The loneliness of João Gilberto

Image: Elyeser Szturm

It is a mistake to believe that João Gilberto and Bossa Nova are equivalent. He went much further, corrupting the principles of that movement from within.

By Henry Burnett*

Many authors have focused on the historical connection between bossa nova and the national-developmentalist project conceived in Brasília, which is today almost a commonplace in music criticism and social sciences. What we need to understand, and still spend a lot of ink, is the path that took us from that original auspicious identification that nourished the highest point of our civilizational optimism, to the total inversion of perspective, leaving an irreconcilable incompatibility between the politics and the musical aesthetics of the period.

It is as if Bolsonarism had the ability to melt the concrete that Oscar Niemeyer made levitate and mold a windowless wall that prevented the entry of all the unwanted people of the nation, that is, blacks, Indians, LGBTQs, students, teachers, artists, etc.

It's hard to think of João Gilberto as a reject, but I dare say that's what he was, and well before the rise of elected authoritarianism, and not just by supporters of violence, but by a significant portion of spectators, thousands of whom may have never heard the singer. . There was no need for an action plan to consolidate his gradual disappearance, for silence to be total, for his music to be ignored along with the countless rights of the Brazilian people.

Bolsonarism is not just the result of political emptiness, of a class movement that brought together apparently irreconcilable right-wing sides and whose result is a mixture of strength and lack of direction on the part of some conservative ideological segments. With it comes a bestial lack of sensitivity, a faceless violence that is also part of who we are and that it still seems naive to claim as a trait of Brazilian identity.

João Gilberto was and will still be analyzed in many ways. The one I risk here is just one of them, hesitant like all of them, risky like any other that tries to approach its legacy and its dimension.

The need for music today

Rethinking his work from this historical moment leads to an inescapable conclusion: Brazil today does not need his music, as it belongs to the domain of critical resistance. It is not easy to measure this need.

Chico Buarque, for example, strains the rope between his work and an immovable ideological rectitude. We feel deeply when one of his songs displaces our mere act of listening, as in the case of Contact (partnership with João Bosco) and Caravans, this is perhaps the most important song of the decade along with Blood pact (Jards Macalé and Capinan); they are songs that merge with past and present history, diagnose and shift our perception of reality.

Some artists develop and express such criticism within the language of the song, out of necessity and urgency, but this was not the case with João Gilberto, at least not in a direct and incisive way, as in Chico and Macalé, to name just two examples among as many as possible.

Still, not being a direct and easily noticed criticism, it is difficult to find a contemporary, and not just in music, who does not pay reverence to the aesthetics of the master, whose influence has become a cliché of so much repetition. This goes for both the canonical and for songwriters under 50, reaching the newest generations renewing timbres and sounds, but faithful to that apparent simplicity invented by João. In summary, the aesthetic-political trait of his work has always fostered works that are engaged and committed to the country, each in its own way. It is proof that there are many ways to do politics.

I think that yours fundamentally involved respect and rigorous treatment of the forgotten repertoire of composers who would have remained proscribed by the same mechanism that exalted bossa nova as an overwhelming novelty against the archaic past of the song, creating a division between the old and the new, the modern and the retarded, a polarity that João seems to have always rejected.

On the contrary, he defended that earlier creative period, reviving its buried composers and showing the integrity of the urban popular song of the XNUMXth century, hierarchically indistinguishable in its interpretations. By redefining them, he rewrote the history of urban song, imploding what we might call “musical historicism”, which would tend to privilege success and exposure as criteria for recognition. There is no greater paradox when we think of bossa nova as a rupture with the past.

The trajectory of Joao Gilberto

We know more or less how João Gilberto arrived at the synthesis immortalized in the guitar/voice pair that made him famous. Initially he emulated his favorite singers, Orlando Silva, for example, worked in vocal groups such as Garotos da Lua and others, but soon abandoned these experiences and “disappeared”, as we know through the chronological reconstructions of his life and work.[I]

At that moment, a fundamental element of his creation was definitively imposed: solitude. It was recollection, self-cultivation, minimalist attention that seem to have come together in the fullest form of expression. He composed little, little “mini-manifestos” like good good, Hô-Bá-Lá-Lá, some sparse songs, like Have you been with my baby? (See the record of all his compositions by Itamara Koorax and Juarez Moreira at The Complete Joao Gilberto Songbook, Motema Music, 2009; 12 in total). His compositions are not enough to understand the whole of the feat, although they are emblematic and fundamental.

