The Birth of Bossa Nova
Brazil experienced a new “Golden Age” in the mid-1950s symbolized by an invigorated national infrastructure, the country’s 1958 World Cup victory, and a growing urban middle class. Brazil’s president, Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61) aimed for “fifty years of progress in five.” The music that best captured the zeitgeist was bossa nova, Portuguese for “new fashion” or “new way.”
Bossa nova grew out of experimental music scene occurring in Rio in the early 1950s. Musicians, like Carlos Lyra, Antonio (“Tom”) Carlos Jobim, Durval Ferreira, Luis Eça, and Baden Powell played chiefly in the "Bottles Lane" area of nightclubs to develop the sound. Poet and prolific lyricist Vinicius de Moraes was also part of the scene. Most bossa nova musicians lived in Zona Sul (South Zone of Rio), and their music reflected the economic and social optimism of the middle class.
Bossa was a kind of soft samba played at a slower tempo, with light, soft singing and percussion that is more limited. Musically it fuses samba’s rhythmic complexity with a different beat and harmonic richness associated and classical music and jazz. Bossa nova was shaped by progressive trends in samba, the guitar style of Garoto, and several other musicians including Johnny Alf (Alfredo Jose da Silva), guitarist Luiz Bonfá, and pianist João Donato. American styles like West Coast “cool jazz” also influenced its sound.
Samba was the rhythmic base but musicians sometimes drew on the baião, bolero, and marcha traditions in their playing. Harmonically progressive elements, including altered and inverted chords also provided a unique sound. These elements reflect the influences and tastes of some of its key early practitioners notably João Gilberto, Jobim, and de Moraes.
Lyrically songs often had poetic, eloquent lyrics and frequently referenced ethereal themes related to nature and romance. Vocally, bossa nova singers sang gently and quietly, barely above a whisper, in a seductive manner that pulled you into the lyrics.
The most prominent composer was Jobim who was classically trained by piano teacher Hans Joachim Koellreutter and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Jobim studied classical composers like Brahms, Chopin, and Debussy, and listened to American performers such as Frank Sinatra. In the early 1950s Jobim became a fixture on the club scene and worked as an arranger as he developed his songwriting. In the mid 1950s, he became a music celebrity and had his own television show in São Paulo Bom Tom. Jobim was a prolific composer who recorded bossa nova and composed classical suites. Some of his most notable composition’s include “Corcovado,” “Triste,” “Wave,” and “Waters of March,” to name a few. He also co-wrote songs with de Moraes, Aloysio de Oliviera, Mendonça, and Chico Buarque.
Forerunners of bossa nova style emerged in the compositions of Jobim and Newton Mendoça. Mauricy Moura recorded “Incerteza (Uncertainty)” in 1953 and “Samba de uma Nota So” in 1954 but the style did not gain substantive exposure until the late 1950s. Throughout his career, he collaborated with a variety of lyricists including de Moraes, Alysio de Oliveira, and Chico Buarque.
The 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade” a 1956 composition with de Moraes, written for the play Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), was the first bossa nova single recording and João Gilberto’s Chega de Saudade the first bossa nova album. Gilberto was renowned for an innovative guitar technique that including syncopating sung notes against guitar motifs, as well as a slow, hushed and understated vocal style. By 1959, Gilberto’s album made bossa nova a commercial phenomenon in Brazil. The key breakthrough, however, was the soundtrack to the film version of The Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) which “internationalized” bossa nova via hit songs like Luiz Bonfá’s “Mahna de Carnaval.”
In the early 1960s, bossa nova flourished throughout Rio and a new generation of singers excelled in the emergent style including Leny Andrade, Alkayde Costa, Maysa, Pery Ribeiro, and Sylvia Telles. In the United States, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Samba, released in 1962 was the breakthrough bossa nova recording in the U.S. anchored by their hit version of “Desafinado” (“Off-Key”). The mix of jazz and bossa nova was the result of jazz musicians travelling to Brazil and absorbing the music and culture of the “bottles bar” scene of Rio. The initial U.S. boom included bossa themed jazz albums like jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s 1962 album Do the Bossa Nova with Herbie Mann, Quincy Jones’s Big Band Bossa Nova, and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s 1963 album Cannonball’s Bossa Nova. A pivotal marker of the burgeoning bossa nova scene in the U.S. was a November 1962 concert recorded at Carnegie Hall featuring performances by Gilberto, Jobim, Lyra, and Mendes in collaboration with U.S. jazz musicians.
