by Laura Pelner McCarthy
"Não se pode machucar o
silêncio, que é sagrado."
João Gilberto's voice is weightless, its depth infinite; it is haunting, haunted, insular. He hears as we do not, hears things we do not. Not only things outside our awareness (the construction equipment on the next street, the air conditioner in the studio)--but the possibility of sounds we cannot imagine. And he teaches us the sound of stillness.
Brazilian popular music is often divided into two eras: the years before João Gilberto's first recording and the years that followed. João Gilberto, the singer and guitarist usually credited with introducing bossa nova in the late 1950s, is one of the most elusive and respected figures in Brazilian popular music. In 1995, his work returned to the center of my own musical life, and just as I had more than thirty years earlier I began to immerse myself in João Gilberto's extraordinary sounds.
I learned to listen, truly listen, to his music, opening myself to all his sounds: the words, the sighs, the clicks and hisses. And, more important, to his silences. I liked to put on my headphones, turn out the lights, and listen to the wordless chant of "Undiú" over and over until I could feel his breath in the room, until I was breathing in his rhythm. I listened to him sing "You Do Something to Me" until I felt I was looking into his eyes. Sometimes I dreamed he came to me in the night and infused me with stillness, taught me his silences.
Listening to his music came to consume all my time, his voice filled all my space. I wrote an essay for the Miami Herald about the magic of rediscovering this remarkable voice from my past. I haunted CD stores and used record dealers, and hung color enlargements of his album photos on the wall alongside my desk. I joined an e-mail discussion group called saudades do brasil to have someone to talk to, someone who understood. I began to work, with the other saudadeiros' help, on a Gilberto discography.
In photos João Gilberto's eyes often seem to be looking inward, or they are open wide, startled, as if he has just emerged from a cave within himself. When he smiles he seems even farther away--smiling inwardly, smiling at what he hears, at what only he can hear. I have a video clip of João Gilberto from the rehearsal of a 1980 television show. His wonderful face is so naked that each note, each word, each sound he makes registers in his expression. His clear joy at a well-placed phrase is immediately erased when his voice rasps harshly against a particular low note. He closes his eyes and sadly shakes his head.
Reclusive and singular, João Gilberto is a reluctant performer; his recordings are often separated by decades, his personal appearances few. In December of 1964, at the height of his American popularity, João Gilberto played four short sets on the first night of a nine-day New Year's engagement at Chicago's London House, then declared the club too noisy and would not return. João Gilberto seldom gives Interviews.
My search for a rounded portrait of João Gilberto began with the attempt to glimpse him acting like a regular person. To me, no other artist was so difficult to picture walking, talking, laughing.
Yet Caetano Veloso, who calls João Gilberto "mi maestro," claims that "sometimes he decides, just for fun, to imitate people. He imitates the way of walking, the way of talking, of anyone. When he feels like it, he even imitates Fred Astaire." 11
And here is an Italian producer's image of João Gilberto in Rome: "The other day, on leaving a restaurant, he stayed a long time conversing with a cat in the street. And the most surprising thing is that the cat was hypnotized by his language. To my astonishment, one would be justified in saying the cat could hear the same way he hears." 12
According to Maria Bethânia, "João Gilberto simply is music. He plays. He sings. Without stopping. Day and night. He is very, very strange. But he is the most fascinating being, the most fascinating person, that I have encountered on the surface of the earth. João, he is mystery. He hypnotises." 11
Veronique Montaigne, of the French newspaper Le Monde,
visited the singer at home:
"What time is it in Nova York?" Sitting in front of the large window of the apartment hotel where he lives, the founding father of bossa nova listens. He speaks of one thing or another, without apparent logic. He asks questions about this and that, all in the same tone, using the night as a renewal. It's two a.m. in Rio, but João Gilberto doesn't care. For years he has slept by day and worked by night, in Ipanema, Manhattan or Mexico. He schedules meetings for midnight, eats at dawn, and lies down, exhausted, when the sun begins to shine. 22
Gilberto's friend Nelson Motta says, "Two or three things I know about him: he loves all his records, but especially Chega de Saudade (in spite of the awful remastering of the later editions), Amoroso, and especially the new one João (in spite of some technical problems). . . . I know that he likes boxing, soccer, cats, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and São Paulo; that he's a person of absolute refinement and one of the most acute and joyous intellects that I've had the privilege to know." 23
No music has given me such great and constant pleasure as that of João Gilberto. This website is dedicated to João Gilberto, and to all the people he has touched or will touch with his music.
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