The withdrawal that brought him to the maximum formal completion became the basis for stupid reactive behavior on the part of the press and the public. Apart from critics who, not infrequently, had ties of friendship with João, the press amplified a public opinion that mocked João Gilberto's (anti-)social conduct, his "madness", his quirks, in short, his loneliness, a right that was gradually banned after the hegemony of social networks, as shown by the persecution of Belchior, who “disappeared” without warning.

For decades, most of the news deepened this commonplace, creating a caricature, an eccentric character, an aberration that clashed with our solar exhibitionist vocation. Deep down, perhaps it was not possible to understand how the inventor of bossa nova could be so little bossa nova – yet another misconception: believing that João Gilberto and the bossa nova movement are equivalent or exhaust themselves in each other. He went far beyond the principles that guided the movement, in a way he corrupted them from within.

Respecting the historical criteria that place the first three albums as the epicenter of his musical revolution (Chega de saudade, Odeon 1959; The love, the smile and the flower, Odeon 1960 and João Gilberto, Odeon 1961), I believe that he would only reach the maximum level of expression in later records, such as the “white album” (Joao Gilberto, Polydor 1973; John, Polygram 1991 and John voice and guitar, Universal Music 1999). Of course, this is connected with a late hearing, from someone who was not impacted by the initial trilogy in the heat of the moment.

Furthermore, it is necessary to take into account all the technical treatment processes that João considered abusive and corrosive for the final sound of the bossa nova flagship records, a battle that lasted all his life, ever since he solemnly rejected the nickname “ Mito” – the parallel with Jair Bolsonaro is noteworthy –, title of the famous compilation that he never forgave for having been forged without his consent. The three late albums, without a doubt, have a superior technical refinement, especially the one from 1999, the only recording of voice and guitar recorded in the studio, which had Antônio “Moogie” Canázio as recording technician. João walked slowly in search of the perfect sound and voice/guitar matching, as a vital path.

A quick search helps us to think how João Gilberto's obsessive search for the perfect capture of his performance could not be understood, only ridiculed. In 2003, in the column oops from the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, we read:

“João “Grumpy” Gilberto.

On the last July 24th, Folha Online and UOL exclusively published the news that the singer and composer João Gilberto was enraged when he was doing a Hollywood Bowl [sic] concert in Los Angeles (after 40 years), because the organizers they had not fulfilled an item of the contract…

John “Grumpy”.

The document provided that João Gilberto would sing into an Austrian microphone AKG model 414 (which costs more than 2 thousand euros = R$ 6 thousand reais). The model used on stage, however, was much older and João threatened to leave the 17-seat mega-theater full, in the middle of the show.

João “Prestigiadão”.

Well, the report made it to Austria. More precisely at the AKG factory, as reported this week to the column by the company's representative in Brazil. Flattered by the legendary Brazilian musician's deference to the brand, AKG decided to create a series of microphones exclusively for him. The new model will be called AKG-414JG (JG, of course, by João Gilberto).

John "Complaint". Now, for João to be really happy, they just need to invent a special series of acoustic boxes for stage return, an exclusive line of tables, a special production of cables and plugs and, of course, the birth of a sound technician with paranormal powers” .[ii]

I don't think that Ricardo Feltrin, then editor-in-chief of Online sheet, have written this for evil, the irony was not exclusive. In fact, he only amplified and reproduced an anecdote that was already, in 2003, well known and which, obviously, as they say, sold newspapers. In the mecca of show business, Los Angeles, it must have been almost incomprehensible that the sound system wasn't up to par.

It wasn't the first and it wouldn't be the last time that João Gilberto would complain about the sound. He could use any number of texts about these scenes, which even in the YouTube can be found, but what interests me in the example is the end of the comment, due to a fact also incorporated into the anecdote and which today takes on the air of prophecy. João found, that same year of the concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the “sound technician with paranormal powers”; his name is Ken Kondo and he lived on the other side of the world, in Japan.

Joao Gilberto in Japan

It was exactly in 2003 that João met Kondo, the Japanese who provided the sound for the concert. Joao Gilberto in Tokyo, sold on CD in Brazil by Universal since 2004 and the last album released in the country. Since then, as is often heard, the coach has become part of João Gilberto's contract. Whenever he went to perform, the contractor would need to send for Kondo in Japan. In 2008, João gave his last performance in Brazil, at Auditorio Ibirapuera, and the Japanese sound designer was there.

