Born in Rio de Janeiro, Bola Sete's name means "Seven Ball". In Brazilian billiards, the seven ball is the only black ball on the table, and Bola got this nickname when he was the only black member of a small jazz group. He studied guitar at the Conservatory of Rio and he started performing with his own sextet and local samba groups while he was still a student. His early influences were guitarists Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, and Oscar Moore (of the Nat King Cole Trio), while he was also captured by the sound of the big bands that were touring South America at that time (Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman). His career started in 1952, where he played various clubs and hotels around Italy for four years. Then, he returned to Brazil and started touring all of South America, during which time the manager of the Sheraton hotels noticed him and decided to bring him to the US to play in the hotels. He played for a while in New York's Park Sheraton, later moving to San Francisco to play in the Sheraton Palace. Dizzy Gillespie was staying there at the time and listening to Bola Sete playing every day. When Gillespie decided to bring his pianist Lalo Schifrin to the hotel, he discovered that Lalo and Bola had already met and played together in Argentina. This meeting was the beginning of Bola's success in the US. In the fall of 1962, Gillespie took the guitarist to the Ninth Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, where he enjoyed a huge success. After that, he toured for a while with Gillespie and finally returned to San Francisco, where he joined the Vince Guaraldi trio. Bola was already well known in the US, and his partnership with Guaraldi yielded several well-received recordings. After staying for a couple of years with Guaraldi, Bola formed his own trio with his fellow Brazilians Sebastian Neto (bass) and Paulinho (drums). With his own trio, he appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and released an album of his performance, which peaked at #20 on the US Jazz chart.
In the 1970s, he became friends with guitarist John Fahey, who had been an admirer of Sete's. In 1975 Fahey released Ocean, which comprises recording sessions from 1972, on his Takoma label. The album is now seen as one of Sete's greatest accomplishments.
During the eighties, Sete suffered from lung cancer, which he attempted to counter with yoga and meditation. On February 14, 1987, Bola Sete died at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California of complications caused by pneumonia and cancer. The compositions he recorded shortly before his death were compiled and released as Windspell in 2008.