It’s a cold Monday morning in Rio de Janeiro and the Cinelandia region. The city centre is buzzing with people rushing to work blissfully unaware of the imposing Municipal Theatre, which, this morning, (July 8), draws the attention of passers-by due to the small crowd in front of it. “What’s going on there?”, asks a man in a suit, late for work. “It seems that it is João Gilberto’s funeral”, says another.
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira passed away on Saturday (July 6), at the age of 88. He died of natural causes. The musician chose to live a somewhat reclusive life in recent years but his farewell, nonetheless, was a public affair with audiences gathering to pay their condolences for a few hours in the lobby of the Municipal Theatre, Rio’s most noble stage, in which Gilberto last performed in 2008.
Born in Juazeiro, in the state of Bahia, João Gilberto was considered the inventor of the guitar beat that gave birth to bossa nova. Alongside the composer Tom Jobim (1927-1994) and the poet Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980), Gilberto formed the so-called Trinity of bossa nova. With his revolutionary playing style, distinctive voice timbre and unique interpretations, he orchestrated an aesthetic that modernised Brazilian music in the late 1950s and helped spread a new image of the country throughout the world.
It was in 1958, at the age of 27, that Gilberto released the track ‘Chega de Saudade’, a song by Tom and Vinicius that would be a turning point in the history of popular culture in Brazil, influencing generations of composers to come. Gilberto was also an interpreter of one of the best-known versions of The Girl from Ipanema, another iconic song by Tom and Vinicius, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. Artists such as Frank Sinatra and, more recently, Amy Winehouse breathed new life into the track, which is said to be the second most recorded of all time (Yesterday, by The Beatles, is currently the first).
The Girl from Ipanema by João Gilberto features on the album Getz / Gilberto (1964), a collaboration with American saxophonist Stan Getz. The record was awarded the Grammy of Album of the Year and also boosted the career of Astrud Gilberto, his wife at the time.
Gilberto and his bossa nova style became the symbol of a modern, happy and confident Brazil.
In addition to the album with Stan Getz, Gilberto’s first three albums – released between 1958 and 1961 and considered the masterpieces of his career – saw him use a unique style that emulated Brazilian samba but with a jazzy footprint.
The artist lived in Mexico and then the United States, before returning to Rio de Janeiro in the late 1970s, where he lived right up until his death.
A farewell with plenty of music
The hall of the Municipal Theatre was taken up, on the one hand, by friends and relatives of the musician, and, on the other, by the public. Many were incredulous that Gilberto lay in state, in a coffin covered with white roses. After all, this was an artist who often shied away from the spotlight throughout his life.
Crowns of flowers adorned the lobby. One was sent by the Jobim family. Another, from his friend Rita Lee. Artists and celebrities arrived with musicians, such as Adriana Calcanhotto, Jards Macalé, and Teresa Cristina, actress Glória Pires, dancer Ana Botafogo; and Paula Lavigne, the wife of composer Caetano Veloso. Tearful fans of all ages, passed slowly in front of the coffin to see their idol one last time.
And outside, a diverse crowd began to gather. A man wearing a Brazilian football shirt and a cardboard sign that read: “Go with God, Joao Gilberto”, and a doppelganger — the singer Roberto Carlos — also caught the attention of bystanders.
Trumpeters and guitarists took turns to soundtrack Gilberto’s funeral, with bossa nova classics like ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and ‘Desafinado’. Tourists who visited Rio also took the opportunity to see their idol up close. And a crowd of reporters yearned for pictures and testimonials from family members.
In the early afternoon, a mass was held, which saw the orchestra of the Municipal Theatre perform a sequence of Bach compositions. The public joined in with an a capella version of the classic ‘Chega de Saudade’, which won a chorus of tearful friends and relatives. Gilberto’s daughter, the singer Bebel Gilberto who arrived from the United States on Sunday was also present at the ceremony.
The body of João Gilberto was buried around 4pm in the city of Niterói.
In addition to Bebel, João Gilberto leaves behind his teenage daughter Luísa, from his relationship with journalist Claudia Faissol and João Marcelo Gilberto, from his marriage to the singer Astrud Gilberto.
In recent years, João Gilberto was in a relationship with Maria do Céu Harris, who stayed at the side of his coffin throughout the day.
The untiring perfectionist João Gilberto chose seclusion instead of fame, and his farewell was a sombre and elegant affair. On Sunday, Bebel Gilberto gave an interview to Brazilian TV and said her father was “the greatest, the founder”, and this is how he would like to be remembered.