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The rise of bossa nova, Brazil's answer to American jazz

BY Marco Marcelline

15th Jun 2023 Music

The rise of bossa nova, Brazil's answer to American jazz

Bossa nova was the Brazilian sensation that fused samba with jazz at the end of the Fifties. We explore the music that captured Brazil, America and beyond

The year is 1959 and a warm tropical breeze caresses your neck as the soothing sounds of a soft guitar strum and João Gilberto’s voice fill your eardrums, sending you into a sublime state of bliss.

While you dig your feet into the sand at Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema beach, around you people sip caparinhas, sway their heads to the enchanting music being played, and lovers, friends and family embrace.

Turning your head to the setting sun, you notice and observe couples who are two-stepping to Gilberto’s rhythmic instrumentation on the shoreline.

The origins of bossa nova

João Gilberto playing bossa nova on guitarCredit: [el.nco], CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr. João Gilberto is known as the "grandfather of bossa nova"

Meaning “new trend” in Portuguese, bossa nova originated and evolved from a union of Brazilian samba and American jazz in the mid to late 1950s in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana neighbourhood, thanks to musicians like the aforementioned João Gliberto, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The instrumentation is purposely simple; just a guitar, berimbau (musical bow), drum, or a single-note piano accompaniment.

During the late 1950s, names like Vinicius de Moraes, Sergio Mendes, and Nara Leao would join the “grandfather of bossa nova” Joao Gilberto and fill the ranks of the bossa nova tastemakers.

In an interview with The Guardian, bossa nova pioneer Carlos Lyra, now 90 years old, described how he met Joao Gilberto on the pavement opposite Copacabana’s Plaza hotel, where Gilberto used to go to appreciate Johnny Alf (another bossa nova great) while he played the piano.

As Lyra admits to The Guardian, the originators of bossa nova had little in the way of goals when it came to expanding the genre’s reach beyond the middle class bubble it originated in.

"Bossa nova evolved from a union of Brazilian samba and American jazz in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana neighbourhood"

“We were young musicians from Rio’s middle class who, needy of a music expression we could relate to, started creating something closer to our realites,” he said.

As the author and music journalist Allen Thayer explains: “It’s joked that bossa nova is what comes on in the elevator and it seems so safe to us now. But at the time [of its emergence] in Brazil people literally laughed at João Gilberto. They were like, ‘You’re nuts, no-one wants to hear this, why are you whispering?’. It was totally revolutionary."

Bossa nova began to cement its status as the most popular Brazilian musical export to the United States when a landmark 1962 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City saw João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Sérgio Mendes, Carlos Lyra and many other visionaries of the genre play for a star-studded crowd including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Errol Garner.

Speaking to the press following the concert, musician Gilberto Gil said he was shocked by the reaction bossa nova received: “The reaction was so good that we just could not ignore it in Brazil. Somehow, it was a surprise for us, too, because at that stage the bossa nova movement in Brazil was not so big yet”.

He added: “[The concert] was fundamental for the spreading of Brazilian music in America and worldwide”.

The story behind The Girl From Ipanema

Stan Getz saw on steps backstage with saxophoneStan Getz is said to have blocked Astrud Gilberto, who sang on "The Girl from Ipanema", from receiving royalties

1962 also marked the year that “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”) was composed by pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes.

The musicians were inspired to write the song by Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, now a well-known Brazilian celebrity, who as a teenager would pass by a bar in Ipanema that they would often frequent.

During a recording session in New York with João Gilberto, Jobim, and Stan Getz, the songwriter Norman Gimbel suggested that an English version was recorded. João’s then wife, Astrud was chosen to sing it because she could speak English well.

Despite the single selling millions of copies worldwide, Astrud is reported to have only received the standard session fee: $120. She was 22 when she recorded the song.

"'The Girl From Ipanema' would end up becoming the world’s second most played song behind the Beatles’ 'Yesterday'"

Astrud didn’t get a single credit on the original vinyl pressing of Getz/Gilberto either, despite appearing on two tracks. It’s even been alleged that Getz personally rang up the producer Creed Taylor’s office to ensure that Astrud didn’t receive any royalties.

Meanwhile, as Allen Thayer notes, Gilberto is said to have hated that his soon-to-be ex-wife got all the attention when the song became popular.

The Getz/Gilberto album spent a total of 96 weeks on the US charts, while “The Girl From Ipanema” would end up becoming the world’s second most played song behind the Beatles’ “Yesterday”. It has even featured in The Simpsons.

Allen Thayer notes that the success of the song is almost entirely down to the fact a version had been recorded in English. “If it had just been Stan Getz and João Gilberto…it would have never been on the pop charts [in the US and beyond]."

Funnily enough, Thayer continues, “Girl from Ipanema” was never a big hit in Brazil at the time of its release and many of the Brazilian artists who moved to the US and found success there did not find the same level of success on their return because they were “accused of selling out”.

Bossa nova beyond the 1960s

Billie Eilish performing onstageCredit: crommelincklars, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Contemporary artists like Billie Eilish have taken inspiration from the bossa nova sound

While bossa nova was wholeheartedly embraced by the United States during the mid 1960s, back in Brazil it began to somewhat sink into a state of irrelevance.

In 1964, the country’s congress elected the Army Chief of Staff Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco as president, and amid an increasingly repressive environment, fresh politicised university students and young people began to see bossa nova as overly unpolitical and lacking in any class consciousness.

Other musical styles, such as Tropicalia, which was influenced by bossa nova, took off in its place as young people dropped bossa nova for more politically charged music.

Thayer points to Musica Popular Brasiliera or MPB, a catch-all for sophisticated Brazilian pop music which was critically acclaimed and took off around that period too.

But while bossa nova lost the limelight to other emergent genres and musical styles in the decades after its debut, the musical style has retained an emotional hold and level of affection both in Brazil and abroad that cannot be replicated, and the revolutionary genre continues to inspire and inform contemporary Brazilian artists today.

"American R&B and hip-hop artists such as J Dilla and Lucky Daye have sampled bossa nova in their music"

These artists include the funky jazz singer Rosalia de Souza, the acid jazz inflected Nicola Conte, the otherwordly Sessa, and the house infused nu-bossa of Sabrina Malheiros, among many others.

While no-one in Brazil is producing music like the original bossa nova today, its staying power means that artists from all musical walks of life regularly pay homage or lift from it.

Its legacy rolls on outside Brazil too: American R&B and hip-hop artists such as J Dilla and Lucky Daye have sampled bossa nova in their music and a track on Billie Eilish’s 2021 album Happier Than Ever is explicitly of the genre.

It’s 2023, and you’re taking a pre-dawn stroll along Ipanema beach. You settle against a tree and look up and observe the stars above you. In the distance, as the first rays of the sun light up the sky, you begin to hear the soft, rhythmic strum of a guitar…

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