A Chat with Bebel Gilberto

This decade is set to be Brazil’s. Brazil’s economy is going gangbusters, the country will probably win the World Cup this year before holding the next one in 2014, and the Olympics will be Rio de Janeiro’s in 2016. Now’s the time to get to speed on the South American powerhouse — particularly so on the musical front, as the sound of samba and bossa nova becomes the soundtrack of the coming years.

Of the current crop of Brazilian musicians, Bebel Gilberto best represents the past and the future of what is referred to as MPB, or Musica Popular Brasileira, the catch-all term for any popular music from Brazil that draws primarily from the country’s own musical traditions. Embedded in Bebel’s bloodlines are the particular melodies and rhythms of Brazil — her father, João Gilberto, practically invented bossa nova through his whispered vocals and the sway of his percussive acoustic guitar, while her mother and uncle, Miúcha and Chico Buarque, were key songwriters and performers who shaped the sound of MPB.

Not surprisingly, then, the acoustic guitar that has been the foundation of her father’s music and so much of MPB is Bebel’s most important songwriting tool. “Songs always begin on the acoustic guitar. Sometimes there’s some back and forth with a flute, but first of all it’s the acoustic guitar — always,” says Bebel proudly from her home in New York. Almost invariably, the person playing that acoustic guitar is Masa Shimizu, her long-standing musical collaborator.  “I’m a very dear friend of Masa’s and we’ve travelled the world together making and playing music since 2000. Because of my father’s influence, I work best with the guitar, and I have been lucky enough to find Masa, who I work with so well.”

While Bebel draws assuredly from the musical legacies of her parents and MPB, it’s her ability to so freely interweave these elements with contemporary sounds from all over the world so freely that has made her music her own. “I’ve always travelled a lot and the sounds I hear naturally come to influence my music. My home for the most part over the last seventeen years has been New York, and here, you are always exposed to musical ideas from everywhere, so the rest of the world just seeps into my music.” Such openness to whatever comes her way saw her accepting an unexpected offer to work on the Peeping Tom project with Mike Patton, a musician more well known for his experimentation on the louder end of the musical spectrum. “Faith No More were very big in Brazil when I was living there, so I knew who Mike Patton was when he contacted me about the Peeping Tom project, and I had no reason not to do it. Just because he was a rock musician was no reason to say no. Maybe I might make a rock record too — who knows?”

It’s not rock, though, that can be heard amidst the more traditional Brazilian sounds of her latest album, All in One, but reggae. “I wrote my latest album in Port Antonio, in Jamaica. It was like a vacation — there was a studio where I stayed surrounded by palm trees and with beautiful views of the beach. So when I was developing ideas there, Jamaica was a big influence, and that’s how I came to cover Bob Marley — who is so great — and his song Sun is Shining.”

That Jamaican influence will accompany her to Australia in April as Bebel Gilberto plays a date in Melbourne and another in Sydney after performing as part of the Byron Bay Blues Festival. “I’ll be singing songs mainly from All in One, but I also like to mix things up and sing songs from my earlier albums.” Happily too, for as long as she’s in Australia, we have the special privilege of being able to claim such a charming, talented performer as one of our own. “I travel so much, I’ve learnt to be comfortable wherever my bed is and to consider that home, so yes, while I’m in Australia and sleeping there, Australia will be my home.”

Surely someone can arrange for her a citizenship ceremony?

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