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Bossa Nova Became a Turning Point in Brazilian Culture. João Gilberto Helped Launch It

The musician, who died at 88, developed the understated style in his sister’s bathroom, launching the cool, sophisticated sound to international acclaim

João Gilberto circa 1960. (Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Brazil’s best-known form of music is the samba, the drum-heavy, rhythmically intricate and danceable genre that powers Carnival. But in 1955, when João Gilberto locked himself in the bathroom of his sister’s house and began quietly playing samba beats on his nylon string guitar, another national music was born: bossa nova, or "new style." With that Gilberto co-founded the sound of post-War sophistication. Now, Felix Contreras at NPR reports, Gilberto has died in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 88.

The bossa nova style arrived at a time Brazil aspired to take a larger place on the international stage under the leadership of President Juscelino Kubitschek in the 1950s. A new generation of middle-class and wealthy people moved away from the raucous sounds of samba and embraced the quieter, café-friendly sounds of bossa nova. The new, urbane genre included the complex rhythms of samba with the percussion parts played on quieter nylon-stringed guitars. The compositions infused traditional Brazilian beats with American pop and jazz sensibility kitted out with flutes, saxophones and breathy vocalists singing nuanced lyrics.

Gilberto’s road to stardom was precarious. Born in 1931 in the Brazilian state of Bahia to a businessman and amateur musician, he left boarding school at age 15 to play guitar full time, following the pop music conventions of the day, Ben Ratliff at The New York Times reports. In 1950, he moved to Rio, gigging around the city for several years. But Gilberto ran into money problems when he refused to play in noisy clubs where people “talked too much.” He grew his hair long and showed up to performances in dirty, wrinkled clothes. A friend eventually got him a long-term gig at a hotel in Porto Alegre. After about seven months there, he ended up in his sister’s bathroom in the city of Diamantina in the state of Minas Gerais.

He returned to Rio in 1957, where a music arranger, Antônio Carlos Jobim, heard Gilberto’s new guitar rhythms. He worked with the guitarist to apply the new style to his song “Chega de Saudade,” which became Gilberto’s first bossa nova hit in 1958.

“He imitated a whole samba ensemble,” guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves told authors Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha in their 1998 book The Brazilian Sound, reports Ratliff, “with his thumb doing the bass drum, and his fingers doing the tamborims and ganzás and agogôs.”

Between 1959 and 1961, Gilberto recorded three influential albums that served as some of the founding blueprints for bossa nova style. Not much of a songwriter himself, Gilberto applied his sound to songs by others, most notably Jobim, who collaborated with the artist throughout his career.

By the mid-1960s, with a military dictatorship now installed in Brazil, authorities clamped down on bossa nova at home. But Gilberto had moved to the United States, where he stayed until 1980, and his style influenced a generation of musicians in the U.S., which was undergoing its own bossa nova craze (U.S. musicians followed the genre's conventions, very, very loosely--see Elvis's 1963 song "Bossa Nova Baby.")

In particular, saxophonist Stan Getz, who released an album in 1962 called Jazz Samba influenced by Gilberto, collaborated with the musician, releasing the touchstone album Getz/Gilberto, which included several tunes now considered jazz standards. Not only did Getz/Gilberto spend 96 weeks on the charts, it won four Grammy awards, including Best Album of the Year.

It was the tune "Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema)” that broke true bossa nova sound into the global mainstream. The song, a collaboration of Gilberto, Getz and Gilberto’s then wife, Astrud, became one of the best-selling jazz records of all time. To give some perspective, CNN reports that it’s believed to be, in fact, the second most-recorded pop song ever, behind the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

Despite his influence on other musicians and later generations, Gilberto’s musical output was low. Over 60 years, he recorded just 10 studio albums, Ratliff reports. Instead, Gilberto released many live performances. CNN reports Gilberto last performed in public in 2008. In recent years, he stayed out of the public eye at his home in Rio where he dealt with a raft of lawsuits that accrued over his long career.

Bossa nova, his legacy, is now considered a major turning point in Brazilian culture. “It changed everything, for every young musician in Brazil,” Castro-Neves once said, according to Randall Roberts at The Los Angeles Times. “Once we heard what João was doing with the guitar and the voice, we all had to find a way to figure out how he did it.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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