EMI released in 1990.  The compilation isn't perfect: it messes with the original order of the songs, jumbling together tracks from all three records; and the producers at RCA added a very slight reverb effect, though this is barely noticeable unless you're an aficionado.  The latter quality caused João himself, famously OCD about minute acoustic details, to file a lawsuit against EMI, his lawyer stating that the remastered tracks “did not pertain to the original recordings, banalizing the work of a great artist"--and as a result the disc was removed from the shelves shortly after its release.  The lawsuit has been deadlocked for about two decades now, and though it's supposed to get settled this year, this seems unlikely.  But to my (untutored) ears, anyway, these remasters are pretty pristine, at least in comparison with the original LP pressings released in Brazil fifty years ago, which--with the exception of O Amor, mysteriously superior in sound to the other two--are murky indeed.  For better or for worse, the remasters are the versions of these songs I carry around with me; they're the best we can hope for until further notice.

As for the music itself: to the extent that I haven't already described it, early João is about as close to perfect as music gets: sweet, melancholy, weightless music that--like a lot of great art--conceals the interior violence and obsessive workmanship that fueled it beneath a veneer of effortlessness.  You'll have your own favorites; for my money, the best tracks are the Jobim-Moraes compositions, especially the slow ballads--"O Amor em Paz," "Insensatez," "Meditaçao"--which are shot through with a hushed romanticism that's unlike most anything else in music ("Every João song is a fuck-me song," my roommate is fond of noting.  He's probably right.)  These songs are object lessons in concision, two-minute operas that unfold like drive-by shootings, delivering their exquisite emotional blow and then vanishing again into silence.  There are unabashedly joyous songs ("So Em Tus Braços," "O Barquinho"), inconsolably sad songs ("Manha de Carnaval"), and songs like João's own "Ho-ba-la-la" that possess the sublime simplicity of zen riddles.  If the music sounds a little antiquated to you at first, keep listening--in time it will work its peculiar magic on you, and virtually all other music will seem overstated and heavy-handed by comparison.  Soon you will need to hear it every day--which is to say, of course, that you'll be under its spell.  You certainly won't be the first.

1. Chega de Saudade (2:01)
2. Desafinado (1:58)
3. Samba de Uma Nota So (1:38)
4. O Pato (2:01)
5. Bolinha de Papel (1:19)
6. O Amor em Paz (2:23)
7. Trevo de Folhas (1:24)
8. O Barquinho (2:31)
9. Lobo Bobo (1:20)
10. Bim Bom (1:16)
11. Ho-Ba-La-La (2:16)
12. A Los Pes Da Cruz (1:34)
13. E Luxo So (1:58)
14. Outra Vez (1:51)
15. Coisa Mais Linda (2:52)
16. Este Seu Olhar (2:14)
17. Trenzinho (1:51)
18. Brigas, Nunca Mais (2:05)
19. Saudade Fez Um Samba (1:47)
20. Amor Certinho (1:52)
21. Insensatez (2:26)
22. Rosa Morena (2:05)
23. Morena Boca de Ouro (1:59)
24. Maria Ninguem (2:22)
25. A Primeira Vez (1:52)
26. Presente de Natal (1:53)
27. Samba da Minha Terra (2:21)
28. Saudade da Bahia (2:16)
29. Corcovado (1:58)
30. So Em Teus Bracos (1:47)
31. Meditacao (1:46)
32. Voce Eu (2:31)
33. Doralice (1:27)
34. Discussao (1:50)
35. Se e Tarde Me Perdoa (1:47)
36. Um Abraco No Bonfa (1:37)
37. Manha de Carnaval (2:35)
38. O Nossa Amor, A Felicidade (3:06)


  1. Your piece on the early years of Joao Gilberto was very well done. I've not seen any better.

    Where is part 2?


  2. Thanks! Part 2 ended up being the write-up on the 1973 album.

  3. Greg Simon (Sedona, Arizona)December 9, 2014 at 10:33 PM

    Wow, this was a pleasure to read; Bravo!

    I felt like I was there, or wished I was...thanks for writing this.

  4. Obrigado muito for the bio and all the rest.

  5. will miss you.

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  7. Beautifully written account of Joao’s early years and 3 wonderful albums, 1959-61! Thank you. I am researching the links and seeking and studying the tracks.