Bossa nova – the ultimate guide

Posted on July 7th, 2015 in News, Recent posts by .


For many it’s simply musak or elevator music, but it’s famed as the musical style which challenged Brazilian samba in the 60s. Alex Robinson takes a look at the history of bossa nova

Bossa nova is unique. It has two identities. Outside Brazil it is either summery 1960s music or cool, contemporary electronica and it’s almost always sung by an alluring female voice. International bossa grew from a few artists who emigrated from Brazil to the US in the 1960s and has grown from those American roots and flourished in the club age. Until very recently bossa nova in Brazil had been consigned to the past – played only in fond remembrance, or in the touristy bits of Ipanema. It was a genre associated with a period in Brazil’s history – like Dixieland jazz in the US – a benchmark in the development of Brazilian music itself.

The bossa triangle

The first part of bossa’s story belongs to Rio de Janeiro and is shaped like a triangle. The style began here in the 1950s by a shy, teenaged session musician called João Gilberto – educated, spectacled, white, upper-middle class and an émigré from the state of Bahia. Gilberto started playing around with samba rhythms on the guitar. These rhythms were marked out not by the usual heavy surdo bass and repenique snare drums but by the guitar itself as solo accompaniment – through a combination of rhythmic picking work with the thumb and fingers. Instead of full voiced singing and choral accompaniment, Gilberto sang alone and quietly, at times almost in a whisper. And the overall effect was as relaxing and understated as contemporaneous samba was energising and full-blown.

The João Gilberto style caught on with his fellow session musicians in Rio’s affluent Ipanema neighbourhood, the most prominent was the architecture student and pianist, Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. Jobim drew the second side of bossa’s triangle. Like Gilberto, Jobim was shy, spectacled and erudite – what the author of The Brazilians, Joseph Page, would call a typical ‘bookish’ Brazilian. Jobim consumed music and music theory from all over the world, digesting it and re-constituting it as his own. He introduced harmonic complexity and jazzier chord progressions to the João Gilberto sound. These had been inspired in Jobim by French impressionist composers and by other guitarists like Carlos Lyra who had been experimenting with fourths, sixths and off-key chords after seeing samba players like Custódio Mesquita and Garôto play in Rio in his youth.

The 1958 release of the Jobim composition, ‘Chega de Saudade’ performed by João Gilberto marks the formal beginning of the ‘bossa nova’ or ‘new wave’ movement – a term coined by Jobim himself.

The lyrics to ‘Chega de Saudade’ were written by Vinícius de Moraes; who drew the third side of the bossa triangle. De Moraes was a drinking buddy of Jobim’s, a graduate of Magdalene College Oxford, a former diplomat, a respected poet and a secret songwriter. He was also a Carioca (resident of Rio de Janeiro) through and through. He had a permanent twinkle in his eye and a healthy sprinkling of malandragem (or roguishness) and he moved in the highest artistic circles. He’d charmed and befriended Orson Welles in the 1940s by showing him Rio’s carnal delights when the filmmaker came there to shoot a documentary in the 1940s and was close to Carmen Miranda and Ava Gardner.

Brazilian bossa

From the start bossa was different. Before ‘Chega de Saudade,’ music in Brazil had largely been either erudita – erudite or classical and produced by composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos – or popular – produced by musicians from the lower classes. Bossa nova gave popular music an intellectual credibility; albeit a shaky one at first – de Moraes was a serious poet but his friends in Rio’s chattering classes frowned upon his musical incursions. Not that de Moraes cared – he was determined to give bossa the kind of respectability that jazz was beginning to receive in the US. And he used all his connections and talents to do so.

Soon a coterie of musicians and intellectuals fascinated in bossa nova had formed around de Moraes, Gilberto and Jobim. They included Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli, the lyricist Newton Mendonça, the producer Aloysio de Oliveira and Nara Leão – the only woman to play an important part in the history of bossa nova in Brazil and whose apartment on Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana was the favourite venue for gatherings.

Orfeu_Negro,_1959But although it was gaining momentum after the success of Gilberto’s ‘Chega de Saudade’ single and subsequent album, bossa nova was still a fringe movement. The breakthrough into the mainstream finally came with a film adaptation of de Moraes’ hit play Orfeu da Conceição based on the Orpheus myth and set in the city’s favela slums, at Carnaval time. The film, by French director Marcel Camus, was re-entitled Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) and it showcased an entirely bossa nova score by de Moraes, Jobim and up-and-coming guitarist Luis Bonfá.

