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by Dan Grunebaum

Joao Gilberto

The export of culture is never a cut-and-dried matter. It's hard to say exactly how, for instance, Brazilian bossa nova music came to Japan. Was it by way of Japan's ties to the South American country through the million-strong Japanese-Brazilian immigrant community? Or was it through the immense international popularity of '60s US releases like jazz saxophonist Stan Getz's landmark bossa nova album Getz/Gilberto and its unforgettable hit, "The Girl from Ipanema"?

The roots of bossa nova in Japan can be debated, but the indelible imprint it has left on the country cannot: Japan has its own certified bossa nova star in the form of Lisa Ono, and the breezy Brazilian music can also be heard in club acts like star DJ unit UFO or contemporary pop/jazz stylists such as Paris Match.

This week, Japan gets its first-and long overdue-chance to pay tribute to one of the central figures of the '50s bossa nova explosion when Joao Gilberto arrives for a series of dates at the immaculate Tokyo International Forum. The tour comes at a time when bossa nova fans had just about given up on having the chance to see the notoriously fickle 72-year-old perform.

While assured of musical immortality courtesy of "The Girl from Ipanema," Gilberto has acquired near-mythical status due to his semi-reclusive lifestyle and limited performances. Since he began to achieve renown in early-'50s Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto has dipped in and out of the spotlight. Despite a place in popular '50s vocal group Garotos da Lua, he became known for instability, sometimes appearing for practices and sometimes not.

Dropped from the band, Gilberto became chronically depressed and also notorious for consuming immense quantities of marijuana. After a few years of this and even a week spent in a sanitarium, a friend convinced him to leave the corrupting influences of Rio for rural Porto Alegre. It was in this city and later at his sister's home in Diamantina that he developed the intimate, understated vocal style and syncopated guitar phrasing that became known as bossa nova. (At this time he also disavowed marijuana and other drugs.)

In 1956 Gilberto moved back to Rio, where the cultural melting pot was already inspiring guitarist/composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, with whom he soon joined forces. Under Gilberto's name, the pair released the landmark Chega de Saudade in 1959, widely credited as the first bossa nova release.

At this point the sound also began to filter through to North America, where saxophonist Stan Getz was immediately impressed, reportedly commenting, "I immediately fell in love with it... What they needed was the voice-the horn." With the growing popularity of bossa nova in the US, Gilberto relocated there in time to record the 1963 classic, Getz/Gilberto. The album not only added a "voice" in the form of Getz's saxophone, but also a real voice in the form of Gilberto's wife, Astrud Gilberto, and her contribution to the now ubiquitous "The Girl From Ipanema."

Returning to Brazil in the early '80s, Gilberto dropped out of the international limelight but continued to work with Brazilian musicians, including such well-known figures as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso.

Interestingly, while Gilberto will be making his first visit to Japan, his daughter Bebel has become a regular visitor to the country following the welcome that greeted her 21st-century bossa nova-meets-electronica explorations.

Joao Gilberto plays Tokyo International Forum on September 11, 12 and 16 and Pacifico Yokohama on September 15. See listings for details.

credit: Disk Garage

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