So was John

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By Walnice Nogueira Galvão*

Aside from the guitar beat, João Gilberto's way of singing, with a small voice, also ended up imposing itself: counterpointing the rhythm, flying over the boundaries of the bar, always jumping ahead of it or falling behind.

An incomparable artist, João Gilberto was the creator of the guitar beat that would permeate the invention of bossa nova by Tom Jobim, backed by a group of talented young people from the South Zone of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In this way, samba, black and from the hills (which would continue), engendered an offspring, which became white, middle class, fertilized by jazz, which guaranteed the international reach of bossa nova, today considered abroad as “ true Brazilian popular music”. Without forgetting its strong erudite component, due to classical pianist Tom Jobim and second-generation modernist poet Vinicius de Morais.

Aside from the guitar beat, João Gilberto's way of singing, with a small voice, also ended up imposing itself: counterpointing the rhythm, flying over the boundaries of the bar, always jumping ahead of it or falling behind (in this, Miltinho was a virtuoso). . We all know that this voice is imposed, because in its natural state, heard on a rare recording, it sounds like Orlando Silva's great voice. He had illustrious background, as the outstanding singer (kind of teller), with almost spoken diction, which was Mário Reis – and those from samba-canção, such as Dick Farney and Lúcio Alves. He belongs to the same Noel Rosa school, when he sings with an almost fainting voice but with extraordinary tuning, swing and humour. And out of here certainly Chet Baker, who sounds so similar it's almost confusing. João Gilberto and his entire generation dedicated themselves to this purification of the samba song.

However, a more pedestrian explanation is provided by the creators of bossa nova, among them Roberto Menescal, today the indisputable patriarch of the early days. They say that the intimate and muted way was determined by the fact that they all lived in an apartment. They had to play and sing softly, otherwise the neighbors would complain. According to this member of the first group, the one that frequented Nara and Danuza Leão's father's apartment in Copacabana, that was how the manner was defined, which would become a style in itself.

He sought perfection. The integrity of João Gilberto, who protected himself from the mass, the cult of celebrity, from media exploitation through a careful smokescreen, would feed a whole legend. He was said to be capable of leaving a show before it started, dissatisfied with the instruments or the microphones. Or that, talking on the phone with a friend (who went running to tell the story), he would absently tap the pencil on the device until he began to do it rhythmically, already enraptured in a possible recording to come and forgetting that there was an interlocutor on the other end. The anecdotes multiply. It was known that he was averse to social exchange – he didn't go to bars, he didn't go to parties, he didn't attend events, he didn't appreciate hype or crowds – and he didn't like to receive people.

Going to a João Gilberto concert was like venturing into unknown lands. Fans asked each other if he would actually show up; or, if he did appear, whether he would give the show or leave before the start, as he was often used to doing; or it would stop halfway through.

I watched one of them at Tom Brasil, in São Paulo, which was advertised as lasting one hour, no more and no less, starting at 21 pm. For starters, the half-hour interregnum it took him to raise the curtain didn't even amount to a delay – when it came to who it was. João, with his stool and his guitar, rigorously fulfilled his obligation, getting up after an hour to thank the applause and leave. Called several times to the stage by the delirious audience, he would end up resigning himself to granting an encore. The audience fell silent and he started an encore… which would last two hours! Linking one song to another, like word after word, he only stopped after two hours. He even sang the national anthem, which is unbelievable. The fans, in ecstasy, only left the next day, as it was after midnight in the deserted city, crooning with João: “Madrugada has already broken up…” It was an occasion worthy of being remembered, marked by a little gold star.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP.

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