De Moraes hated it. He stormed out of the premiere at Rio’s Laranjeiras picture house, got roaringly drunk and declared it a caricature of his play and of Brazilians. But the film was an arthouse smash hit, winning the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960. And it firmly established bossa nova at the forefront of music and intellectual life in Brazil. Songs from the soundtrack like ‘A Felicidade’ and ‘Manhã de Carnaval’ became instant bossa standards; played in bars and clubs in Rio by a new generation of middle class musicians like João Donato, Edu Lobo, Luiz Eça and Sergio Mendes (all of whom would later play important roles in the development of the bossa nova).

The new sound became increasingly identified with a new wave of confidence and prosperity that was sweeping Brazil under president Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira. Bossa nova musicians hobnobbed with senior politicians and Jobim was invited to compose an anthem for the new capital Brasília.

Music to watch girls go by

As bossa nova’s popularity grew in Brazil, de Moraes and Jobim became ever closer friends. After the release of Black Orpheus, they would meet regularly at the end of the day at a little bar near the beach in their beloved Ipanema – for a cold draught chope (beer) and a chat about music. They’d also watch the girls go by – a favourite male Carioca pastime. Both came to notice one girl in particular – a surf-loving teenager with a mouthful of a name – Heloísa (Helô) Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto. “For three years she’d walk over the crossroads at the junction of Rua Montenegro and Prudente de Moraes on her way to the beach,” de Moraes later recalled, “And we thought her wonderful. Her marvellous passing would leave us sitting speechless over our beers from our vantage point in the Veloso bar… There she’d go – utterly beautiful – the Girl from Ipanema, moving on with a swaying, gentle geometric rhythm that was almost samba but whose precise formula would have eluded even Einstein… It would take an Antonio Carlos Jobim to ask the piano, with great and intimate reverence, to reveal its secret.”

‘A Garota de Ipanema’ was first recorded in 1962 by the singer Pery Ribeiro; who had previously released versions of ‘Manhã de Carnaval’ and ‘Samba de Orfeu’. It was a minor Brazilian hit. And it would probably have been largely forgotten were it not for a 1963 call to Jobim and Gilberto from the American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz.

Getz meets Gilberto

Stan Getz was one of the key figures in the West Coast ‘cool school’ of jazz – a reaction to the jagged forms of bebop – who’d played with Chet Baker, Charlie Parker’s band and the likes of Oscar Peterson. In 1962 he and his friend Charlie Byrd had released a compilation of bossa renditions gleaned from records Byrd had bought whilst on a diplomatic trip to Brazil in 1961. It was called Jazz Samba. It was the best selling jazz album of the year, earned Getz a Grammy (for a version of Tom Jobim and Newton Mendonça’s ‘Desafinado’) and it would eventually become the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Eager to repeat the success, Getz decided to record a second bossa nova album, this time using Brazilian instead of American musicians. He and producer Creed Taylor contacted Jobim and Gilberto in Rio to ask if they’d participate. Both were delighted. But as neither of them spoke English they brought along an interpreter for the studio sessions – Gilberto’s wife Astrud Gilberto.

All but two of the songs on the album were Jobim compositions, sung by Gilberto in his trademark soft, almost spoken vocals backed by his guitar and a light Brazilian rhythm section, with Getz adding cool, breathy sax. The album opened with ‘A Garota de Ipanema’. During the practice in the studio, Gilberto suggested that his wife should sing a chorus in English after his Portuguese verse. Her wistful, dreamy Portuguese-tinted English met with such approval from Getz that the following day they recorded a complete English version sung by Astrud.

“I’ll never forget,” she said in a later interview “that while we were listening back to the just recorded song at the studio’s control room, Stan said to me, with a very dramatic expression: ‘This song is going to make you famous’.”

Getz was right – so much so that Astrud Gilberto would never return home. ‘A Garota de Ipanema’, released as ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ (with English lyrics vastly inferior to de Moraes) was an enormous hit and it produced a bossa nova craze in the US. The song rocketed into the Billboard chart and Astrud was propelled to a stardom which far eclipsed that of either João Gilberto or Getz. She was invited to record the first of many solo records the same year and after this was nominated for a Grammy, she produced many more albums and even acted in several movies.

Even though it passed almost without comment back home, her success stimulated an exodus of frustrated musicians from Brazil that continues until today. The most notable of them was a Carioca session pianist called Sergio Mendes.

