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Bossa nova is one of the most popular musical genres in the world. Songs such as “The Girl from Ipanema” (the fifth most frequently played song in the world), “The Waters of March,” and “Desafinado” are known around the world. Bossa Nova—a number-one bestseller when originally published in Brazil as Chega de saudade—is a definitive history of this seductive music. Based on extensive interviews with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and all the major musicians and their friends, Bossa Nova explains how a handful of Rio de Janeiro teenagers changed the face of popular culture around the world. Now, in this outstanding translation, the full flavor of Ruy Castro’s wisecracking, chatty Portuguese comes through in a feast of detail. Along the way he introduces a cast of unforgettable characters who turned Gilberto’s singular vision into the sound of a generation.
For Menescal, if that truly was João Gilberto, the name of singer-guitarist Edinho was irrelevant by way of recommendation. He had already heard of João Gilberto. Who, among the young Rio musicians in the last few months, hadn't? He knew he was a half-crazy and cheerful Bahian, who was a fantastic guitarist and an extremely refined singer who sometimes appeared at the Plaza. He invited him to come in. João Gilberto cut through the dozens of guests as if they were made of steam—likewise, no one saw him—and they went into one of the back rooms. He saw nothing else. He just examined Menescal's guitar, loosened a few of the tuning pegs, strummed a couple of chords, and sang “Hô-ba-la-lá,” his own composition.
It was a beguine—a Caribbean rhythm that, even in 1957, would have been long forgotten had it not been for a song by Cole Porter called "Begin the Beguine." Menescal did not completely understand the lyrics and, even if they made sense, he, like most musicians, did not pay much attention to lyrics. And who would be concerned about lyrics in the light of what he was hearing?
João Gilberto's voice was an instrument—more precisely, a trombone—of the highest precision, and he made each syllable fall on every chord as if the two had originated together. Which was remarkable, because the man sang at one speed and played in another. In fact, he didn't even appear to sing, he spoke the words softly, as Menescal had already heard others doing. But he felt that João Gilberto, if he wanted to, was capable of making himself heard in the living room, with or without the party going on. João Gilberto sang “Hô-ba-la-lá” five or six times, with imperceptible changes, but each version sounded better than the one before. And what kind of beat was that? Menescal couldn't resist. He took him by the arm, guitar and all, and went out into the night with him. He was going to show him off to his friends.
They started at Ronaldo Bôscoli's apartment, in Rua Otaviano Hudson. João Gilberto sang “Hô-ba-la-lá” again innumerable times. He also sang another beautiful song of his, entitled “Bim-bom,” and a series of sambas that they had never heard—and that João Gilberto identified as being huge hits for this or that vocal ensemble from the past. In just one night and almost the entire following day (no one slept), he opened their eyes to a Brazilian music that was far richer than they had ever thought possible. And when he spoke to them about his heroes—Lúcio Alves, Dick Farney, Johnny Alf, João Donato, Luiz Bonfá, Tom Jobim, Tito Madi, Dolores Duran, Newton Mendonça, many of them their friends—they understood everything. For Menescal and Bôscoli, on that night, João Gilberto was the personification of what they had, up until that point, been blindly searching for.
Completely insomniac, they left Bôscoli's house first thing in the morning and went to Nara's apartment, where the epiphany was repeated, and from there they went to Aná and Lu's house in Urca. Menescal wanted to learn the beat<$> that João Gilberto performed on his guitar—the knack of playing chords, not notes, producing harmony and rhythm with one single stroke. During this pilgrimage, which lasted almost two days without a break, he did not take his eyes off João Gilberto's hands, particularly his right hand: Menescal noticed that João Gilberto's thumb and little finger stretched out practically in a straight line, while his three middle fingers formed the chord, and tightened all the muscles in his forearm. And he, Menescal, considered himself a guitar teacher!
And there were the things that João Gilberto talked about as they went from house to house and back to Ronaldo's apartment. Poetry, for example. Carlos Drummond de Andrade was clearly his favorite, but he also recited, by heart, long extracts from Letters to a Young Poet by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Literature was a distant preoccupation of musicians, including singers, and it was unusual to hear one citing authors with such familiarity. On another occasion, João Gilberto started to talk about the technicalities of voice projection. He admired the way that Dick Farney controlled his breathing while singing, managing to release miles of verse in a single breath, despite smoking “two packs of Continentals per day.” (Menescal later observed that, during the entire time they were together, João Gilberto never smoked and appeared to grumble whenever anyone lit a cigarette near him. He didn't drink either, which was doubly strange. Hell, everyone smoked or drank!)
But what left Menescal really perplexed was when João Gilberto explained to him how he used yoga techniques to breathe, and how this allowed him to prolong or cut short musical passages without skipping syllables or tiring himself out. He gave one example after another. Menescal took in these gold nuggets of information, and, fascinated, he understood that he was becoming this man's prisoner. The image that came to mind when he thought of João Gilberto was of a spider in its web, weaving seductions around the flies. He needed to be careful. But being aware of this fact didn't help him in the slightest: when he finally said good-bye to him in the street and went home to try and get some sleep, he was already talking, thinking, and behaving like João Gilberto.
Almost nobody among the young crowd in Rio in 1957 knew much about João Gilberto—who he was, what he had been doing before, where he learned to sing and play like that. They vaguely knew that he had come from Bahia to sing in a vocal ensemble (which one was it, anyway?), that he had left the group, and that he worked sporadically at night. Everything was unclear regarding specific names, dates, and places, and amusingly enough, people weren't very interested—or had not dared to break the barrier of silence that he personally had set up regarding his life. But the big question was: why weren’t they aware of this wonder before?
