Day Two: Was Joao Gilberto A Malandro?

“Champagne, women and music, here I come!” – João Gilberto, 1948.

Even when he was 18, the future ‘Father of Bossa Nova’ knew what he wanted and what awaited him in Rio de Janeiro: Samba – already well into its third decade - had found a new, more sophisticated style on the radio shows and nightclubs in Zona Sul.

The love-lost melancholy of the Samba-Cançáo mimicked elements of Argentina’s Tango, the sexy Cuban Bolero and the influence of American pop. Rio’s music scene would be a match made in heaven for João Gilberto’s plan to become one of Brazil’s great voices, like his Samba-singing idol, Orlando Silva.

A Fork In The Road

But by 1955, João Gilberto’s indifferent lifestyle of borrowing money, not showing up for gigs (and worse) had pretty much worn out his welcome in Rio. It’s said that he once borrowed a guitar from a fellow musician for no other reason than to sell it.

Ruy Castro explains in his book ‘Bossa Nova’:

“He had no money, no job and almost no friends… clothes wrinkled as if he had been sleeping in them for a week, which, in fact, he had. Rio de Janeiro, with its successful mediocrities, had not yet discerned his talent, and there wasn’t anyone who though he was the best singer in Brazil.”

So, Gilberto left Rio for self-imposed exile to the mountains of Minas Gerais, where he put his life together. It resulted in his invention of a simple little guitar rhythm that would change the world, and his future.

Something clicked. “He developed a sudden aversion to marijuana… Perhaps the drug mixed well with success, but not with failure,” writes Castro. “If he was ever going to get to where he wanted to be, he was going to have to give that stuff up.”

João Gilberto also gave up his shallow dreams of wine, women and an easy way to the top of the radio charts in Rio. He was a changed man when he convinced Rio that he could overcome his past. His new guitar and singing style quickly changed Brazil’s music scene, too.

The Malandro’s Tragic Choice

Was João Gilberto a Malandro? It’s fair to say that his approach to life has been more complicated than the simple choice of roughish behavior commanded by a true Malandro.

But Gilberto’s story shows off the quiet tragedy of life as a Malandro, whose dreams forever remain intentions and where the easy jeitos in life are, well, just too easy to pass up.

By the way, many of João Gilberto’s early recordings were Sambas, re imagined by the singer’s talent and the unique rhythm he crafted. Many years later, it was given a name: Bossa Nova.

Our thanks to author Ruy Castro and Chicago Review Press for the quotes used in this story


The 12 Days of Samba:

Day 01: An Introduction to The 12 Days of Samba and The Malandro Project
Day 02: Was Joao Gilberto a Malandro?
Day 03: Previewing Miguel de Leon's Annual Christmas Concert In Chicago
Day 04: Winter reading: 'Samba' by Alma Guillermoprieto
Day 05: Famous Malandros In Pop Culture
Day 06: A Cachaça Holiday Cocktail
Day 07: Seven Samba Stocking Stuffers
Day 08: Personal Notes: Samba Snapshots From The Malandro Project
Day 09: How To Dance Samba - Women's Version
Day 10: How To Dance Samba - Men's Version
Day 11: 100 Years of Samba and The Malandro Project
Day 12: The Malandro and 'The Lights of Christmas'


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The Malandro Project was recorded in Rio de Janeiro with saxophonist Leo Gandelman and MPB’s Leila Pinheiro to celebrate 100 Years of Samba and its iconic character, the charming, roguish bad-boy Malandro. A combination of cultural myth and historic fact, the Malandro’s roots can be traced throughout the history of Samba. The Malandro Project album will be released in early 2017.

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