Interviewed by Ivan Finotti, editor of the defunct notebook Folhateen, from the same Folha de S. Paulo, Kondo said that João is “a simple person. And what we have on stage is simple. There are two microphones”. Toshihiko Usami, stage director who worked in partnership with Kondo (the 02, item 1 of the contract), reports in the same interview with Finotti that “it is a very low guitar sound [speaks softly] and the vocal sound is very low too [starts whispering]. We have to amplify that and there are some difficulties when that happens.”

Usami goes on to say that “we mixed the two mics one way for the monitor and a different way for the PA, and reiterates, “as I mentioned, the sound is not loud. The monitor can't be set too high or there will be feedback. What we always have to think about is, throughout the whole show, where is the limit for the monitor and where is the limit for the PA And everything changes when people arrive and pack the place. At that time, all the sound and echo of the place are different”.[iii]

Despite the difficulty, the duo understood, in João Gilberto's last productive phase, what the master wanted to hear on stage, something that no one had achieved in previous decades, not even in the USA, recognized for his anthological recordings that resist time, and much least in Brazil. It turns out that what is simple for a Japanese is not what we understand by simple.

Technically Kondo and Usami used three legendary AKG 414 (JG?) condenser microphones, a bench and a footrest, so that João could place the guitar at the exact angle, in harmony not only with the microphones, but also with the your body. Those on stage do not hear what the audience hears through the PA, which requires two levels of trust, as no one doubts that the zeal with the sound was not a matter of vanity, but of respect for those watching. Usually used for studio recordings, the 414 took a very old requirement to the limit, when João asked for the first time two microphones to record, one for the voice and the other exclusively for the guitar, to the dismay of the technicians at the time.

Now let's imagine transporting the environment of a recording room, acoustically prepared and isolated, to an auditorium that can accommodate thousands of people. There is nothing simple about it, it is rather a matter of listening well. These are microphones that capture sounds from many meters away. Placed one above the other, it's like a double sound bubble, passing through each other the entire time. The keyword is balance.

However, it's not just about technique, or even eccentricity, as the AKG 414 isn't one of the most expensive microphones in the world. Tom Jobim told singer Joyce that the reception of bossa nova in Japan was easy to understand. Joyce recalled Tom's speech in an interview for Época magazine. “He used to say that bossa nova is subtle and delicate like Japan, and that's exactly what it is”. Bingo!

Let us remember another element, still on the technical issue. João Gilberto used several guitar models throughout his career, but if we pay attention to the CD booklet John, from 1991, almost 30 years ago, we can see lying on a rug (Persian?,) inside the recording room, a Di Giorgio Tárrega guitar, which João started to use from a certain moment on and which he would never abandon, until the last record in Tokyo.

The model set the limits of sonic enhancement that over the years has been more and more refined. The most interesting text I've read about this guitar was written by Fernando Romeiro, who brings precious information collected at the Di Giorgio store in the Santana neighborhood of São Paulo.[iv] The model would have been built in the late 1960s, and since 1969 it would be with João.

This is information that, in general, is of interest to musicians, but in this case it is essential. Aderbal Duarte, composer, arranger and guitarist, informs in Romeiro's text that João's Tárrega has nothing special, because having tried the instrument he realized that the guitar would even have imperfections, fretting strings and other small problems. The truth is that the model can still be found today, new, manufactured by the same Di Giorgio, but they are different instruments.

We know that in past decades these instruments were often built by a single luthier, leaving the factory with a discreet signature of the person who worked on them, even without greater guarantees of origin; Even today we can find signed models, although Brazilian luthiers are way ahead of traditional factories, in sound and finish. It is not a feature in the Brazilian industry, Fender guitars are also made on an assembly line in the absolute majority of cases. Except for the “Custom Shop” and luthier models, such as the Telecasters signed by JW Black, which we can see in Bill Frisell's solo recordings, for example.

We could ask why an internationally respected musician did not use, for example, a luthier's guitar? How many craftsmen would give everything to build this dream guitar with the best specifications tailored for João Gilberto? Would the option for an imperfect Brazilian guitar be just another idiosyncrasy? Or a subtle way of honoring our ills? Or did your Tárrega actually have the ideal sound?

Impossible to know. What we can notice is that João Gilberto's guitar, especially in the register in Tokyo, has an extremely balanced sound, without excesses, without highlights in the primas (high) or in the bass (bass), in short, an instrument apparently perfect for the composition the accompanying environment of João's spoken singing; separate nationalisms. It's not a concert guitar, with sound projection etc., it's a guitar – taken in due proportions – that we would use in a viola circle with friends.

