In a series of conversations with researcher and musician Wander Conceição, one of the topics we talked about was Bossa Nova and João Gilberto. I was intrigued to hear that João Gilberto, the pioneer of Bossa Nova and one of the most influential musicians in the history of Brazilian music, had lived in Diamantina. In fact, this is where he developed the Bossa Nova rhythm!
As Wander is currently working on his next book, Desafinado – Das Cinzas da Acayaca à Bossa Nova (Desafinado – From the Ashes of the Acayaca Tree to Bossa Nova) in which his research on Gilberto’s time in Diamantina takes part, I was keen to learn more about this very interesting topic.
So, I asked Wander – when and how did Gilberto come to Diamantina? What kind of influences did he gain from Diamantina?
Below is what I learned:
Gilberto resided in Diamantina during two periods. The first from September 1955-June 1956, and the second from August 1956 – May 1957. During this time, his brother-in-law was a Chief Engineer for a road construction between Belo Horizonte and Diamantina, a major project which was initiated by then President, Juscelino Kubitschek. Gilberto decided to move with him to Diamantina, during the periods when his brother-in-law was working on the construction.
The quiet, peaceful environment of Diamantina provided an ideal space for Gilberto to play his guitar. With such a beautiful nature around him, one would imagine that he had immersed himself in this environment. However, he wasn’t quite the sociable explorer – on the contrary, he stayed in the house most of the time, and played his guitar in the bathroom where the acoustics were ideal for music making (Wander told me that this story about Gilberto staying in the bathroom all the time, might have become exaggerated over time to make it commercially appealing. However, it is true that he played in the bathroom).
It seems that the only person he allowed to enter his home studio (a.k.a. the bathroom), was a man called Leon, who went by the nickname of Bubi. Bubi had shown Gilberto some of his Jazz records, a genre which was unfamiliar to most of the locals at the time, and the two bonded over these common musical interests.
With this slight hermit-like lifestyle, and the solitude of voice and guitar alone, Gilberto invented the Bossa Nova rhythm. This was the seed of a transformation in Brazilian Popular Music, and subsequently, the contribution to a musical movement which was to have a major influence on the international scene.
The Bossa Nova wasn’t just a new invention of rhythm, however. Previously, Wander had told me that it is important to consider Bossa Nova as a musical movement, which encapsulated the renewal of harmony, rhythm and poetry. What is also interesting to note is the shift in harmonic style from Samba to Bossa Nova. The lightness and swing of the music didn't come solely from rhythm and lyrics, and harmony also played an important role. In Wander’s research paper, he explains that ‘João Gilberto developed the ability to invert the root positions of basics chords.’, which gives the effect of ‘instability and weightlessness as if the harmonic base of the songs could hover in the air’.
Bossa Nova - a musical movement of renewal in harmony, rhythm and poetry
So, how did the other elements of harmony and poetry come together with Gilberto’s rhythm?
When Gilberto left Diamantina for Rio de Janeiro, he met composer Tom Jobim (1927 –1994) and poet Vinícius de Moraes (1913 – 1980). It was the trio of these three figures, that established Bossa Nova. Their collaboration resulted in an album Canção do Amor Demais (1958). The two songs from this album - Chega de Saudade and Outra Vez, in which the melodies were composed by Tom Jobim, the lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes and rhythm Gilberto – became the first output of the Bossa Nova movement.
Few months after this release, Gilberto recorded his own album Chega de Saudade, this time with his own voice and guitar. Here is Gilberto’s interpretation and arrangement of the same song, Chega de Saudade:
From hearing these two interpretations in succession, it is evident that the marriage of new rhythm, harmony and lyrics brought out the best of Gilberto’s performance style – the intimate character, which perhaps is a reflection of the environment of Diamantina - the home of this artist’s invention.
Bossa Nova and its reception in Diamantina
As Wander mentions on his research paper: ‘Bossa Nova expressed the development of the Juscelino Kubitscheck era in musical art.’, it is interesting that during the late 1950s, in this significant period of radical shifts in political, social and cultural development in Brazil, two of the key players – Gilberto and President Juscelino Kubitscheck (who was born in Diamantina) – were closely linked with Diamantina.
Given that these two figures had such a wide impact, I was curious to find out what was going on musically in Diamantina at this time, and the reception of Bossa Nova. How did the people react?
To this question, Wander told me that Bossa Nova took some time to settle in Diamantina. During the 1950s, the sounds of Bossa Nova were too modern; most of the tracks during this time were recorded in São Paulo. During the 1960s, another genre took prominence – Rock ‘n’ Roll. With more singers being influenced by this genre and 10 bands being formed in Diamantina, it seemed as if there was no interest for such a contrastingly different style of music. The acceptance came much later, in the 1970s.
In 2000, Wander began to research the musical heritage of Diamantina, and since then his research has been making a significant contribution to scholarship and has been raising awareness in general public knowledge, of just how important the connection between Gilberto and Diamantina is. Apart from Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music (2003) and Zuza Homem de Mello’s biography João Gilberto (2002), publications are still relatively scarce, and I am sure that Wander’s next book would be a much-needed addition, and an invaluable resource for audiences around the world. In fact, Gilberto is only one part of the book. Wander told me that it is going to be around 700 pages, to cover all areas of Diamantina’s contribution to the cultural development of Brazil. I must make an effort to learn Portuguese, or I might need to ask someone to publish an English translation!
Ever since hearing about Gilberto’s story in Diamantina, I have been listening to many albums of Bossa Nova which I had never heard before. I have also become slightly addicted to this album, João Gilberto in Tokyo (2004). I may be biased (as I am from Tokyo), but this is an extraordinary album, capturing the intimacy that Gilberto brings on stage – perhaps a performance not any different to that of his younger self, sitting in his ‘studio’ in Diamantina!