The bossa of samba or The – radical – recreation of samba



Here they are once again those things that delight us and teach us intelligence and sensitivity, like “an inexhaustible source of pleasure and learning,” as Vinicius de Moraes said, whenever we listen to João Gilberto again: the jiggle of syllables and notes, of the conjugation of poetic sentences with melodic ones in a cohesive and unique whole, in the voice, with its timbral nuances and its rhythmic innovations, felt simultaneously in the guitar; the ensemble, guitar and voice, sounding with a sway and a swing unmistakably proper and involving.

More than bossa nova, this is samba, we have long known: in relation to the genre, he invented and fostered, João is “suspended hovering over and outside it”, my partner José Miguel Wisnik wrote, almost forty years ago. And samba is much more than jazz: the genre, one of the wonders invented by the black American genius about one hundred years ago (how to love music without loving jazz?), enters into the formation, the form and the formula created by the “wizard from Juazeiro” – as Caetano begins, calling him, a song called A Bossa Nova é foda – as a song that brings him other sonorities with which he uses to promote a very personal re-reading of the Brazilian musical tradition. These are elements that, together with others from our tradition, he uses to recreate the samba; to rediscover the groove and to reacquire mastery of the complex rhythm of samba. The bossa, finally, of samba. To whose spirit he gives a most original and profound interpretation.

Putting the “old” in a new perspective and promoting a rigorous selective cut, João chose his predecessors, to whom he reconnected, thus affiliating himself to a lineage of nobility in which he found – and we find – that which was and is and will be great and luminous in the tradition, that is, from the thirties to the fifties of the last century: the period of the original and originating inventors (in the literal sense, not in the Poundian sense of the word) of Brazilian popular music. And that we find here again, in the recordings of this album, revisiting the repertoires of performers like Orlando Silva and Ciro Monteiro, and of composers like Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi, besides Wilson Baptista, Herivelto Martins… Orlando and Caymmi, a Carioca and a Bahian, respectively, have a privileged place in this joaogilbertian paideuma (here, yes, in the Poundian sense). The first (interpreter who released Aos pés da cruz, Curare, and Preconceito, here reread again by João) was his greatest reference as a singer, who inspired and stimulated him to create a way to sing and play samba. And the second, the author of Rosa morena (also present in this work), “chosen by him [João] as a theme for the construction of the style that came to be called Bossa Nova”, according to Caetano, for whom “João’s cleanliness and leanness were learned from Caymmi; come from him”.

The cleanliness and the leanness are expressions of João’s unique radical nature, of his rare rigor: very few artists are so rigorous and radical, and among our contemporaries, in my opinion, only one can be identified as such, acting in the erudite experimental field: Augusto de Campos, the greatest living poet. Augusto, by the way, in one of his critical interventions in the field of popular music, in the book Balanço da Bossa, from 1968, suggested a subtle association between João and none other than Anton Webern, the most radical of the trio of composers who invented dodecaphonism in the last century, with the most clean and lean pieces. The analogy – symbolized in the text in question by a syllable: “ber”, in the middle of Webern and Gilberto – is the same one that can be established between Augusto and João himself (both from the same year of birth, 1931, as a matter of fact), due to two characteristics common and dear to both works, although by artists who operate on different levels and planes the drastic synthesis and reduction that mark their doings, their creations (and re-creations, if we take into account that both one, for his admirable, wonderful work of translation into Portuguese of universal poetry, and the other, for his re-readings of songs from the past, have done nothing but re-create, in concretist terms).

Regarding the recordings of the songs included here already made by other performers, we rediscover in this Relicário those small changes that contribute to the great difference represented by João’s performances. In this sense, when we compare these with the previous ones, particularly the first one of each of the same songs, it is interesting to observe the cuts and word changes he applies to the original lyrics (these suppressions and substitutions, which deserve a separate approach, are pointed out in the transcriptions of the lyrics in this booklet, with the respective explanation), putting into practice a project of dissection, restraint and economy, which creates spaces and removes excesses, eliminates repetitions and attenuates dramatizations, besides adding musical moves, thus intervening in and recreating his own (alien) compositions, of which the performer becomes, in a certain way, a co-author.

