Not That Shakespeare:
Bebel Gilberto’s Central Park Return

by Tony Phillips

“Ah-gah-jew, ah-gah-jew. Ah-gah-jew-ewww-oooh.” Okay, it’s not much of a lede, but you should hear it floating up from the throaty depths of Brazilian chanteuse Bebel Gilberto. It’s like a dream. And good luck getting it out of your head without a brain surgeon. It’s the Afro-Brazilian hook from Gilberto’s song “Aganju,” the third track on the self-titled follow-up to her smash 2000 debut Tanto Tempo. But more than, it’s an intergenerational response to the call of step-mother Astrud Gilberto’s “Be-ba, do-bah, da be-bah, be-bah, be-bah. Be-ba, do-bah.” Her father Joao Gilberto is largely credited with creating the bossa-nova. Her own mother Miucha, Joao’s second wife and a noted vocalist in her own right, joins Bebel for a duet on the new album. “I already had the vocal so we just had fun,” Bebel remembers. “It was summertime in Brazil and we were drinking wine celebrating that it was 70 degrees.” Her mother taught her how to sing and she made her recording debut at age seven on one of her Miucha’s album. Even her uncle, Miucha’s brother Chico Buarque, is a famous singer in Brazil. In fact, a lesser writer might have called this profile “The Girl from Ipanema,” borrowing the title from Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz’ Grammy-winning 1964 collaboration with Astrud contributing the lilting, gorgeously smacked-out vocal.

Bebel is like that old nature/nurture debate wrapped up in a charming, vivacious package that draws people naturally. She doesn’t so much answer the genetics question as revel in it. Her voice has been compared to a blast of warm, tidal air so many times that if the singing doesn’t pan out, she can always find work as a hairdryer. She’s duality in a designer skirt. For example, she knows this interview is for a gay paper, yet she flirts outrageously anyway. “Go back to bed, honey,” she purrs when we wrap our 8am interview, yet she’s savvy enough to drop a phrases like “You know Rufus, of course” when we get onto her latest album’s producer, Marius de Vries, who also works with her “gay boyfriend” Rufus Wainwright. Bebel wants to be your lover and your fag hag, too. And she’s the kind of girl for whom the phrase “gay boyfriend” is not oxymoronic. She is, in a word, fabulous, a self-styled creation descended from a long line of, well, fabulosity.

Though she was born in New York and has been an East Village habitué since 1991, Gilberto grew up in Brazil and has a love hate relationship with her ancestral home. Like most things Bebel, it’s complicated. Her father’s reputation has evolved into something approaching compound recluse though fans still talk about their 1998 Carnegie Hall reunion for a duet that was received by a rousing 15-minute ovation. “There is a difference between being a superstar and being a genius that people cannot reach,” Bebel explains. “As I got older I understood the dimension of how big my father was, but he is more respected outside Brazil than inside Brazil. There’s this fame around him where people think he’s this crazy guy and no one knows what he’s going to do next when he performs.” It’s quite a legacy, but after lamely offering veterinarian as an alternative career — it comes out more question than answer — Bebel admits, “It’s in my blood, I really never tried to do something different.”

The gorgeous woman peering out from the front of her album cover, name tucked into luscious, raven locks like a rainforest flower, was shot by renowned fashion photographer Mario Testino. It’s certainly not the first time she’s been in front of his lens. Gilberto’s racked up almost as many tear sheets as fellow-Brazilian Gisele Bundchen, but the evolution of the Mario Testino album cover is classic Bebel. “I’m very lucky and I’m an outgoing person,” she begins, trying to answer the question how one becomes a fashion zeitgeist, “and I’ve always had many, many gay friends. I think that helps a lot. Like Mario,” she explains, “I met him, I was a big fan of his for more than 15-years and then one day I realized that he was my friend.” She pauses. At this point I don’t know if she means they were shopping or fucking. Were they lovers or a gay couple? “I cannot go deeper than that because he’s a very private person,” Gilberto laughs, “but I’m sure you’ll assume how I met him, and that’s what it is. We became very good friends and I told him that my dream was to have him doing my cover. We shot the pictures in Brazil. That’s how it happened. We know many friends in common as well. I met Pedro Almodovar and all these interesting people and they are really being helpful.”

Testino, Rufus, Almodovar…but Gilberto’s not just dropping names. It’s more charming than that, but she can see it’s working. And it’s the way she works. She already has collaborations with everyone from Caetano Veloso to Deee-Lite's DJ/producer Towa Tei under her belt and she credits suited hipsters The Thievery Corporation with “coaching me and putting me together when I toured with them in 1996.” Former Talking Head David Byrne is a collaborator and friend. “He helped me find musicians for my own band when I first arrived in New York,” Gilberto remembers, “and when I finally made it he was really happy for me.” But then she breaks out the big guns: Carmen Miranda. The phrase “My father reminds me a lot of Carmen Miranda,” would buy most readers a few years on a therapists couch, but for Gilberto it’s all part of the long winding road that brought her to New York.

“In a way it’s funny,” Gilberto explains, “but Carmen Miranda got more famous outside Brazil than inside Brazil, but I was crazy about her when I was a little girl. I thought she couldn’t be more extraordinary or full of different aspects. She would design her clothes and she was an actress and singer at the same time, but after she came to Hollywood and then went back to Brazil she was received with tomatoes. People really criticized her for being so famous in Hollywood so it wasn’t a good experience for her when she came back to Brazil. Then she recorded a song making a joke about becoming so Americanized.” At this point, Bebel begins to sing Carmen Miranda and it’s almost enough to make one blow a gay gasket. She already knows Almodovar. Could the title role in The Carmen Miranda Story be that far off on the horizon? “I would love to,” she admits, “but I think we have to go step by step.”

And she’s also not done talking about Brazil, thank you. Although she feels like her country is enjoying a cultural renaissance of sorts, she still sees the provincialism that was so hurtful to Miranda in bloom. “People are really paying attention to Brazil right now,” she says proudly, “we’re getting closer and closer to becoming very well known for all the different things we’re doing including film and fashion and, of course, music. I’m really pleased to be part of that, but I have to tell you, when I return to Brazil, my experience isn’t too good.” She recalls a recent performance on Brazilian television. “People were raising their eyebrows at me,” she remembers. “There were a lot of artists from Brazil and it was difficult for me because they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. The songs I was singing in English weren’t really well received. I don’t know how it is here, but if someone moved to Brazil and was very successful, I imagine people from the United States would wonder why she had to go to another country to become famous.” It’s something she has to consider because success in today’s ailing music market requires nothing less than world domination.

Still, though she contains both her doubts and hope, optimism usually wins the day. “You know, there are also people who are embracing my music,” she perks up, “the press and everybody, so you never know what’s going to be happening next.” And while that’s true bigger picture, the more immediate future holds a gig in a city that ranks as both her performance fav and home. From memorable childhood Carnegie Hall performances with her family to a Summer Stage date in Central Park to support her last album, Manhattan is a town she knows well enough to joke about her Delacorte Theater gig as the soundtrack for clandestine trysts in the adjacent Rambles. “But I want them to come to my show first,” she laughs. And New York? “This is where my bed is,” she says, “I like to wake up late and then go to my little garden and work in it. Then I cook something healthy and have some friends at home. That’s a perfect day for me.” And the perfect night? That’s waiting for anyone who decides to make a date with Bebel under the stars in Central Park. Who knows where she’ll decide to throw the after-party?