Blame it on Rio

Bossa nova royalty Bebel Gilberto inherited an exceptional voice.


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IT IS ALL SENSUALITY and sunlight, pure continental sophistication. A snapshot postcard of steep, stucco-dotted hills, brilliant azure water, and sand- dusted brown thighs, it tastes of Campari and kisses, and it smells, of course, like paradise. This is Rio de Janeiro—or, rather, it is the idealized vision of Rio that bossa nova provides, and it is an aural privilege available to even the most landlocked and travel-impaired. For over 30 years, those infamously languid, jazzy rhythms and lush vocals have provided a holiday for the senses that few, if any, other forms of music can approximate.

For this, we have Jo㯠Gilberto to thank. He is the man credited, alongside composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, with creating the sound that eventually made his name known throughout the world. Since his rise in the late 1950s, Gilberto has been a living legend in his homeland of Brazil, as is his first wife Astrud (most famous as the smoky vocalist of "Girl From Ipanema"), his second wife, Miucha, and Miucha's brother Chico Buarque. It is certainly no surprise, then, that when Jo㯠and Miucha had a daughter, Bebel, she too chose singing as her calling; nor is it a surprise that the crush of expectation made for a less than smooth journey. Bebel jumped in quickly; her recording debut came at age 7 (on an album with her mother), her stage debut at 9 (with Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall), and by her late teens, a solo EP that provided two huge hits— albeit for other artists, whose rerecordings topped the charts. It would be both unfair and inaccurate to dismiss her success as mere nepotism. Bebel may not have been exactly plucked from obscurity, but it wasn't only the name she inherited. Her voice is, even to the most resentful ears, exceptional.

A 1991 move from Rio to New York City, her birthplace, brought some small success outside her homeland through fruitful collaborations with the likes of David Byrne, Arto Lindsay, Nana Vasconcelos, and Deee Lite's Towa Tei, but it wasn't until 2000 that Gilberto finally established herself as a true solo artist with the debut of her first full-length, Tanto Tempo. An arresting mix of old ("So Nice (Summer Samba)," "Samba da Ben硯") and new ("Close Your Eyes," "Alguem"), Portuguese and English, the record was equally diverse in its contributors, boasting production credits from dance music innovators Thievery Corporation and Amon Tobin as well as Mario Caldato Jr. of Beastie Boys fame and Brazil-via-Yugoslavia wunderkind Suba. An infectious pairing of pure, joyful rhythms and luscious vocals, the album did well on the world music charts, and fortuitously coincided with a revived American interest in Latin music. For Bebel, it also signified the end of a long, convoluted personal journey. "I made peace with my own self as well as my [family legacy]. My father, even. He is a purist, you know, and he doesn't say very much, but I think he likes the record," she says via phone. Two years previously, she had returned from her new home in London to join the elder Gilberto onstage at Carnegie Hall for a sold-out show, his first N.Y.C. appearance in a decade. Now she was standing on the merits of her first full recording of her own.

Following several years in the U.K., Gilberto recently moved back to New York. "I came back because my band is established here, and I have my management here." And, she adds with a laugh, "I had a little problem with my papers. It was better to come here since I am an American citizen than to just get married."

She is now at work on a number of collaborations with both Brazilian and Western artists and producers and says she would love to do something with Bj�("She is fantastic") and the dream-pop duo Zero 7. But Gilberto still thinks often of the tragic loss of two of her closest collaborators: Cazuza, who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 32; and Suba, killed in a house fire shortly before the release of Tanto Tempo. "It depends on the day. If you are fragile, of course it makes you feel very sad. The Suba story, still, I am trying to understand what happened. Cazuza was different because Cazuza was sick and he was sick for some time, and we all knew that it would be almost impossible for him to stay alive. Although his family was one of the richest families in Brazil, the money couldn't pay for his life, you know? Suba is a different story. He fell asleep, he didn't wake up. And his [recently released] album, it is so beautiful . . . " she trails off wistfully.

After canceling two previous Seattle appearances, Bebel takes time to butter up the locals: "I've been to Seattle once, and it was amazing," she purrs in her charming accent. "I loafed it. I had such a great time, the crowd was eencredible, and the city is a very, very interesting city, so I am very looking forward. I'm going to make it this time, I promise."

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