Bossa on the wane

Back in Brazil, bossa nova flourished for a while but remained a largely male-dominated, erudite musical art form forever associated with the trio of de Moraes, Jobim and Gilberto and musicians from their circle. Gilberto remained in the US until 1982, barely performing or recording and living a quiet life in New York. Jobim developed into a kind of Brazilian Gershwin; going far beyond bossa to produce orchestral albums like Matita Perê which owed as much to Heitor Villa-Lobos as to samba. De Moraes formed a lasting musical partnership with the guitarist Toquinho and later Baden Powell – one of the very few black Brazilians to play bossa and who combined it with more Afro-Brazilian, percussive sung samba. This would later be developed by singer-guitarists like João Bosco. And members of the original coterie that met in Ipanema – like Nara Leão, Carlos Lyra and Luiz Eça (who founded the Tamba Trio) found themselves famous alongside emerging new stars like Edu Lobo and Marcos Valle.

But by the late 1960s bossa nova was on the wane – eclipsed by a myriad of new styles played on electric instruments and known collectedly as MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Even die-hards like Nara Leão abandoned the genre – appearing on the cover of the ultra-fashionable new art-chic psychedelic rock album Panis et Circenses which heralded the arrival of tropicalismo. Most bossa artists gave up or went with the times. Some left for the US in a second wave of musical migration, including Jobim.

Jazz bossa

It is an irony that Astrud Gilberto and Sergio Mendes have sold more records internationally than any other Brazilian artist, yet in Brazil you’d struggle to find anyone who’s heard of either of them. Astrud has only performed in Brazil once – to a stone cold reception in a tiny venue in São Paulo. And even at the height of his fame, when he was playing the Academy Awards with the ‘Look of Love’, performing for presidents Johnson and Nixon at the White House or scoring the opening of the Los Angeles Olympics, Mendes failed even to register a top 100 album in Brazil.

Whilst bossa was in its death throes in Brazil, in the US it went from strength to strength. But it was evolving into an altogether different sound – as close to ‘cool school’ jazz as authentic Brazilian bossa nova. Kit drums replaced hand-held percussion, the double bass soon became electric and the vocal line was almost invariably sung by a woman. In the 1960s the woman’s voice was usually untutored, like Astrud’s. But by the 1970s American bossa had become altogether smoother hybrid of Brazilian rhythms, bossa progressions and jazz, sung by a string of sophisticated women singers and composers like Rosa Passos, Tania Maria, Badi Assad and Eliane Elias who had moved to the US and found the fame and success that eluded them back home.

Other cool school players like saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stanley Turrentine and flautists Herbie Mann and Hubert Laws had gone bossa too; but without singing. And when they discovered that US and Hispanic session players lacked the knowledge or the technique, they invited Brazilians to the country; beginning a third wave of musical migration that became crucial to the development of jazz itself. With master percussionists like Airto Moreira, Naná Vasconcelos and Paulinho da Costa, Brazil has been the only country outside the US to have contributed alumni to bands fronted by Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Weather Report.

Club bossa

Until the advent of the new millennium it seemed that bossa nova had had its day. In Brazil it was a fondly remembered, resolutely middle-class musical style and in the US it had melded with jazz to produce an international Brazilian sound unknown back home. But then another new bossa nova emerged – literally from beyond the grave.

In 1990, an obscure conservatory-trained Serbian electronica producer called Mitar Subotić or Suba, set up residence in São Paulo after receiving a grant to research African-Brazilian rhythms from UNESCO’s international fund for the promotion of culture. His European club tastes and production techniques soon found him working with a string of well-known domestic names. And by 1999 he had set up his own label – Ziriguiboom – to promote Brazilian acts who failed to secure record deals back home.

Then tragedy struck. On November 2, 1999, Suba was working on the post-production of one of the first Ziriguiboom albums – Tanto Tempo by João Gilberto’s daughter, Bebel, when his studio caught fire. He died trying to rescue the tapes. But the album was released posthumously and went on to sell over a million copies worldwide.

Bebel was the daughter of Gilberto and another singer Miúcha Buarque, although Bebel and Suba had copied her stepmother Astrud’s recipe for success. Almost all the songs were either old 1950s Brazilian standards or recalled them; but Bebel’s bossa nova was far more American than Brazilian. It was sung in Portuguese and English with the same wistful, sensual innocence with which Astrud had so captivated 1960s America. And rather than being set against a background of kit drums and cool sax, it floated over swirling electronica and gentle club beats.

Since its release, the album has spawned dozens of imitators and inspired the likes of trip-hopper Nina Miranda (of Smoke City and Zeep) to add bossa sounds into their post-club music. And this has revived bossa nova internationally. Yet few non-Brazilians realise that like Astrud, Bebel and her imitators remain almost unknown in her homeland. And although bossa is slowly creeping back into cocktail bars and imitation Western clubs in Rio and São Paulo, in the rest of Brazil it remains largely unplayed.

This article originally appeared in Songlines issue 48. Subscribe to Songlines.

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