João Gilberto, the man from Ipanema

On July 6, the world lost one of its foremost musical ambassadors. Guitarist and singer João Gilberto, 88, was often called the father of bossa nova, a style that smoothly blends Brazilian samba with jazz and even danceable pop elements. His death marks the end of a musical era.

Gilberto, along with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, helped popularise the genre in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not only in native Brazil but also in the US, where musicians were playing new sounds under the larger jazz umbrella. ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, sung by him, composed by Jobim and penned by Vinicius de Moraes, became a worldwide craze, more so after being translated into English by Norman Gimbel.

Evergreen numbers

In India, ‘Ipanema’ has been one of the most requested and performed numbers, along with George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’. Female vocalists have sung it as ‘The Boy From Ipanema’, a version popularised by the great Ella Fitzgerald and Gilberto’s first wife Astrud.

The song was featured on the path-breaking 1964 album Getz/ Gilberto, featuring American saxophonist Stan Getz. One of the highest selling records in India, it also had the hits, ‘Desafinado’, ‘So Danco Samba’ and ‘Corcovado (Quiet Nights For Quiet Stars)’. In 1966, Getz and Gilberto did a sequel, and reunited again in 1976 on the album The Best Of Two Worlds.

Getz/ Gilberto is popular even today, and was the theme of a listening session at The Quarter, Girgaon, last year. However, old-time music lovers recall Getz’s performance at the Jazz Yatra in 1980 and virtuoso guitarist Charlie Byrd at the 1996 edition of the Yatra. Both Getz and Byrd played jazz sets – the latter was joined by famed guitarist Herb Ellis. But they also ventured into bossa nova on some tracks.


Translated into ‘new wave’ or ‘new trend’, bossa nova is still popular with the older generation, 60 years after it was the rage in Brazil. In its early form, it used a nylon string classical guitar where the player used his fingers instead of a pick. Later, the piano and saxophone were also used. Besides the standard drum kit, the Latin American percussion instruments surdo and cabasa provided the rhythm.

Starting at the age of 15, Gilberto was known to lock himself in the bathroom or sit under a tamarind tree for hours to develop his technique. He pioneered a unique guitaring style, using the Brazilian musical and dance style samba as its root, and blending it with jazz progressions. His singing style was subdued and natural, avoiding vibrato.

Gilberto’s 1959 debut album, Chega de Saudade was path-breaking, and helped spread the genre across Brazilian borders. Other musicians like guitarist Luiz Bonfa and vocalists Elis Regina, Chico Buarque and Astrud Gilberto carried its popularity forward. Though they were more eclectic, drummer Airto Moreira, singer Flora Purim, pianist Sergio Mendes and guitarist Egberto Gismonti sometimes used bossa nova elements.

In Europe, the style Bossa Electrica blended bossa nova and electronic music. While in India, music director R.D. Burman was deeply inspired by Latin American styles, including bossa nova.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 10:18:22 PM |

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