Contra Costa Times
Friday, June 25, 2004


Brazilian composer thrills with his rich vocal style, songs

Antonio Carlos Jobim knew he had found someone special the first time he heard singer/composer Joao Bosco.

"Joao, eh?" the great Brazilian composer reportedly remarked. "Your music has already crossed over the stream."

Jobim made sure the rest of Brazil soon crossed over with the young musician, by arranging for his 1972 recording debut to appear on the B-side of a new version of Jobim's classic "Aguas de Marco" ("Waters of March"). That same year, Elis Regina, the most popular and influential Brazilian vocalist of her generation, recorded Bosco and Aldir Blanc's "Bala com Bala" ("Bullet with Bullet"), a hit that immediately established Bosco as an artist of extraordinary promise.

In the three decades since, Bosco has indeed become a giant of Brazilian popular music. (In Brazil, post-bossa-nova music is generally termed "Musica Popular Brasileira," or MPB.) He is equally revered as a performer and a composer whose songs have been recorded countless times.

Bosco makes a rare Bay Area appearance on Wednesday at Herbst Theatre, performing with guitarist Nelson Faria, bassist Ney Conceicao and drummer Kiko Freitas, the same group featured on his latest album, "Malabaristas do Sinal Vermelho" ("Sony Brasil").

"Bala com Bala" marked the arrival of one of the most creative songwriting partnerships in Brazilian music. Bosco and Blanc first met in 1970 at a university music festival when Blanc was a psychiatry student in Rio de Janeiro and the guitarist was studying engineering in his home state of Minas Gerais.

"We both graduated in 1972 and until then we worked together by mail," said Bosco, 57, via a translator. "I'd send him a cassette of my music and he'd send back the lyrics."

After graduating with a degree in engineering, Bosco moved to Rio, where he and Blanc began working face to face. At first, Bosco set Blanc's poems to music "and then with time we got along so well and were working with such intensity and exclusivity it's like we were writing by telepathy," Bosco said. "We'd guess what the other was doing, and things flowed so naturally that our work together looks like it was created by one person."

Their body of songs is as rich and varied as any in the Brazilian songbook, including MPB classics such as "Kid Cavaquinho," "De Frente pro Crime" ("Facing the Crime"), "Nacao," and their brave riposte against the military government of the 1970s, "O Bebado eo Equilibrista" ("The Drunkard and the Equilibrist"), another song made famous by Elis Regina. A perfect match of rhythmic and lyric complexity, Bosco and Blanc's collaboration lasted until 1986, culminating with Bosco's landmark album "Gagabiro," which synthesizes styles from Brazil, Cuba and West Africa.

As Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, authors of "The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil," put it, "Blanc ... writes stanzas that can be serious, ironic, surreal, ludicrous, simple and full of multiple meanings -- all in the same song." They note that Blanc's intricate lyrics "may use Portuguese, Yoruba, Tupi, French, English and Spanish words, polylingual combinations, and imaginative puns."

But one needn't understand Portuguese or any other language to be enthralled by a Bosco performance. He's an electrifying artist who has developed a bravura vocal style steeped in jazz scat singing, but marked by his mastery of Brazilian rhythms. With an entire vocabulary of vocal pops, snaps and clicks, he can accompany a deft samba guitar groove with an improvised scat line in counterpoint.

Born in the southwestern interior Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Bosco grew up in a large Lebanese community. The grandchild of Lebanese immigrants, Bosco "grew up in the middle of this Arab culture and the community was so large that they didn't need to speak Portuguese," he said. His mother, however, was from Brazilian stock, and he has forgotten most of the Arabic he once knew.

His first musical experiences were singing in church in his small hometown of Ponte Nova. Given a guitar at age 12, he dedicated himself to the instrument, when he wasn't playing soccer. His first band played rock, but by the time he went off to college in the historical mining town of Ouro Preto, his ears were opening to bossa nova, tropicalia and jazz, and he had begun absorbing the music of Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Milton Nascimento.

Now his name belongs on the list of profound musical influences, and soon there may be another Bosco joining him. After his collaboration with Blanc ended, Bosco worked with a number of lyricists, such as Jose Carlos Capinam, best known for his work with Gilberto Gil, and the poets Waly Salomao and Antonio Cicero. In recent years, however, Bosco has been working with his son, poet Francisco Bosco, recording an entire album featuring Francisco's lyrics, "As Mil e Uma Aldeias." Next year, the Boscos are planning to record a project with Aldir Blanc, the first time the two longtime friends and collaborators will have joined forces in almost two decades.