The Portuguese word saudade [pronounced sau-DAH-jee in Brazilian Portuguese] has no translation in English or any other language. It’s described as a deep, sad longing for that which has been lost indefinitely or for a time – a loved one, a place, a feeling.
On July 6, Brazilians in South Florida – where a significant portion of Brazilians live in the United States – felt saudade for João Gilberto, the founder of what is arguably Brazil’s largest cultural export: Bossa Nova.
Gilberto, a guitarist and singer, passed away at 88 after a musical career spanning over 50 years.
As a 27-year-old from the state of Bahia, considered the birthplace of Afro-Brazilian culture and Samba, Gilberto recorded 12 songs that transferred the loud, hectic rhythms of Samba onto softer, quieter tones on his guitar. The result was his 1959 album “Chega de Saudade,” considered a defining moment for Brazilian music.
He continued his musical innovations with his recordings of “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Desafinado,” and “Corcovado [Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars]” in his 1964 “Getz/Gilberto” album with American saxophonist Stan Getz and famous Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim. These tracks have become jazz standards and tunes easily recognized by Americans.
His contribution was so great that the Brazilian national team took a moment of silence in remembrance of him before starting their Copa America victory match against Peru in Rio de Janeiro on July 7.
The healing power of music
Gilberto's music and spirit have traveled from one tropical land to another and are commemorated through Brazilian artists that play his beloved Bossa Nova to fellow brasileiros and audiences around South Florida.
Loren Oliveira is originally from São Paulo and was drawn to the Bossa Nova craze that surged through the world after the release of "Chega de Saudade." A resident of South Florida for almost two decades, Oliveira is co-founder and director of Brazilian Voices, a non-profit arts and music organization and a women’s vocal group from Weston that has performed Bossa Nova in South Florida and around the world.
“At the time, there was Frank Sinatra and a lot of Ella Fitzgerald that we were listening to in Brazil,” recalls Oliveira. “But what was very interesting [was] the way João Gilberto was singing, only like whispering.”
Using a tambourine and her hand, Oliveira is able to effortlessly demonstrate how Gilberto translated the fast samba rhythms into slower-paced strums, imitating how Gilberto emulated percussion with his right hand on his guitar.
Oliveira said singers were expected to sing high and strong in 60s Brazil. “But Joao Gilberto was so intimate and it was a little contrasted with what people could understand at the time," she said. "They said ‘he doesn’t have a voice,’ but he was working so hard to have a vocal placement where the voice would be just whispering, like a lullaby.”
Oliveira and Brazilian Voices co-founder and artist Beatriz Malnic have not only been ambassadors for Brazil through their over 500 performances in South Florida, but have sought to heal others by playing Bossa Nova in local hospitals.
“We have this commitment with music and joy, but to make it professionally,” Oliveira said. “It’s very technical, you have to face pain and suffering of patients in hospitals but remain calm and make sure that the phrasing of your voice is not going to break with your own emotions.”
In facilities like the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, Brazilian Voices comes with groups of six or eight women who bring the soothing quality of Bossa Nova to patients in a stressful or anxious environment.
They sing songs by Gilberto such as “Tin Tin Por Tin Tin,” which contains the uplifting message of “I don’t know how to suffer, I don’t know how to cry, I know how to adjust.”
“João Gilberto, there’s stories about his friends, they were down, little bit depressed, and they called him and when he arrived, he played Bossa Nova all night long for them until they slept and felt better. So, I think he was already utilizing Bossa Nova as a healing tool, as a healing instrument,” Oliveira said.
A legacy beyond Bossa Nova
“I remember listening to 'Chega de Saudade,' and I think the little musician already existed in me, and I felt goosebumps,” said Bill Duba, a Miami musician and psychotherapist who performs Choro music in the band Clube do Choro de Miami. He first heard João Gilberto on his father’s radio station when he was around nine years old in Rio de Janeiro.
Choro, also known as Chorinho, meaning "little cry," is happy, fast music that predates Bossa Nova by nearly a century and is a historic part of urban Brazilian popular music. It is played with the cavaquinho, a flute, a guitar, and a pandeiro, which is similar to a tambourine.
Duba said he never would have gotten into music without Gilberto’s Bossa Nova.
“I was not like, crazy about him,” Duba said of Gilberto. “But I was crazy about the way he played the guitar.”
“He made a big-time revolution in the way he played the guitar,” Duba said. He recalled how all the big Brazilian stars of the 60s and 70s, like Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, all started playing by imitating Gilberto’s style.
“The way I played and the way my cousins taught me how to play the little classical guitar I know how to play, I played copying the way he played,” he added.
Clube do Choro de Miami has been playing in South Florida since 1997. They incorporate some of Gilberto's songs like "Chega de Saudade" to their repertoire since the rhythms he popularized can be easily translated into Choro.
Bossa Nova forever
“I have no doubt that 150 years from now, if we don’t destroy the planet, you will listen to João Gilberto singing 'Chega de Saudade,'” Duba assured. “I have no doubt about it. Not even one little drop of thought, it’s 100 percent sure.”
Oliveira thinks that Bossa Nova will live on because of its transformative qualities.
“Bossa Nova takes you to that place, that dimension that you’re going to worship nature and you’re going to love the ocean,” Oliveira said. “In these moments that we’re fighting to protect mother nature, Bossa Nova is just perfect to get you that place of appreciation of what we have in this beautiful planet. It illustrates this love of nature and life.”
She said the music of João Gilberto spreads alegria brasileira, a Brazilian happiness.
“Bossa Nova I really recommend once or twice a day, because you’re gonna feel better,” Oliveira said.
NPR’s Latin music and culture show Alt.Latino produced a tribute to João Gilberto. You can listen to it here.