João is a very common name in Brazil. John. So many Johns. Too many Johns. But this João, this João Gilberto, was no ordinary man. He singularly shaped an entire generation of arrangers, musicians, and singers.
My first memory of hearing João was probably in my mother’s womb. His record, Chega de Saudade, came out in 1959, several years before I was born, and it was always playing at the house. It became the soundtrack of my youth. And my meditation. His guitar playing, the indescribably relaxed and swinging beat, the hip and understated singing, all of it was so interesting and attractive. The best school for a young singer like myself.
As a child, I heard many stories about João. My dad grew up with him in Juazeiro da Bahia. Both were guitar players and singers, and they shared a vocal group called Enamorados do Ritmo. My dad followed João to Salvador, the capital, and a few years later, João asked my dad to join him in Rio. They lived in the same boarding house for a while. And when the first record of bossa nova was to be recorded, Canção do Amor Demais by the great Elizeth Cardoso, João and Jobim asked my dad to help with the background vocals. I can still hear each of their voices.
Because João was born in 1931, he grew up under the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, and lived through a real change as Brazil became something of a cultural colony of the United States. Army and naval bases were built in the 1940s in the northeast of Brazil, and American music played constantly on the radio. That, plus Hollywood movies, helped shape the mind and soul of young João.
My dad used to say that João knew every samba written since the 1920s, and that he had impeccable memory for lyrics. That he could recite poems for days and days, and was very cultured for someone coming from a small town at the edge of a long river, the São Francisco. Geography can shape people, some say. It seems João was born curious, and restless.
Everyone knows João would always rehearse things to exhaustion. A perfectionist, he would lock himself in a room for days and practice the same song for hours. He was methodical about his guitar playing. The repetition of songs, chorus after chorus after chorus, allowed him a deep absorption of the material. Anything João sang, he made it sound familiar. Time felt solid yet elastic under his breath, a universe of indefatigable possibilities.
João was a purist, who focused on the most basic elements of music. His singing favored a clear and absolutely in-tune pitch; his tone and diction were unclouded; his breath support was enviable; his phrasing was so free and personal it made him inimitable. And with all that, in the end, you are left with a sense that João’s singing was not really singing, it was more like speech, like a conversation.
For all of the neurosis and depression João was said to carry (as many brilliant artists and poets do), he brought immense joy and beauty to the world. He changed the landscape of Brazilian music in a way that we have not seen since. That quiet, restrained singing and playing taught us to meditate; to feel, rather than think.