João Gilberto, the founder of bossa nova music, has died
Hey there, I’m Jeff. It’s great to have you with us once again for Plain English this Thursday. Today is episode 177 and all the resources for this episode can be found at PlainEnglish.com/177.
Coming up today: You’ve probably heard the song “The Girl From Ipanema.” It’s the most famous song of a Brazilian musical style known as “bossa nova,” or new style. The man who made “The Girl From Ipanema” famous, João Gilberto, died in Rio de Janeiro. Later on in the episode, we’ll talk about what it means to “keep to yourself.”
Quick reminder that JR sends out episode emails with additional resources, including an explanation of one other word or phrase from the program, every Monday and Thursday. To get those, just visit PlainEnglish.com/mail.
João Gilberto, founder of bossa nova
The man who sang, “The Girl From Ipanema,” the most famous song of the Bossa Nova style of Brazilian music, has died. Bossa Nova, which means “new style” in Portuguese, is a blend of traditional African-influenced Brazilian samba music, jazz, and other musical styles. But it was low-key: unlike jazz, which was high-energy, bossa nova was typically played at lower volumes and without a lot of drums and percussion instruments. According to one story, Gilberto invented this style when he was staying at his sister’s house in 1955. He wanted to practice music, but he had to lock himself in the bathroom so as not to disturb the rest of the family. The acoustics with the bathroom tile were just a bonus.
Bossa nova was a cultural cornerstone of Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s, a time in which Brazil itself was changing into an urban, industrialized country with a bright future. It was a new, optimistic style of music for a country building a new capital, Brasilia, and looking to modernize.
Bossa nova was the perfect style for the sophisticated crowd in the cafés and bars of Rio de Janeiro, which was undergoing a cultural renaissance at the time. The style is not loud. It’s soothing. There’s usually only one or at most two things going on in a song at any given point. Vocals aren’t competing with guitars or drums for the listener’s attention. The first hit song of the style was called “Chega de Saudade,” which loosely translates to “No More Blues,” in English. The song was first released by the Brazilian actress and singer Elizete Cardoso, but it wasn’t until João Gilberto released his own interpretation that the song became a hit. He matched the lyrics with his gentle acoustic guitar. He released it as a single and on an album of the same name in 1958; it became an international hit and a new style of music was born.
Here’s something interesting about that style. We often think of jazz as being very loud—and in part that’s because, when it first became popular, you needed to play loudly, at a high volume, in order to be heard. But modern microphones and amplifiers were just becoming popular in Brazil in the 1950s, so Gilberto realized you didn’t have to play intensely in order to be heard. So that’s in part why the gentle vocals and guitar, the soft saxophone, which you can hear in his music became possible.
In addition to “Chega de Saudade,” he released two other albums in 1960 and 1961; put together, the three are considered the base of bossa nova. The music became popular outside Brazil, too. The United States government, believe it or not, used to organize goodwill tours in which they would pay American musicians to travel the world, perform, and essentially be cultural ambassadors to the world for the United States. On one such tour, an American musician met Gilberto and started spreading the word once he got back home. This led to one of Gilberto’s biggest commercial successes. The American jazz singer Stan Getz collaborated with Gilberto on an album called, imaginatively, “Getz/Gilberto,” which was a huge international success and included several songs that would become standard jazz songs of the era.
Getz/Gilberto was one of the highest-selling jazz albums of all time. It won the Grammy for record of the year in 1965 and included the breakout hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” Like “Chega de Saudade,” “The Girl from Ipanema” had already been released. But it was Gilberto’s interpretation that made it a hit. In his version, he sang in Portuguese; his wife Astrud sang in English; and Getz had a sax solo. The song became the most famous Brazilian song around the world.
Bossa nova music’s development was halted in the 1960s by the Brazilian military dictatorship, which considered it an outside political or cultural influence. Gilberto, who had been living in the United States, had to stay out of his own country until 1980, when he made a triumphant return. From then until well into this century, he kept performing, playing many types of songs in his own signature style. He won a Grammy for an album as recently as the year 2000 and was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.
By the time he stopped performing publicly in 2008, he had released 17 albums and had been performing for over sixty years. He was born in the state of Bahia. His grandfather gave him his first guitar when he was 14 years old. By the time he was 18, he had was singing publicly and had left school to focus on his music.
The obituary in O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, said Gilberto was one of the greatest geniuses of Brazilian music. A writer in a British newspaper said he was “a reclusive genius in a nation of extroverts.”
On a personal level, Gilberto generally kept to himself. He spent the last decade living in Rio de Janeiro, struggling with financial and mental health problems. He had not been seen in public in many years. He was 88 years old and died at home. His funeral was at Rio’s Municipal theater.
I listened to Getz/Gilberto as I was writing this episode and I could just imagine the sophisticated 1950s crowd in Rio cafés listening to those songs. The amazing thing is, he had these hits in the early 1960s, defined a new musical genre, and was still performing and releasing albums in the 21st century.
Quick hello to a few listeners. Adrielly is living in just a picturesque seaside town in Norway, studying to be a teacher. She’s originally from Brazil. Adriana in Argentina went looking for pictures of the creatures we discussed in Episode 175. She didn’t dispute my choice of the Eyelash Viper as the scariest creature, but she did want to nominate the pale-faced bat as the ugliest one—and you get no argument from me on that one.