Bossa Nova, Modernity and Empire
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Bossa Nova, Modernity and Empire

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By Daniel Hunt.

João Gilberto, who along with Antônio Carlos Jobim is considered the father of Bossa Nova, died on Saturday 6th July 2019, sixty years on from the release of his debut long-player ‘Chega de Saudade’.

“I know my opinion will be taken as strange and probably dissonant. But I’m naturally like that. I think singers should feel the music with aesthetics, feel it in terms of poetry and naturalness. Who sings should be like the one who prays: the essential is sensitivity. Music is sound. And sound is voice, instrument.” – João Gilberto, 10/9/60 in magazine O Cruzeiro.

Following his death, focus has been on the influence of João Gilberto and his Bossa Nova in commercial terms, or as simply a postcard of 1960s Rio de Janeiro. Yet in Brazilian cosmology, his music is integral to the cultural firmament, to national identity. It evokes both an optimism of a near past, and the saudade (a concept of longing for which there is no perfect English translation) for that era’s lost future.

This is a similar sensation to what Brazil is experiencing today.

In the early 1960s, Brazil as the land of tomorrow, was already a well worn theme. But in the eyes of the world at the birth of mass, televised popular culture, it was the only Brazil that the young had ever known.

Beyond what it meant to Brazilians, Bossa Nova achieved something for which there are few modern parallels; a country in the global south was able to define musical modernity in the north.

Upon his election in 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek, who would be nicknamed the Bossa Nova President, promised fifty years of progress in five. A brand new capital city, Brasília, was to be constructed in the state of Goias, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Brasília was intended to remove the bureaucracy of Government from the hullabaloo and oligarchies of Rio de Janeiro, and to help integrate and develop Brazil’s vast interior. Kubitchek would appear on the cover of Time Magazine in February 1956 against Brazil’s brave new world, São Paulo’s skyscrapers, and a depiction of its indigenous soul, rising from expanses of rainforest.

Bossa Nova and the architecture of the era, of Niemeyer, of Lina Bo Bardi, Roberto Burle Marx, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, were aesthetically inseparable. Rows of Le Corbusier-influenced apartments in Rio de Janeiro, cut into the rock and swathed with tropical vegetation, were the visual to this new ascendent Brazil.

Brazil was modernity.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s new popular music was the soundtrack to every fashionable party in North America and Europe.

French actress Brigitte Bardot adored Bossa Nova, so much that made herself a home from home in Búzios, a beach town near Rio de Janeiro, where a statue of her still resides. During her time in Brazil she met some of the main protagonists, including Tom Jobim & Vinícius de Moraes, and recorded francophone versions of Bossa Nova numbers herself.

Indeed Bossa Nova was so popular in the United States during the early 1960s that it briefly displaced Rock and Roll on radio stations. Prior to the British invasion led by the Beatles, artists had rushed to get on the bandwagon with songs like Elvis Presley’s ‘Bossa Nova Baby’, and producers such as Quincy Jones also worked to approximate the novel new style into an Americanised variant, embodied by the Dave Brubeck Quartet disc ‘Bossa Nova USA’.

Miles Davis remarked that “João Gilberto could read the telephone directory and it would still sound like music”.

This was not the first time that there was a craze for Brazilian culture in the United States, and it wasn’t always accidental either. Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda was launched upon North American audiences by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller, as part of the so called ‘good neighbor policy’.

Through this, and later State Department organised tours and cultural exchange programmes in Brazil, routes were created through which Brazilian popular music was able to return to the United States, carried back by influential artists, and into the hands of socialite taste-makers.

By the early 1960s relations between the two American giants was changing. With Bossa Nova dominating the airwaves in United States, and President Kubitchek making way for his successors Janio Quadros and João Goulart, something else was stirring.

On November 19 1962, U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a lavish party at the White House, where the Paul Winter Sextet, who had toured Latin America on one such State Department sponsored junket, performed a set of Bossa Nova standards for her illustrious guests. Jackie declared that Carlos Lyra’s Maria Ninguém was her favorite song. Likely unbeknown to Kennedy, Lyra was, along with other second generation Bossa Nova figures such as Sérgio Ricardo and Nara Leão, a member of Brazil’s communist party, the PCB.

Two days later, the first dedicated Bossa Nova showcase concert in the United States, dubbed ‘the New Brazilian Jazz’, was held at New York’s Carnegie Hall, headlined by leading lights João Gilberto and collaborator Tom Jobim. Shortly thereafter, a CBS Eyewitness show entitled “The New Beat” was the first national television broadcast to transmit this Brazilian sound into millions of homes across the United States.

