There's a lotta bossa nova in Brazil - and it's headed this way

Phil Johnson meets the girl from Ipanema who has reinvented the sound of Rio
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The Independent Culture

If family dynasties in music really do count for as much as they say, then the Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto, whose début album was released last week, is halfway to success already. Her father is João Gilberto, the man even Antonio Carlos Jobim credited with the invention of bossa nova, and her mother is the singer Miucha (whom João married after he divorced Astrud Gilberto, the singer of Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema"). As if that wasn't enough of a gene-pool to be getting on with, Miucha's brother is the singer and novelist Chico Buarque, another founding father of bossa nova. Bebel's first public appearance was suitably precocious: a concert at Carnegie Hall with her mother and Stan Getz when she was nine years old.

These days Bebel, who is 34, lives in New York, although she has spent time in both London and Paris as part, one imagines fervidly, of a rather louche international Brazilian jet-set. She knows the film director Pedro Aldomóvar, whom she met at a party at the house of Brazil's most famous singer-songwriter, Caetano Veloso, and, since moving to New York, she has worked on projects by David Byrne, Arto Lindsay and the DJ Towa Tei (of Dee-Lite), helping to reinvent bossa nova by mixing elements of her father's music with new, sample-based grooves calling on hip-hop and house.

The new album, Tanto Tempo (which means "so long" in Portuguese), is deliciously good, and the best example thus far of the new, deconstructed bossa nova associated with the impeccably hip Ziriguiboom imprint of Belgium's Crammed Discs label. You may even have heard part of the album's first track already, and in a surprising context; the instrumental loop it was based on (by British DJ and producer Amon Tobin) was used as one of the sonic backgrounds for Chris Morris's Jam television show three weeks ago. Re-working the basic loop into a version of the old-school bossa nova singer Baden-Powell's composition "Samba de Bencao", Bebel has created a dreamy, erotic, trance-music where acoustic guitars strum against a background of lazy percussion beats, overlaid with a somnambulistic trombone riff. Hearing it is like dying and going to Ipanema-heaven.

It's the best track I've heard this year, and seems destined to be picked up by a TV commercial before too long. Other collaborators on the album include the London-based producers Smoke City, whose "Underwater Love" became the soundtrack for a Levi's ad a few years ago, as well as New York's Thievery Corporation and the Beastie Boys' Mario C. The album's producer, Suba, was killed in a fire at his São Paulo studio just after the sessions for Tanto Tempo were completed.

In person, Bebel Gilberto - whom I met last week at the People's Palace restaurant at London's Royal Festival Hall - is small of stature and, so she says, a typical Carioca (that is, an inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro). She first met Suba, she says, in 1998. "I didn't know exactly who he was, but I got sent a tape he had made with samples of songs by my father, which he wanted him to approve. Later I met him in Brazil, where he was producing some singers. Then, on the night I sang with my father at his Carnegie Hall concert two years ago, Suba was there and we had dinner together afterwards. We went to meet my father, but he didn't turn up (Gilberto is notoriously shy). Bebel and Suba went on to form a team, commissioning mixes from various producers and then adding vocals to them at the studio in São Paulo, with DAT tapes of their music criss-crossing the world.

Why Bebel Gilberto has waited so long to make her début album is partly because of the burden of being João's daughter, but also because of the questionable taste of contemporary Brazilian pop music. "If I was living my father's life, I would never have been able to live my own life," says Bebel - who was something of a child star in Brazil, acting and doing TV jingles. "People ask why has it taken me so long, but I was working as my father's assistant for years, looking after his business interests. Also, what sells in Brazil is commercial samba, which is very pasteurised, and music from the north east in really bad taste, like country music. Even Caetano Veloso doesn't sell at home. But now, even though I live in New York, I feel more Brazilian than ever. It's good to feel like that, like a citizen of the world, with both an American and a Brazilian identity."

She is still interested in acting and if she could get her friend Pedro to direct a project of her choosing, she would, she says, go for a life of Carmen Miranda. "My dream is to play Carmen Miranda, because I'm short and I have a mouth that looks like hers. I think Carmen Miranda was incredible, really ahead of her time. She was an innocent in a way, but she had an amazing talent and her own style." Bebel Gilberto shakes her long hair in a passable Miranda impersonation and laughs, as if a basket of fruit is about to fall from her head at any moment.

'Tanto Tempo' is out now on Ziriguiboom Records; Bebel Gilberto plays at 'Brazil 500' at the Barbican, EC1 (020 7638 8891) on 18 July

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