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Joćo in Concert

Joćo Gilberto in Concert 2004: A Pilgrimage. 
By Bill Dee

Joćo Gilberto

Joćo Gilberto in Concert 2004: A Pilgrimage.

The dictionary describes a pilgrimage as a journey to a holy place or shrine or an extended journey or search, esp. one of exalted purpose. At least once in their lives, those who are physically and financially able are enjoined to make a pilgrimage to this holy place.

Last week I made my first pilgrimage and the journey took me to San Francisco. The holy place, the Masonic Auditorium. The shrine, was a living shrine. I saw the bossa nova legend known to many as the mysterious and elusive "O Mito." I saw the great Joćo Gilberto! I did! I really saw him! I didn’t think he actually existed, even though the myth goes on to say that he does. My forty-two year search for this "mythical musical creature" ended last week. It was Friday, June 25th, 2004, 8:00 p.m.

I was always physically able to go see him but never quite had the funds to travel a great distance by air, afford the price of a concert ticket, overnight accommodations and of course, don’t forget food! Even though I had seen pictures of him, listened intensely with great joy for over forty years as he sang and played his guitar, I was really never quite sure of his existence. As the legend goes, here was a man with somewhat mystical qualities that seemed to hover over the rest of us musical mortals, a man (creature of God?) who simply mystified his audience and had the power to hypnotize us. Joćo Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira would be about 73 years old now.

Two months before the concert, I became acquainted with another bossa nova enthusiast through the Internet and within three weeks of knowing him, he had decided that I needed to make this pilgrimage to see Joćo. There was no argument, no discussion. That was final! Again, I didn’t have the funds to make the trip. Remember that pilgrimages for an "exalted purpose," in most part, are for those who are physically and financially able to do so. This kind and generous person said he would pay for the entire trip. Can you believe that! Somehow during the course of our many conversations by email and over the phone, he decided that I (after 40 plus years of dedication to bossa nova), simply had to make this holy pilgrimage. We began to make our plans and he ordered the tickets and made reservations for the flight. I was elated!

For several weeks I poured through my books with pictures of "The Legend." I listened with "new ears" to the sounds produced on the strings of his magical guitar and listened fiercely to the voice that I have heard a thousand times over, all in preparation for the day of the concert. I watched with intent, recitals of his performances captured in video form. Even though I was watching the video, I was still not convinced that he was "a living being," but an illusion, fictional, a myth! Hmmm! If John has the tickets, then we must be going somewhere! Perhaps I am mistaken and he really exists.

My bag is packed and I head out to the airport. It’s very early, and is the morning of the concert. It will be a long day. The pilgrimage has started. I have waited forty-two years for this day. The flight is short and I land in Oakland. Should I get on my knees and bow towards the west? After all it is a holy place. I meet up with my new friend John and we are headed over to San Francisco. This was the first time we met. We are to get a hotel room within blocks of the Masonic Auditorium. While en route, my head turns and I glance slowly in every direction. Perhaps "O Mito" will be in the crowd. I am determined to find him. I’ve studied every photo. I look around, hoping to see the black guitar case, then perhaps I will see him, slightly stooped over. Maybe he is wearing his glasses! I’ve studied those pictures too. Every minute passing is bringing us closer and closer to the "holy place."

We will have part of the day to talk about him and have a nice dinner with his friend Paula at Postrio, a charming little restaurant about 7 blocks away from where the concert is being held. John shows me the tickets for the recital. They are real!

We find the auditorium and stand in line. Our tickets are taken at the door and we are directed to our seats. If he is real, in about 20 minutes the mystical creature from Juazeiro will come out on stage and sit down on his stool, his legs elevated, he will have two microphones, one for the guitar and one for his voice. He will probably be dressed in a medium blue suit. I have studied his every move on video. I have done my homework. If he is not a myth, I will know soon.

We find our seats. I am waiting to see who comes out on stage. After all, it is a recital being performed by someone! Right! I check out the stage. There is the stool, the two microphones and a loudspeaker. Hmmm! My heart starts to beat faster in anticipation of this holy event. I have this strange, funny feeling that he may indeed be real. Have I washed my hands? Am I worthy of this holy place?

The lights start to dim and a few people on the far right start to applaud, probably because they are the first to see him enter the stage from the left. Soon everyone is applauding as he crosses the stage floor, guitar in hand, looking down at the stage floor, making a slow beeline for that stool. He’ll be safe there. This is his turf. It really is Joćo Gilberto, the man, and not a myth! The crowd continues its applause but I don’t hear them. I am aware of hands clapping in slow motion as I look fixedly in amazement at "O Mito." Some say that he is a magician, a grand illusion, he captivates, and he fascinates and enraptures.  I am aware that I still have my shoes on. Should I have left them outside on the steps? After all, this is hallowed ground. He puts his guitar down on the stool and gives the audience an applause.