The guitar had not been used in recent decades by chance, it was the perfect marriage with the voice on the verge of a whisper as is often heard. In a way, cultivating a guitar like this is yet another anti-fetish teaching from the Zen master. But, for those who, like me, love the instruments and their stories, it is worth mentioning that João no longer used, unless I am mistaken, the La Bella 850-B stringing, but what seems to be an improvement of these strings little used by those who play the guitar in nylon, with black edges and golden borders; the thick, even sound was just ideal.

He seems to have opted in the end, in his endless search, for the Folksinger 830 string, also from the La Bella brand, which has another wise man, Willie Nelson, as an “endorer”. The black strings and the gold strings now received slight tension adjustments and “ball-end”, small balls that dispense with the braiding of the strings on the bridge, as in the system of electric guitar strings, ensuring greater support in the tuning. How is it possible to know this? Looking attentively at the bridge where the strings are attached. But where can we see it at this level of detail?

the swan song

All of us who spend our whole lives listening to João Gilberto countless times, who patiently wait for a new record, a video made available on YouTube by someone somewhere in the world, who enjoy ourselves with home recordings of poor quality just for the pleasure of hearing João play, we were surprised, in my case, by the news that his last concert in Tokyo in 2006, recorded in Hall A of the Tokyo International Forum on the 8th and 9th of November, had been recorded on video and was being released on Blu-ray, in Japan – the one released on CD in 2004 was the recording of the first concert in Tokyo a year earlier, in 2003, and which, for any admirer of João, was already the most perfect recording of his music.

My reaction was one of near despair. With a limited edition, it would be almost impossible to buy the Blu-ray in Brazil. In the first survey, I found an offer for 499,99… Euros. I ran to the internet and found one teaser just under a minute,[v] with João interpreting “Morena boca de ouro”, by Ary Barroso.

It was a shock. There was no such record. The best I had ever seen was recorded, apparently amateurishly or unauthorized, but with sufficient care, at that last concert at the Ibirapuera Auditorium, made available in full on YouTube.[vi] But nothing comparable to what was seen on the Blu-ray fragment. The Japanese recorded the last concert in Tokyo with the most modern sound and video on the planet. Those few seconds were enough to know that. The attention to detail in the hands, the guitar, the focus on the aged complexion of someone they revered was captured with exquisite realism.

In a few days, some videos extracted from the Blu-ray began to appear on YouTube, in good resolution, 720p, which was already a breath of fresh air – apparently the Blu-ray format did not even “take” in Brazil. I was able to see in full the videos of “Chega de saudade” (Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes), “Portrait in white and black” (Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque) and “Águas de Março” (Tom Jobim), this one in a version that it will still yield many theses, with João practically reciting the lyrics in long stretches, picking up and leaving the melody like never before, a blunder.

In fact, we are witnessing his swan song, but a far cry from the ancient legend that says that the white swan would sing, close to the time of its death, a beautiful and sad song after a life in silence. If João's silence was never understood in his country, it is because we are far from any containment, from any possibility of listening in an integral way, like our Japanese brothers.

If we listen to the recording at Ibirapuera, it's impossible not to notice the excessive noise of the audience, their willingness to interact, the skin-deep emotion that identifies us; but when we listen to the 2004 CD in Tokyo, even when the best known songs start and are identified, the audience applauds for almost countless 1,5 seconds, as if anything beyond that covered up the essentials; it seems that the applause is edited so briefly. They are two distinct ways of listening and cultivating.

The feeling is that João chose Japan to say goodbye because he found in that distant land not only the respect he never received here, but above all because his aesthetic project was finally realized with everything he cultivated throughout his life. Instead of a farewell song, what is heard is an enraptured João, with absolute mastery of execution and interpretation, master of his art.

But it is not just a question of technical care, which is also found in large theaters around the world, including Brazil. I think this reverence is of another order, as Tom Jobim pointed out. We are facing a connection that perhaps could not happen anywhere else but in Japan, but distinct from the scenes we know of that people when we see the declarations of appreciation for our music, such as the choro groups performing Pixinguinha or Jacob do Bandolim to perfection. , or people learning Portuguese not as a commercial language, but as a sentimental language, simply to understand and sing our songs; these are statements that do not come from today.

But with João, contemplation reached a different level. At one of the concerts, at the end of the presentation, João was applauded for 25 minutes, an emotional, honorable farewell, worthy of one of the great artists of the XNUMXth century. Seen from here, from a country ruined by violence, walking with long steps towards barbarism, we are only left with shame.

*Henry Burnett He is a professor in the philosophy department at Unifesp.


[I]See Walter Garcia (org.). João Gilberto. São Paulo: Cosac Naif, 2012.






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