Viewers, concert goers, and the artists themselves were of course unaware that President Kennedy was considering a military invasion of the South American country.

Tom Jobim, João Gilberto and Stan Getz soundchecking at NY Carnegie Hall, November 1962

Brazil’s vast natural resources were, and still are, considered vital to the United States’ own national security.

It was then a ‘near China’. Vice President Goulart was on a visit to the actual China when Janio Quadros resigned in 1961, and his absence cast doubt on if he would be allowed to assume the Presidency or even return to Brazil at all. That visit, and others to the USSR and Cuba were used to weakly depict him as a communist, or security threat, and thus justify the prevention of his Presidency.

Goulart, a protegé of Getulio Vargas, was eventually allowed to return the country, and to take the Presidency, yet subject to the limitations of a new Parliamentary system which would curtail his powers.

Under both Quadros and Goulart, the United States was particularly uncomfortable with Brazil’s independent foreign policy. It’s outreach to the socialist bloc, resumption of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and opposition to the U.S. blockade of Cuba, were integral to its geopolitical position.

Beyond the mooted invasion, Kennedy had also enlisted Nelson’s brother, Chase Bank’s David Rockefeller to form a consortium of US corporations called ‘Business Group’, which was to raise funds and help organise “anti-communist” political opposition to João Goulart at the 1962 congressional elections. Rockefeller had remarked that the U.S. banking community had decided early on that Goulart would “have to go”.

There were also bizarre, even comical efforts to remotely police Brazil’s popular music, with U.S. Government advisors suggesting that the State Department sponsor further tours by popular folk singers from the United States (singing in English) to counter the imagined communist threat of what they called “travelling minstrels” in the North East of the country.

From the United States’ perspective, Brazil could not under any circumstances be allowed to emulate a Cuba-style model, nor drift further under the influence of the Soviet Union.

In May 1962 the USSR held an industrial expo in Rio de Janeiro, showcasing its goods and technologies to the rapidly developing nation. Rio de Janeiro Governor Carlos Lacerda was accused of acting discourteously towards the Soviets during the opening ceremony of the event, refusing to wear the red rose given to him on his lapel, and aggressively breaking the inaugural ribbon. Two months before, Lacerda had visited John F. Kennedy at the White House, accompanied by US Ambassador, and fellow coup-plotter, Lincoln Gordon.

Expropriations of U.S. companies, such as those carried out by Governor Leonel Brizola in Rio Grande do Sul, were deepening tensions between the countries, and in an attempt to ease friction, President Goulart traveled to Washington to meet with Kennedy in April 1962, right between Lacerda’s visit and the Soviet expo in Rio. Goulart was conditionally promised financial aid and greater investment in Brazil by US business.

During the visit, Jango was also invited to an airbase in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was shown the command centre for long-range nuclear missiles, and B-52 bombers carrying atomic warheads.

By the end of 1962, tiring of Goulart’s intransigence, the Kennedy administration resolved to mobilise the Brazilian military for a coup in order to advance U.S. interests in the country and region. In December, Kennedy told Juscelino Kubitschek that Brazil worried him more than Cuba. Four days later on December 17, 1962 Robert Kennedy, sent by his brother for showdown talks with Goulart advised the Brazilian President that the U.S. had grave doubts about its future relations with Brazil, because of “Communist or extreme left-wing nationalists infiltration into civilian government positions” and the opposition to U.S. interests and policies. Robert Kennedy would later call Goulart “a Brazilian Jimmy Hoffa.”

Assuming full Presidential powers following a plebiscite in January 1963, Goulart embarked on a grassroots programme including agrarian, banking and education reforms, which further infuriated Brazilian elites, Military and Wall Street, and relations with the United States became more distressed.

On March 7 1963, Kennedy met his aides once again to discuss Brazil and Goulart’s leftist programme. Ambassador Gordon recommended that if they could not convince Goulart to soften his leftist positions, that the U.S. work “to prepare the most promising possible environment for his replacement by a more desirable regime.”. Robert Kennedy urged the President to be more forceful with Goulart, that he must not be allowed to “..take communists and put them in important positions and make speeches criticizing the United States and at the same time get 225-250 million dollars…”

One week later João Gilberto, oblivious to the conversations in Washington D.C., was in New York City, recording at A&R Studios, on 7th avenue in midtown, with Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, in a collaboration which came about following the concert at Carnegie Hall five months prior. Getz had originally been introduced to the music of Bossa Nova by Tony Bennett, who had been on one of the first Kennedy-blessed State Department Jazz tours of Latin America.

On the seventh and eighth of October 1963, six weeks before he was assassinated, President Kennedy held two days of meetings with Government figures and advisors about the situations both in Vietnam, and in Brazil.

