The Music of Brazil: Bossa Nova

Does bossa nova sound better on vinyl?, (photo by James Macdonald)
Does bossa nova sound better on vinyl?

Bossanova, the new wave

Samba is traditionally the voice of black Brazilians and forever associated with Carnival. But bossa nova (new wave) is also synonymous with Brazil, and its birthplace – Rio. Bossa nova exploded onto the world scene in 1964, when the classically trained pianist and composer Antonio Carlos 'Tom' Jobim, the shy young guitarist João Gilberto, and his sultry-voiced wife Astrud, held New York’s Carnegie Hall in thrall to Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema), Desafinado (Out of Tune), and Samba de uma nota só (One Note Samba). Bossa nova had taken shape several years earlier in Rio, the outcome of a quest by Jobim and other young carioca intellectuals for a calmer samba, in response to America’s West Coast cool jazz scene led by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd. Bossa nova would bewitch the world, and inspired scores of schmaltzy covers.




In reaction to the cool of bossa nova, the late 1960s saw a very different revolution, born under increasing political turmoil and the impact of Beatles songs and West Coast American rock. Tropicalia was seeded in Salvador, where a group of students, besotted with local folk music and Beatles songs, included guitarists and songwriters Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, the avant-garde composer Tom Zé, and ex-bossa nova singer Gal Costa. The clan migrated to São Paulo, then the hub of an explosive new arts scene, and Gil’s collaborations with the whacky, musically brilliant trio Os Mutantes (The Mutants) led to their anthemic psychedelic song, Domingo no Parque (Sunday in the Park). With Veloso’s 'Alegria, Alegria' (Joy, Joy), they launched an era with loud, irreverent songs and Dadaist performances on live TV Globo, shocking the traditionalists but delighting young hippie fans. The song lyrics strikingly juxtaposed concrete poetry with images from pop culture, but pushed the buttons of the establishment, until the military government in 1969 arrested and imprisoned Veloso and Gil, and forced them into exile; they chose to live in London. By the time of their return in 1972, Tropicalia had unified the young generation, and every group was electric – and Tropicalist.

More than 40 years on, the Tropicalia pioneers still carry musical clout: Caetano Veloso, with his sinuous melodies and poetic wit; Gil, until recently the minister of culture, still playful, rhythmic and mesmerizing, and carrying the torch for Bob Marley’s songs. The third significant musician of that generation, Chico Buarque, was never a Tropicalia member but a politically active poet, writer and singer. Today he is still adored and as popular as ever.

Milton Nascimento, leader of Minas Gerais’ Clube de Esquina generation, a brilliant songwriter and vocalist, has a background in church choral music, but also has Afro-Brazilian influences. The grand lady of Brazilian rock is former Tropicalia star and Os Mutantes singer Rita Lee.



Many of these artists still produce significant work more than 40 years after Tropicalia’s heyday, and in interesting collaborations with the 'novo tropicalismo', electronica generation.

Musical changes still reflect regional differences but, increasingly, in the age of the internet, São Paulo has returned as the hub of a musical revolution, through the proliferation of hip-hop and electronic music. But most challenging to its status is Pernambuco and its capital city, Recife, where Chico Science’s Nacao Zumbi, the singer Otto, and DJ Dolores are based.


Bossa nova's international influence

During the 1970s and 1980s the sounds of bossa nova began to drift into the realms of 'Muzak', more commonly heard piped into shopping malls across the globe than on a record or in concert. Despite the perceived damage that albums such as Beatles, Bach & Bacharach Go Bossa had on the music's reputation to the young, the mid-1990s saw an international interest swing back to the rhythms and styles of the 1960s. Artists and bands such as Beck, the Beastie Boys and NYC's Smokie & Miho brought respectful interpretations of the sound which was also being sampled by DJs and electronic musicians. 



Brazil music now

Occupying a space outside both the electronic dance scene and the post-Tropicalia clan are the Brazilian rockers, who always possessed a certain sweetness: from the teenaged, mini-skirted girls in the mid-1960s; to the innovative 1980s rockers, whose direct, urban and often mocking or humorous songs were a far cry from traditional romanticism; to 1990s rappers, who continue in this vein by tingeing their diatribes with humor.

The early noughties craze for New Rave and the mostly girl group, Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS), which translates as 'Tired of Being Sexy', marked a nostalgic return to 1970s post-punk LA girl groups who reject the clichés of girls in rock, and add copious measures of kitsch that Carmen Miranda would surely envy.





The Real Girl from Ipanema

An intriguing legal action in 2005 sought to prevent an Ipanema woman from calling her boutique The Girl from Ipanema. It was brought by the copyright holders of Brazil’s famous song, the sons of the late composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. The woman was Heloisa Pinheiro, the  18-year-old who inspired the song in 1962 as she strolled past the bar where the composers sat.

The song shot to fame in 1963 in a version by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, and was recorded by dozens of singers. The music was originally composed by De Moraes, a prolific poet and lyricist, for a musical comedy, Dirigível, and the words of this version, Menina que Passa (The Girl Who Passes By), were markedly different from the final English lyrics, written by Oscar-winning American lyricist, Norman Gimbel. Jobim and De Moraes did admit to having seen the alluring Heloisa stroll by as they sat at the Veloso bar-café – “a golden-tanned girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of brightness and grace, but with a touch of sadness”, as De Moraes wrote later. But the legend that they casually composed the song while sitting in the bar belied the hard graft that songwriting often entails. Ultimately the court of justice agreed with the court of public opinion, and the verdict was found in favor of Heloisa Pinheiro. Today, the bar where the musicians sat is known as A Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema), located in Vinicius de Moraes Street.


Find out more

For more on Brazilian music head to the music chapter in the Insight Guide to Brazil, or if you're planning to visit Brazil take a look at our online Brazil guide...




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