Where’s João Donato? It’s a frequently asked question, referring simultaneously to the physical location and the musical moment he inhabits. A sampling of some of his more descriptive song titles suggests Donato’s comfort with musical hybrids: “Bluchanga,” “Sambolero,” and “Sambongo,” to name just a few. Lacking a name for his style of music, Donato’s is a distinct sound, immediately recognizable from the first few bars of any of his compositions. He was funky back when “funk” was a bad word (listen to either of his 1960s Brazilian LPs for proof). His compositions are deceptively simple, while his arrangements are harmonically complex, resulting in songs that are seemingly childlike, yet reveal their intricate details upon repeat listening.
João Donato was born in 1934 and spent his early years completely landlocked in the Amazon wilderness of Acre, a state that borders Peru and Bolivia. By eight, he was playing accordion and even wrote his first song, “Indio Perdido,” which he would later re-record as “Lugar Comum” thirty-three years later with lyrics courtesy of tropialist pop star, Gilberto Gil. Donato’s family moved to Rio de Janeiro when he was sixteen and he started hanging out with other jazz-obsessed teenagers in the suburbs of Rio. By 1958, at the age of twenty-four, Donato was one of the most respected musicians in Rio, but what he wanted to play was not what local audiences wanted to hear, so he spent the next 15 years bouncing between Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. Upon his return in 1973, he’d been forgotten by the general public, but had become a legend to a younger generation of musicians, including: Marcos Valle, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa & Gilberto Gil.
João Donato deserves a place among the legends of Brazilian music, alongside Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Dorival Caymmi, Ary Barroso, and select few others, yet his erratic career and experimentation with different music genres make him a challenge to classify. Asked how he would describe his own work, he says, “It’s my style of music, the way I think about [music]. I don’t even think about it, it’s just the way I do things. I don’t know if it even has a name.” Donato has finally received long overdue accolades for his contributions to date. A archetypal “musician’s musician,” Donato’s stepped out of the shadows more in the past couple dates, recording at an unprecedented rate and collaborating with a variety of musicians, from Brazil and beyond, old and young. Still going strong over eighty years old, the late praise and recognition is in good company for a musician whom Claus Ogerman offered to arrange an album, whom Antonio Carlos Jobim called a genius, and whom no less than João Gilberto claims invented the bossa nova beat.