Artist Spotlight: Bebel Gilberto -Electro Bossa Nova Is Actually Pretty Great

Being Brazilian musical royalty seems pretty cool. Besides the benefits of being rich, you get to grow up with incredible musicians hanging out with your fam all the time, jet-set around the world, and live off the goodwill of millions. Then you can start your own career as a musical icon. Bebel Gilberto lives this life.

Bebel is the daughter of singer-composer-guitarist João Gilberto, who is generally credited with creating the bossa nova genre, and singer-composer Miúcha, another star of that world. She grew up in New York, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro, like most of us. Not surprisingly, her parents made her part of their acts (both together and separately after their divorce) growing up. There is conflicting information online about the age she made her recording debut; the earliest I could confirm is age 11, on one track of her mom’s solo album.

What is clear is that she released a self-titled EP in 1986 (at age 20) featuring work she co-wrote and recorded with Brazilian rocker Cazuza. Despite her collaborator’s hard-rock pedigree, the album consists of mostly chill samba and bossa tracks.

Gilberto wasn’t quite ready to venture out on her own yet, though. According to an interview she did with Mike Zwerin in 2000, Gilberto went to acting school and never studied music formally, because of the enormous pressure she faced to become a bossa nova superstar in Brazil. But she found that when she did get roles acting, it was always as a café singer or a woman strumming a guitar in the background. “The handwriting seemed to be on the wall,” Zwerin noted.

She worked as a musician sporadically over the next fifteen years, appearing on TV soundtracks and as a backing vocalist on albums by David Byrne, Caetano Veloso, both her parents, her uncle Chico Buarque, and … Kenny G. More importantly, it was during this period that she connected with Towa Tei, formerly of Deee-Lite and now a successful electronic music producer back in Japan. Gilberto showed up on five tracks from his 1995 debut Future Listening!, including (obviously) “Batucada.”

This, I’m pretty sure, is where Gilberto caught the electronic music bug. She described her music, in 2000, as “pure Brazilian roots with ingredients from the 21st Century.” She would collaborate with Tei again, but before that, met up with Thievery Corportation for at least two tracks on their Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi in 1996.

Gilberto’s vocals sound a lot like her mom’s, perhaps a little lighter and breathier. It’s hard to tell if that’s an affectation or stylistic choice on her part, or just an artifact of modern recording techniques, and the modes of music she’s lent her voice to.

Either way, after these projects, Gilberto was ready to strike out on her own again. For 2000’s Tanto Tempo, she assembled a team of electronic music veterans to produce, including Brazilians Suba and Amon Tobin, as well as Thievery Corporation and recording engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., best known for his sample-heavy work on Paul’s Boutique, Odelay, and Lōc-ed After Dark. She also hired traditional Brazilian musicians, and tells of firing a possibly misogynist guitarist who refused to play acoustic for the record.

The album exists mostly under the guidance of Suba, a Serbian-born transplant. It transmutes the usual cues and motifs of bossa nova and samba into a languid stew of island humidity, whispering vocals, and late-night bleep-bloopery, while a DJ slows a syncopated, nylon-string guitar track down to an almost unrecognizable crawl.

Tanto Tempo was a huge hit internationally, and got Gilberto attention in the United States for the first time. Unfortunately, it was also a source of tragedy: Suba died during its production. His apartment studio caught fire while he slept one night in November 1999, and when his building manager awakened him by pounding on the door, Suba ran back inside to grab the audio masters for this very record. He was overcome and died from smoke inhalation.

Gilberto’s second self-titled album followed in 2004, and without Suba, the electronic emphasis faded away. Marius de Vries, a much more mainstream producer, took over the booth, and the tracks focused more on Gilberto’s vocals and softer samba accompaniment.

Not that it’s bad. It’s quite good.

It’s always irked me that a lot of legitimately great ’60s-era bossa nova and samba gets derided as elevator music in the United States. “The Girl From Ipanema,” a frequent target of such attacks, is a brilliant work of songwriting. My hypothesis is that the spike in the American popularity of these Brazilian genres coincided with the invention of the Easy Listening radio format, which created, from thin air, a category of music consisting of songs that are slower in tempo, rely more on instrumentals, avoid dissonance or minor keys, and include “soft” arrangements, like strings and horns in harmony. Naturally, this format was tailor-made for disparagement by anyone interested in actively listening to music.

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I bring this up because, as her career has progressed, Gilberto has tended more toward gorgeously conceived versions of traditional bossa nova and samba, and moved away from the electronic genre-bending that characterized her earlier work. Again, nothing wrong with that per se; she is likely the best person alive doing this music. But to compare her to her Brazilian label-mates like concept-album experimentalist Cibelle, or border-hopping hipster Céu, is to put apples in your orange crate.

It is true that Gilberto released remix albums of both Tanto Tempo and Bebel Gilberto. It’s also true that remixes of her work have dried up over the last twelve years, which encompasses three Bebel Gilberto records. But, I may be complaining more than I need to in this Spotlight. As I said, there is plenty of her work to love.

From 2007’s Momento:

2009’s All in One had a lot more variety, and I had a more difficult time narrowing down my favorite tracks. Gilberto brings back a lot of the electronic production elements she’d had when working with Suba, but they feel more ornamental than crucial in some instances. Caldato returned for production duties on this record, along with Mark Ronson and one of the Dust Brothers.

“Sun is Shining” lends a more atmospheric feel, mixing dramatically crescendoing synth strings and other sporadic ornaments with her laid-back alto. You almost expect to see a time-lapse video beneath it all.

The polyrhythms in “Ela (On my Way)” reinforce the above-it-all sensation that Gilberto’s lyrics often have, floating over the accompaniment like a boat on the waves.

“Secret (Segredo)” has a traditionally epic arrangement, with suspensions and whatnot, that make it sound like the theme to a James Bond film, except for the simplistic lyrics.

Not surprisingly, Gilberto’s music has found its way into a lot of soundtracks, including Eat Pray Love, which I assume is just a 90-minute Bebel Gilberto music video. Her most recent album is 2014’s Tudo, which puts her music into yet another downtempo blender.

Sleepwalk through the water with “Tom de Voz”:

Drop a Klonopin in a São Paulo nightclub for “Inspiraçao”:

If this is elevator music, then sign me up to get stuck in the lift.