Bossa nova was a hot new sound and reached its widest audience via the success of the charming single “The Girl from Ipanema” sung by Astrud Gilberto, João’s wife, and featured on 1964’s Getz/Gilberto album. Bossa nova quickly grew from an obscure Rio based style to a pop phenomenon. In addition to frequent covers of bossa nova songs by English language singers it also surfaced in pop songs like Eydie Gorme’s “Blame it on the Bossa Nova.” By 1964, the bossa nova style was fading commercially in Brazil amid growing concerns that the freshness of the once vital sound was growing too formulaic and commercial.
In 1964, the same year as “Girl” became a massive worldwide hit the Brazilian military staged a military coup, overthrowing President João Goulart. The thriving democracy became a dictatorship and military rule lasted for over 20 years, and. This led many musicians to incorporate political themes in their lyrics in protest. Many musicians associated with bossa nova left Brazil during the 1960s such as Carlos Lyra who recorded political bossa nova and moved to Mexico from 1966-71. Others who resettled included Luiz Bonfá, Oscar Castro-Neves, and João Gilberto who all moved to the U.S. in the 1960s. Many of these figures returned to Brazil eventually.
Some key musical transitions during this time included the beginning of televised Brazilian musical festivals in 1965 and the emergence of what became the MPB (música popular brasileira) sound. MPB is a broad term for musicians who draw from samba, bossa nova, jazz, pop and other styles thus defying easy categorization. Some of the more prominent MPB voices to emerge during the mid 1960s-early 1970s include Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, and Caetano Veloso. The festivals provided an optimal opportunity for composers to gain exposure. For example, Elis Regina, widely regarded as Brazilian’s finest female vocalist, won the 1965 first prize at the TV Excelsior festival singing “Arrastão” co-written by Edu Lobo and de Moraes.
Though the festivals were very popular they were temporary respite from Brazil’s increasingly unstable government. For example, in 1965 the Social Democratic Party was abolished and a succession of military men “led” what was essentially a military state. Though the state paid limited attention to artists initially, as young people became more active in protesting military rule the dictatorship interfered more actively, harassing and censoring artists, and eventually screening song lyrics and arresting artists. Out of this context grew tropicália.
A subgenre of the post-bossa nova MPB scene, tropicália was a youth led artistic movement. Though Brazilian musicians recorded rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s the greatest impact of mid ‘60s British and U.S. styles, especially the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic rock, was felt among Tropicália’s key voices. These included including Gal Costa, Gil, Veloso, and Tom Zé and members of the band Os Mutantes. Influenced by the late 1960s countercultural youth movements, the avant-garde Cinema Novo, Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic, experimental theater and performance art, the Tropicalistas responded to the fascism of the right and the nationalism of the left with this experimental hybrid of musical and visual style. In 2002’s Tropical Truth Veloso shared the movement’s goal to celebrate multiple facets of high and low Brazilian culture, and blend it with outside cultural influences, like rock.
Some of the key albums that epitomized the style included the following: 1968 collaborative album (Costa, Gil, Os Mutantes, Veloso and Zé) Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis whose cover echoed Sgt. Pepper; individual debut albums by Gil, Os Mutantes, Veloso and Zé in 1968; Rogério Duprat’s single album A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat; Gal Costa’s sophomore set in 1969, a year that also welcomed Tropicália sets from Jorge Ben and Os Brazões who interpreted songs by Ben, Gil, and Zé. In 1969, the government arrested and imprisoned Gil and Veloso, and expelled them from Brazil. They both relocated to London, though they eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s.
Despite such setbacks several classic albums continued to expand the style in the early 1970s including Os Mutantes’s 1970 album A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado (The Divine Comedy, or I’m Kind of Spaced Out); Veloso’s 1972 set Transa, which mixed Brazilian and reggae elements; and Gil’s Expresso 2222, a blend of U.S. funk and rock recorded in 1972. By 1973, the movement ebbed, but almost all of the musicians associated with Tropicália have had enduring careers. Costa, Gil and Veloso each have eclectic careers defined by relentless experimentation. Os Mutantes’s Rita Lee went on to a fruitful solo career as Brazil’s “first lady of rock” and members continued performing and recording. Similarly, other MPB era singers celebrated among Brazilians gradually saw their music gain international recognition. For example, jazz musicians and vocalists interpret songs by Lins and Nascimento routinely. Lins’s “The Island,” “Love Dance,” and “Velas” are contemporary standards. Nascimento’s harmonic sophistication, heard on songs like “Travessia (Bridges),” has drawn jazz musicians to play on his albums and cover his songs.