“Do you see a situation where we might be—find it desirable to intervene militarily ourselves?” asked the U.S. President. Ambassador Gordon would then supervise the drafting of contingency plans with what a memorandum, dated November 22, 1963, described as “a heavy emphasis on armed intervention.”

Shot dead in Dallas that day, President John F. Kennedy would never get to read, nor act on those recommendations, but with Bossa Nova now ubiquitous on phonographs across the United States, Brazil was being prepared for a coup d’état, or even a military invasion, to bring it into line politically.

Maria Thereza Fontella and João Goulart, March 1964

On Friday, March 13, 1964, President Goulart defended the so called ‘Reformas Base’ to around two hundred thousand people at a rally in Rio de Janeiro. Throughout his defiant speech he was flanked by the first lady, 23 year old Maria Thereza Fontella Goulart, who stood resolute on the podium despite warnings of terrorist attack. Gaúcha Maria Thereza, with the image of a Bossa Nova singer, had the kind of celebrity which had itself become a symbol of Brazil’s modernity, gracing magazine covers at home and abroad, featured in Paris Match alongside Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly, and named in People magazine as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world. She also entered the MPB canon in a song dedicated to her, the satirical “Dona Maria Thereza”, by Juca Chaves:

“Dona Maria Thereza, Brazil goes backwards like this. Those who should talk, don’t talk enough, while Lacerda already talks too much. When the beans disappear, and the dollar goes out of sight, Globo says that all of this is the communist’s fault.”

With impeachment looming against Goulart in the build up to the eventual 1964 military coup, Kennedy’s replacement Lyndon B. Johnson, spoke from his Texas ranch with his undersecretary of State George Ball and authorised the dispatch of a naval carrier group to Brazil, to intimidate Goulart supporters and sit offshore until if and when its assistance was required, with a contingency plan to come ashore in Espirito Santo and effectively partition the country, akin to “North and South Korea” should the coup meet armed resistance. Goulart found it impossible to countenance this, and boarded a plane to he and Maria Thereza’s eventual exile in Uruguay.

Johnson can be heard on tape insisting that “We can’t just take this one.” – Brazil was too big, too rich and too powerful to be allowed to follow its own path, lest it become the genuine future hemispheric rival that the U.S. feared.

In March 1964, with that coup in full flight, and one year after its recording, the Getz/Gilberto English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” featuring the lead vocal performance of João’s then wife, Astrud Gilberto, was released. It would become a worldwide hit, and one of the most recognisable pop songs of all time.

Modern Brazil was being born, and at the then peak of its international stature, of its modernity, and of its confidence, its future was being postponed, from five thousand miles away.

What João Gilberto created was not merely a sound, a musical style or genre, but a medium.

This would quickly come into its own during the twenty one year dictatorship which followed. It was through this medium that the music of resistance was transmitted, received and understood, sometimes buried in layers of code, by the likes of Chico Buarque, Nara Leao, and Caetano Veloso who sang that “…better than silence, there is only João.”

In 1968 journalist Augusto de Campos travelled north to visit João Gilberto in Weehawken, New Jersey, where he was living away from the U.S. backed, neofascist regime in his own country. He lived there with his wife Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda, aka Bossa Nova singer Miúcha, sister of Chico Buarque, and their young daughter, Bebel.

Gilberto answered Caetano Veloso’s praise “I have so many things to say to Caetano. He’s doing such beautiful things. Look, Caetano has been saying that I’m a genius. Tell him not to talk like that, no. The genius is him. Caetano is a poet. Caetano is up there, high up, honing intelligence. For me it’s Drummond and Caetano.” João was fiercely proud of the wave of young fellow Bahians then emerging, such as Gal Costa, and Gilberto Gil, and breathless in his praise for these musical scions. They, along with Heloísa’s brother would soon be driven into exile.

Augusto and João talked at length about new Brazilian music, and he was played interviews recorded by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who revered João Gilberto like a scientist. “João listens in silence, meditating, to these testimonies in which much is spoken about him and the “revival of the evolutionary line of popular music, beginning with the moment ‘João Gilberto’.”’

“How beautiful. They discuss all of these things…they study…they are very serious.” responded Gilberto.

Gil, who went on to become Minister of Culture, described João Gilberto as the kind of transformative individual who comes along only once a century. My friend, singer Luisa Maita, once summarised João Gilberto to me as simply “Steve Jobs”.

With his death, Brazil loses one of its greatest artists, engineers, and a shard of its quintessence, but retains the medium he and his contemporaries constructed, and with that the unique and joyous intellectual culture which his descendants built upon it.


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