Carlinhos Lyra, who had met João Gilberto in the doorway of the Plaza in 1954, vaguely remembered those late-night vocals under the light of the street lamp, and even the nickname they gave him, but he did not remember him being such a wonder in those days. He certainly didn't sing like that, let alone play the guitar. Ronaldo Bôscoli had never seen him before. And there weren't many other people who could give the boys any information. Johnny Alf had moved to São Paulo and Jobim was practically inaccessible to them, as were Bonfá, Newton Mendonça, and Os Cariocas. It was a shame, because some of them, who had known him in the past, had been among the few to realize that in the last few years, João Gilberto had vanished from the scene. But if asked, not even they knew for sure how, when, and where he had gone, although they had a—mistaken—idea of why.
In Search of the Lost Self
Two years before, at the beginning of 1955, João Gilberto had reached rock-bottom in Rio. He had no money, no job, and almost no friends. His pride, bombarded from all sides, made his self-esteem plummet. But he tried to resist: he refused to sing in clubs where the customers prattled inanely, or humiliated him with tips—which was tantamount to charity, in his opinion. He would not seek work with vocal ensembles, he wouldn't sing dressed up like a marine anymore, and he wouldn't record idiotic jingles. It wasn't as if he was being fought over so much, in fact, no one seemed particularly anxious for his services. He wandered around the Copacabana nightclubs at night, but never went into any of them. Neither was he invited to come in by the doormen who knew him, and certainly not by those who didn't know who he was. He stayed outside on the sidewalk in silence, but his almost miserable appearance didn't help much: hair that fell to his shoulders—at a time when men who wore this hair style were considered half-insane—several days' growth of beard, and clothes wrinkled as if he had been sleeping in them for a week, which, in fact, he had. On more than one occasion, he was seen talking to himself while sitting on the benches in the square in front of the National Library, in the city center, or on Avenida Atlântica.
His family in Bahia had cut off their financial support years ago, and he did not consider the option of getting a normal job, one outside the music industry. With no money for the streetcar, he had to walk everywhere, and it's said he often went hungry. None of this prevented him from occasionally spending his last coins on a fino reefer in Lapa. He needed some form of escape from the intolerable feeling of frustration he suffered as a result of the world not behaving according to his plans. Rio de Janeiro, with its successful mediocrities, had not yet discerned his talent, and there wasn't anyone who thought he was the best singer in Brazil.
We don't know if João Gilberto ever thought about throwing himself off the Arcos da Carioca aqueduct or under a streetcar. But he came to a decision that, for him, must have been a form of death: admit defeat, leave Rio, and start again somewhere else. But where? He couldn't return to Bahia, because his family would make a martyr of him. He didn't know anyone in places like São Paulo or Belo Horizonte. There was only one choice: to accept the invitation issued by the gaucho Luís Telles, his protector in the Quitandinha Serenaders, to spend some time “resting” in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil. Telles was the only friend he had left. When everyone else turned their backs on him, fed up with his abuse, his idiosyncrasies, and being used by him, there was always a safety net to catch Joãozinho in the form of Luís's small dwelling in the Praça do Lido in Copacabana.
Lately, Luís had become concerned by the boy's physical and psychological deterioration, which he attributed largely to the “hallucinogen.” He believed he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and tried to think of a way to get him out of Rio. He would take João to Porto Alegre, where the nightlife wasn't exactly Las Vegas, but at least it would be a change of scene and would help him recover his spirit. (Of course, before they left, Joãozinho—as he still called him—would have to cut his hair.) But the main thing was that in Porto Alegre, he would be far away from the marijuana, a terrible drug that drove people crazy and made them sad and lose their desire to sing. That interesting concept of the effects of marijuana was not exclusively held by Luís—many in his circle of friends (and Joãozinho's) felt the same way.
Luís Telles may not have had a good understanding of what reduced Joãozinho to that state, but his good intentions of getting him out of Rio would certainly be worth an extra pair of wings in heaven, where he arrived in 1987 at the age of 72. That trip to the South signified, for João Gilberto, the start of a painful self-examination process that would take the next two years—perhaps the most important of his life. From the solitary descent into his own personal hell, which began in Porto Alegre and continued through cities like Diamantina, in Minas Gerais, and Salvador and Juazeiro, in Bahia, until his return to Rio in 1957, João Gilberto emerged not only strengthened and resolved as to what he needed to do, but also—finally—with the answers that he had been searching for regarding his career.
|Introduction and Acknowledgments||viii|
|Prologue: Juazeiro, 1948||xv|
|Part I: The Great Dream||1|
|1. The Sounds That Came out of the Basement||3|
|2. Hot Times at the Lojas Murray||15|
|3. Battle of the Vocal Ensembles||31|
|4. The Mountains, the Sun, and the Sea||51|
|5. Torchy Copacabana||65|
|6. The Gang||83|
|7. In Search of the Lost Self||95|
|8. The Arrival of the Beat||107|
|9||One Minute and Fifty-Nine Seconds That Changed|
|10. "Desafinado" (Off-Key)||145|
|Part II: The Long Holiday||159|
|11. Bossa Nova Goes to School||161|
|12. Colorful Harmonies||175|
|13. Love, a Smile, and a Flower||193|
|14. It's Salt, It's Sun, It's South||207|
|15. Bossa Nova for Sale||213|
|16. "Garota de Ipanema" (The Girl from Ipanema)||229|
|17. A Bite of theApple||243|
|18. The Armed Flower||259|
|19. Shuttle Service||275|
|20. The Diaspora||297|
|21. The World as an Exit||317|
|Epilogue: What Happened to Them||333|
|A Select Bossa Nova Discography||337|