Post-1970s Brazilian pop
Since the military regime’s reign ended and democracy returned in 1985, socioeconomic and racial divides have grown more pronounced. Contemporary rock music’s greatest impact was reflected in the rise of Brazilian bands that mimicked the style of American and British bands, and the popularity of the inaugural Rock in Rio festival in 1985 which attracted an estimated 1.5 million attendees. Many have argued that rock primarily reflects the tastes of middle-class Brazilians and because Brazilian musicians are content to duplicate established styles, it has not served as a springboard for innovation.
The notion of a national music that would unite the country, the way samba once did, seems increasingly elusive in such a culturally fragmented nation. Though contemporary artists like Bebel Gilberto, whose popular 2000 set Tanto Tempo fused bossa nova with electronica, and Ivete Sangalo, a leading voice of the Axé style and the country’s biggest pop singer currently, are beloved, regional genres continue to serve as key sites of musical innovation. Contemporary artists are continually fusing Brazilian musical traditions with elements of genres like funk, hip-hop, reggae, rock, and soul to create new musical hybrids.
Out of the economically depressed communities in Recife, performers like the bands Mundo Livre and Nacão Zumbi pioneered the “Mangue Beat” sound in the early 1990s. The music derived its sound from artists modernizing the African based percussive sound of maracatu fused with elements of hip-hop, rock, and the bedrock of Brazilian music, samba. Chico Science, the lead singer of Nacão Zumbi was an especially charismatic and influential singer who influenced future Brazilian superstars like singer and actor Seu Jorge. Science died from an automobile accident in 1997, but remains a highly revered figure. Lenine is a Recife native who established himself as songwriter in the 1980s before achieving stardom as a performer with 1997’s O Dia em qu Faremos Contato and he too has succeeded through combining maracatu with rock, hip-hop, and contemporary production.
Brazilian interpretations of hip-hop music have captured the experiences of the underclass in São Paulo. Much like U.S. hip-hop the music resonates for its social function, which has elevated groups like Racionais M.C’s to national prominence. Unlike the U.S., however, hip-hop is not a mainstream crossover genre. The same is true of hip-hop originating from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Performers like MV Bill and MC Playboy gained listeners through using hip-hop as a vehicle to illuminate the realities of favela life. Rio’s musicians also adapted and transformed American funk. Since the late 1980s, funk parties have defined the nightlife in the northern suburbs of Rio especially for young people. The deeply resonant pulsating sounds of Miami bass became especially popular in the 1990s. Because of middle class associations of funk with the lower classes, and a 1992 beach riot between young people, the style grew increasingly more isolated to Rio’s ghettos. There is even an underground version called proibidão (highly forbidden) that is technically illegal but circulated on the black market. Funk balls gradually shifted from spaces of confrontations between rival gangs to free parties with a more relaxed social atmosphere.
In 1993, Rio’s military police “avenged” the death of four policemen, in what is referred to as the Vigário Geral Massacre, by massacring 21 people randomly in the Vigário Geral favela. This dampened the spirits of the community, but an organization called AfroReggae emerged from this tragedy as a positive social project. The organization began as a band that fused Brazil’s core rhythm, samba, with hip-hop, funk, and reggae, and expanded it to include training opportunities for young people to participate in dance and percussion groups. In Rio, samba persists as a rich source of inspiration for artists like Marcelo D2 who mixes samba and hip-hop. As well as samba revivalists such as the Orquestra Imperial big band, formed in 2002, which has sparked renewed interest in samba from younger generations of listeners.
In Salvador, the capital of Bahia, samba-reggae has thrived as a dominant musical style since the 1980s. MPB and tropicália legend Gilberto Gil was a reggae enthusiast who integrated the sound into his music and gradually the style caught on, especially in the 1970s when black Brazilians become intentional about celebrating their African heritage. The group Olodum is one of samba-reggae’s leading exponents, and gained international fame performing on Paul Simon’s 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints and on Michael Jackson’s 1996 song “They Don’t Care about Us.” The band also sponsors a percussion school for children (Escola Olodum) and an experimental theatre group (Bando de Teatro). Axé, a style blending samba, reggae, ijexá (a rhythm derived from candomblé ritual music), and frevo (a fast, syncopated marcha originating in Recife) was a style mastered by Olodum. The genre’s forerunner was Luiz Caldas who had a proto-Axé hit with 1985’s “Fricote” that gained broad distribution and popularized the style. Axe is primarily celebratory dance music, performed at Carnaval, and was later popularized in the 1990s by artists like Daniela Mercury, Margareth Menezes, and Ivete Sangalo who sang in Banda Eva before going solo and becoming Brazil’s biggest pop performer.