In Caymmi’s Saudade da Bahia, for example, he doesn’t sing the interjections “ah” that open the opening verses of the first two parts of the samba (and the rare time he does, in one of the repetitions of the entire song, he pronounces “ai”). In the chorinho Carinhoso, by Pixinguinha and Braguinha, he omits the first four successive “véns” of the famous couplet “Vem, vem, vem, vem, / Vem sentir o calor” (an imperfect decasyllable), establishing a spatial emptiness in which we float and insinuating to our hearing, attached to the affective memory of the silenced words, that it is the guitar that, in truth, “does” each “vem” that the voice does not emit. In Vivo sonhando, by Tom Jobim, it elides the second “não vem” of the verse “Você não vindo, não vindo, a vida tem fim”. In Eu sei que vou te amar, by Tom and Vinicius, more severely, he stops singing the expression that names the song and that, after opening it, is repeated three times immediately afterwards. Nor does he repeat the title-word that begins and reappears, in the original version of the samba, a little later, in Louco, by Wilson Baptista and Henrique de Almeida. As in Herivelto Martins’ Ave Maria no morro, he deletes “Pois” and “Já” from the sentences “Pois quem mora lá no morro / Já vive perto do céu”.

The repertoire gathered here demonstrates how João Gilberto is attuned to the life and feelings of simple people, letting us glimpse how he, subtly but acutely, connects with Brazilian social and racial issues. The songs he chose to sing, and the way he did it, show a singer highly refined and in tune with the popular sensibility, which he did not disdain and with which he identified in an organic and natural way by his own origin as a man of the people – and therefore common, as uncommon as he may have been. We must recognize the attention he gave to the racial theme, for example, in Isto aqui o que é, Pra que discutir com madame, Curare, all three of which bring in their verses the word “raça” (race) (in Curare we also hear “nega neguinha” [little black girl] and “gente de cor” [people of color]), and in the anthological samba simply entitled Preconceito (“Você diz a toda gente que eu sou moreno demais” [You tell everybody that I am too brown-skinned]).

“Pra que discutir com madame” highlights a criticism towards the privileged class; singing and playing this samba was a way to mock, with fine irony, the Brazilian elite, which indicated perception of our perverse social stratification. It was at the same time a way to praise the popular genre with a verse that is particularly significant in the present historical moment: “O samba brasileiro, democrata, brasileiro na batata, é que tem valor”. Samba is also sung in “Rei sem coroa” (“Samba is my nobility”), and popular culture is praised in “Lá vem a baiana”. As well as the guitar, the instrument par excellence on which the sambas are composed, in “Violão amigo” and “A primeira vez” – both by the great duo of composers from the heroic phase of the genre, formed by the Cariocas Bide and Marçal. Both, equally, examples of lamenting songs, so characteristic of the people’s feeling and therefore typical of the Brazilian songbook, and which João translates in his work.

In this aspect, classic pieces such as Ave Maria and Ave Maria no morro are exemplary, but also A valsa de quem não tem amor, one of those pearls that he fished and gave us – and continues to give us, as the present work proves –, exemplary in their sentimental expression of the simplicity of the people of the country. Created by an excellent composer, esteemed by Tom Jobim, who died prematurely at the age of 35, Custódio Mesquita and his partner Evaldo Rui, the song is a little masterly in its simple description of the heartbreaking condition of loneliness and lack of love. In a lyric of only thirteen relatively short verses, there are ten phonemes with the sound “im”, as if expressing, surreptitiously, in a sonorous way, what is enthroned, and is felt with intensity, in the protagonist’s deep interior. The culmination of this occurs precisely in the final passage:

nessa IMensa solidão
a mINha confissão
ecoa tristEMente
cantarei sozINho
IMerso em mINha dor
a valsa de quem não tem amor

A handful of songs that we can classify as sad indeed comprise the repertoire gathered in this album, alongside those Bossa Nova classics that were notable for the innovation of introducing a feeling and an atmosphere of happiness predominating in the treatment of the love theme. However, even in those songs with melancholic traits, in them and as if above them, hovers and prevails at the same time, supreme, a joy that is that of the beauty that marks their performances: the joy of great art. Here I think of the short and fine definition given by that other radical of the 20th century vanguards, another John, another cultivator of spaces and silences, the American musician-poet John Cage: “Art is a happy thing”. Our John’s art is like that: a happy thing – which has to do with the ideas of the promise of happiness and pleasure forever, as Stendhal and Keats respectively understood beauty. Hearing John again now, here, gives us the chance to renew this fundamental perception so that we can continue – or start again – to live with the necessary hope. This is related, indeed, to being – and becoming again proud of being – Brazilian; to reaffirming what is luminous in us, in our Brazilianhood, in this moment in our history of re-establishing the value of art and culture in the country, which is equivalent to saying: of our soul.

Carlos Rennó, lyricist. Attended the first and also the last of three shows by João Gilberto at Sesc Vila Mariana in April 1998, from which the recording of Relicário: João Gilberto (Ao vivo no Sesc 1998) originated.

About Relicário: João Gilberto (Ao vivo no Sesc 1998), you may also read:

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