Bebel Gilberto: a Conversation With Brazilian Musical Royalty


Bebel Gilberto, who was due to have played a sold-out Budapest Jazz Club on April 18 (just after this issue went to print and just before it was published) has music in her blood.

Bebel Gilberto

She’s the daughter of João Gilberto, singer, songwriter, guitarist and inventor of bossa nova music, and the singer Miucha. Gilberto’s uncle is Chico Buarque, a singer, composer and author. More of him later.

Gilberto was born in New York City in 1966, when her father and mother were living in the States. After a rocky start to his career, her father and the genre of music he created had been taken up by U.S. jazz musicians in the early 1960s. These included Stan Getz, who invited Gilberto senior to collaborate with him. The album the two made together, along with fellow Brazilian legend Antonio Carlos Jobim, gave birth to “The Girl From Ipanema”, believed to be the second most recorded song ever after the Beatles’ “Yesterday”. Now 87, Gilberto senior lives in Rio de Janiero.

“I always thought I was going into music,” Bebel Gilberto told me when we spoke by phone shortly before her concert at Budapest Jazz Club. She was in Rio and I was in a not so warm Hungary. “I don’t think I had any option. I was surrounded by music, listening to it all the time.”

Aged 11, Gilberto appeared on her mother Miucha’s first solo album, made with Jobim. She performed at Carnegie Hall with her mother and Stan Getz two years later. Her own debut on record came in 1986.

Although Gilberto carries the torch for the bossa nova her father invented, she has also experimented outside the genre.

“When I was little, I listened to a lot of Brazilian music,” she told me. “But, just after turning nine, I discovered that I really, really loved the music of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. I was introduced to electronic music in the early 1990s.”

Gilberto’s voice brings Towa Tei’s 1994 hit “Technova” to life, adding a characteristic lightness that fits well with all the samples and hip-hop groove. She went on to record with American electronic music duo Thievery Corporation, who reimagined her track “Cada Biejo” for the album “Bebel Gilberto Remixed”. Of Thievery Corporation, Gilberto said “David Byrne of Talking Heads introduced us. They’re great people. We have a beautiful relationship.”

Bossa Nova Fusion

In 2000, Gilberto fused electronica and bossa nova on her album “Tanto Tempo”, a global club favorite that helped make her one of the most successful Brazilian stars in the States.

She’s also happy to delve into the great American music songbook, citing jazz icons Blossom Dearie and Chet Baker as current inspirations. Her version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” on 2004’s “Tudo” is quite lovely. Gilberto has also recorded with country star Rosanne Cash and Mexican-American rock and roll band Los Lobos. “All in One”, Gilberto’s 2009 album was recorded in New York, Jamaica and Bahia, Brazil with producers who included Britain’s Mark Ronson, known for his work with Amy Whitehouse and Lady Gaga among others.

I was curious as to whether, as a musician, Gilberto identified as Brazilian or American.

“Although I can switch from one language to the other easily,” she said, “my identity doesn’t switch. My music is always Brazilian music. And, to be honest, my ideal is to sing in any language with the same emotion.”

Why did she think Brazilian music continues to be so popular? “It’s a kind of music that’s soothing, sexy. It makes people feel better, like making love or getting lost in something I can’t quite describe.”

Gilberto first played in Hungary in 2012, at the Budapest Jazz Festival. On that trip, she only had one day off in the city. This time round she was hoping to get to know Budapest better.  

“Especially,” she said, “because my mother’s brother, Chico Buarque, wrote a novel called ‘Budapeste’. I think he spent some time in the city.”

The Devil’s Respect

Actually, he didn’t. Or at least he hadn’t at the time he wrote the book. But that doesn’t matter because it makes “Budapeste” even more intriguing. It’s the story of a Brazilian ghostwriter named Jose Costa who is flying back to Rio from something called the Anonymous Writers Conference in Istanbul when a bomb scare causes the flight to be diverted to Budapest. Here, he meets a young woman named Kriska who introduces him to the Hungarian language, “the only tongue in the world that the devil respects”.

Isn’t that the best description of Hungarian you ever read? But I would add that the devil probably also respects Brazilian Portuguese. I spent three months in the country and picked up perhaps three words.

Buarque himself is an enormously influential composer, musician, poet, playwright and novelist whose books are highly regarded internationally; “Budapeste” (2003) is thought of as the best of his novels.

In a laudatory meditation on the book in The Guardian newspaper, Robert Collins described it as shimmering “with the glint of a perfectly cut gem. It’s dreamlike, it’s witty, it’s exquisitely written, and it’s about fiction, writing, language, translation, and love… Slowly, the book hypnotizes you into seeing how the world is composed of, and experienced through, words themselves.”

I haven’t read “Budapeste” yet. Apparently, Buarque created his own version of the city by reading a guide book.

The other Sunday, I sat staring into space in the Bambi bar on Frankel Leó utca. I’d spent the night before at Budapest Jazz Club, as it happens, but not to see Gilberto. As I chewed on cheese on toast, I was idly contemplating taking a leaf out of Buarque’s book and pretending I’d been at Gilberto’s concert. Knowing my luck, she probably wouldn’t have shown up and I would have looked ridiculous. But I hope she made it to Budapest and got to see more of the city this time.

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