Bossa Nova celebrates its 60th birthday this week, but there was a moment in time where a twist of fate was all that stood from a very different reality. It all came down to the soul-searching actions of a single man. A world without Bossa Nova? It almost happened.
“Champagne, women and music, here I come!” – João Gilberto, 1948.
Even when he was 18 and growing up in rural Juazeiro, Bahia (roughly 300 miles from Salvador), the future ‘Father of Bossa Nova’ knew what he wanted and what awaited him in Rio de Janeiro: Samba was already well into its third decade and had found a new, more sophisticated style for the radio shows and nightclubs in Zona Sul.
The love-lost melancholy of the Samba-Cançáo mimicked elements of Argentina’s Tango, the sexy Cuban Bolero and the influence of American pop. Rio’s music scene would be a match made in heaven for João Gilberto’s plan to become one of Brazil’s great voices.
But something (everything) went wrong in Rio. Gilberto had a dream, but no vision beyond his first gig with the vocal group Garotos Da Lua, where he was hired on as a featured soloist.
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But just as the group started to break big on television, João Gilberto was replaced, due to his unreliability and disruptive behavior: He’d arrive late to rehearsals or not show up at all.
Talented but unfocused? Yes, but worse still, he developed a reputation as a musical Malandro: a charming, sweet-talking rouge. His friendships soured, job offers dried up and after seven long, disappointing years João Gilberto left Rio with little of his dream remaining.
He ended up in self-imposed musical exile, living with his sister in a small mining town in Minas Gerias, a 14-hour bus ride away from the bristling beach bairros of Ipanema and Copacabana. Worlds away.
For the next eight months, João Gilberto remained in near-total isolation. He found creative refuge in the small home’s bathroom (he liked the acoustics), with just his voice and guitar playing constantly, searching for sound he heard in his mind.
Those ‘day and night’ sessions turned into a practice song, ‘Bim-Bom’ which – after incessant repetition – became the very first Bossa Nova tune, characterized by his laconic vocal style and his guitar’s complex chords and signature rhythm.
His new, yet-unnamed style ignited the music scene when he returned to Rio in 1957, and months later João Gilberto and his new style were recorded for the first time on Elizete Cardoso’s debut of ‘Chega de Saudade’. Then, O Cariocas recorded their version. Joao Gilberto played guitar on both tracks, but his own version as a solo artist was rushed into the studio weeks later to become the official first Bossa Nova single.
The personal choices João Gilberto made could have changed the course of musical history. Can you image a world without Bossa Nova? It almost happened that way.