He starts with a few introductory chords and already I know which song it is going to be. Remember that I have studied him very well. There is complete silence as the audience sits there in a trance. They are now seized, held captive by this man and his guitar. He does seem to hover, to rise above the rest of us. His first song is played a little weak, he is setting us up, but is played superbly as only he can play it. It sounds the same as it does on my LPs although at times there are very subtle variations. We expect to hear one thing but the magician fools us again. We applaud and wonder how he performed the trick.

One song after another is played with emotion and repetition. At times you can tell that he is unaware that he is playing at all and he seems to be in an altered state of consciousness. His face full of expression, his eyes opened and sometimes closed, his right knee bouncing back and forth. He is playing chords that sound unfamiliar, but work magically as he seductively hums, clicks and whispers each song. The audience is calm; they are being transformed and so am I. His sensitivity combined with intimate knowledge of each song is intently observed by all. Is Joćo really a god in bodily form? Nobody saw him enter the auditorium. Hmmm! He must be up to his tricks again. Maybe he is an apparition!

Each song ends with "O Mito" looking shyly away from the audience, his gaze downward. The performances are breathtaking. You really have to be here to understand his popularity, to get a small glimpse of his elusiveness, to describe that which transcends any definition. Watching him is truly amazing, almost a religious experience. He is the high priest of bossa nova and the stage is his altar. All of us are in a trance-like state and I’m not even sure if we are breathing. We would do nothing to interrupt "the creature." Some songs are easily recognizable and have been around for 40 years. They are old standards that bring back tastes and aromas of a long forgotten era. The rest are new or are songs written in the ‘30’s and the ‘40’s played in the bossa nova style. John has studied the songs that are played and knows exactly what key the master will choose. My seat is 50 feet away from him.

This is an enchanting evening and for me personally, it is the pinnacle in my life that has been surrounded by bossa nova music. There has always been Mozart, Chopin, Bach and Schubert in my large collection of LPs, and added to that many years ago was the name of Antōnio Carlos Jobim. He was the composer who basically started the bossa nova movement and little did he know that he was destined to meet "the creature". Jobim’s melodic display of notes sprinkled delicately over his keyboard along with the deliberate syncopation of Gilbertos’ voice and intelligently unpredictable, yet quiet rhythms on his guitar were to capture the hearts of listeners for the next 42 years.

On some songs Joćo is playing newly designed chords that I’ve never heard before and throughout the performance he is adding more of the richness of his creative humming. He has changed since his last CD performance. He is slowly being transformed from singer and guitarist to something else I cannot define. He has become the music, leaving this visible trace of bodily form behind. He has transcended into a butterfly and has completely left his shell. Left, is substance. Thought without form.

At one point he announces to the audience that he must change his guitar, and whispers so in the microphone. He waits quietly to be served, like a delicate, wounded little bird. Finally somebody comes out and makes the exchange with a guitar that has slightly more mellow sounds. He continues playing and allows us to see and hear him from a distance. We are totally excluded from the reality of his playing. He is in his own world now, no longer a part of ours.

He continues playing, one song after another, each followed by a warm response from the audience. The hums get richer and Joćo is completely alone in his mind as he plays his syncopated songs. The program is over, but he returns to do 5-6 encores. The songs and sounds he produces on the guitar are wonderful. All of this from one 73 year old man. He is pure magic. And when it is time for him to look into the mirror for the last time, I have the feeling he will  pass right on through it, guitar and all.

He has played his last song for the evening. This fragile man slowly and unsteadily gets up to greet us. The entire audience is applauding him in a standing ovation. They are still caught in the rapture of the magicians’ spell. This was indeed a breathtaking moment in my life. I have seen and experienced the great Joćo Gilberto! John and I look at each other in approval of what we have just been a part of. It is an evening never to be forgotten.

After the concert we float out of the "holy place" and onto the pavement. It is late and the suddenness of being out on the street, completely cut off abruptly from what we have just witnessed, is a bit of a shock. We head back to the hotel. Both of us seem to be hovering just a little bit as we talk about the performance.

The following morning John and I spend the day in discussion about the performance, have lunch, visit Guitar Solo Publications at the other end of town and leave San Francisco, heading for the airport. We will part as good friends and go our separate ways, but this time we go home enlightened, for we have experienced the divine and we are blessed. The pilgrimage is over.

Again, the trip is short and in a few hours the plane lands. As I leave the airport headed for home, I find myself humming a tune.

"Let me live 'neath your spell,
Do do that voodoo that you do so well,
For you do something to me,
That nobody else could do."




by William Dee, 2004