Brazilian popular music continues to mine the richness of the country’s African heritage most notably through multiple adaptations of samba. Though no Brazilian style has captured international attention with the sweep of bossa nova, Brazilian musicians have listened widely and found creative ways to respect their traditions and extend them with complementary styles. The result is a continuous interplay of the past and the present, with an eye toward the future.
Coda: Some of the more progressive voices in contemporary Brazilian pop that I did not explore in depth include the following: Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Montes, talented solo artists who also collaborate as the band Tribalistas. The recordings of Vanessa da Matas, Mariane de Castro, Zelia Duncan, Seu Jorge, Nando Reis,and Maria Rita are also notable examples of accomplished and respected current musicians. Happy listening! Special thanks to my colleagues Carolina Castellanos and Luis Apolinario Johnson for their insights and recommendations. Thanks to Carlos Gardeazabal Bravo for sharing the Pitchfork video.
Recordings (Formats vary; some are in CD form but many are available digitally and/or via streaming services):
Note: The majority of the recorded output of the musicians I reference above are in print and available for listening. For the sake of brevity, I list a few key albums that represent a genre or subgenre well. Many of these have also shaped my own understanding of bossa nova and post-bossa nova music, though it is an ongoing listening process!
· Chega de Saudade (1959) (João Gilberto)
· Orfeu Negro soundtrack (1960) (Various artists)
· Getz/Gilberto (1964) (Stan Getz & João Gilberto f/ Astud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim)
· Elis & Tom (1974) (Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim)
· Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Man from Ipanema (1995) (Antonio Carlos Jobim; box set)
· Travessia (1967) (Milton Nascimento)
· Somos Todos Iguais Nesta Noite (1977) (Ivan Lins)
· Nada Sera Como Antes/Nothing Will Be As it Was (1990; compilation of Regina’s interpretations of Milton Nascimento’s songs recorded from 1966-78) (Elis Regina)
· Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis (1968) (Various artists)
· Gilberto Gil (1968) (Gilberto Gil)
· Os Mutantes (1968) (Os Mutantes)
· Tom Zé (1968) (Tom Zé)
· Gal Costa (1969) (Gal Costa)
· A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat (1969) (Rogério Duprat)
· Jorge Ben (1969) (Jorge Ben)
· Os Brazões (1970) (Os Brazões)
· Expresso 2222 (1972) (Gilberto Gil)
· Transa (1972) Caetano Veloso
- Samba Esquema Noise (1994) (Mundo Livre S/A)
- Da Lama ao Caos (1995) (Nação Zumbi)
- Fuá na casa de CaBRal (1998) (Mestre Ambrósio)
- Baião de Viramundo (2000) (Various Artists )
- Cordel do Fogo Encantado (2001) (Cordel do Fogo Encantado)
- Original Olinda Style (2003) (Banda Eddie)
- Certa Manhã Acordei de Sonhos Intranquilos (2009) (Otto)
Contemporary Bossa Nova and MPB
· Dia em qu Faremos Contato (1997) Lenine
· Juventude/Slow Motion Bossa Nova (2001) (Celso Fonseca and Ronaldo Bastos)
· Tanta Tempo (2000) (Bebel Gilberto)
· Samba Esporte Fino (2001) Seu Jorge
· Brazilian Classics (2003) (Eliane Elias; compilation)
· Cantando Historias Ivan Lins (2004) (Ivan Lins)
· Holocausto Urbano (1990 EP) (Racionais MC’s)
· Raio X Brasil (1993) (Racionais MC’s)
· Traficando Informação (1998) (MV Bill)
· Á Procura da Batida Perfeita(2003) (Marcelo D2)
· Magia (1985) Luiz Caldas
· A Música do Olodum (1992) (Olodum)
· Ivete Sangolo (1999) Ivete Sangolo
Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (Ruy Castro, translated by Lysa Salsbury, Acapella Books, 2000)
The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, Revised and expanded edition, Temple University Press, 2009)
Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil (Caetano Veloso, translated by Isabel de Sena, edited by Barbara Einzig, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
This is Bossa Nova: The Histories and Stories (Directed by Paulo Thiago, 2016)
Brasil! Brasil! Episode Two: Tropicália Revolution (BBC, 2007):
Brasil! Brasil! Episode Three: A Tale of Four Cities (BBC, 2007):
Favela Rising [focuses on AfroReggae] (Directed by Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist; produced by Sidetrack Films and VOY Pictures, 2005)
The Story of Tropicália in 20 albums (Pitchfork, 2017):
Sounds and Colours website:
COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.