The History Of Bossa Nova
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The Brazilian music style Bossa Nova is a music genre part of Brazilian Popular Music created in 1958 and faded out about 1963, lasting officially only six years. This musical style is probably the most known style from Brazil in the whole world, having achieved significant success in the four parts of the world such as the United States, Western Europe, Japan and most importantly in its country of birth. This important music style shall be investigated and analysed carefully in the hope of obtaining valuable and interesting points about the history of this revolutionary musical phenomenon.
To understand the musical style it is essential to first understand the origin of the term “Bossa Nova”. The term “Bossa” was widely used in the 1930’s as a slang word in the city of Rio de Janeiro. It meant to do something in a different but very original way. The term was basically used to describe something in a “cool” or “trendy” way. The Portuguese word “Nova” in simple English term means new. The translation of the whole term would therefore be something like “New Trend”. The term basically was created by the youth of that time, as a form of opposing everything they believed to be old, ancient and outdated in Brazilian Music.
Bossa Nova was heavily criticised when it first came out to the people, mainly due to its strong influences from American music and especially on post war American culture. Big names such as of pianist Stan Kenton were said to be a major influence on the style, due to his new and innovative methods in his American jazz orchestra. Another influence mentioned by critics is of impressionist composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Rave, both playing an important role in the creation of the style. The most obvious and most common style influence however to the human ear comes clearly from American music such as cool jazz and even bebop. This is mainly due to the use of dissonant chords which is very common in jazz music. These musical styles and influences, along with the youth’s discontent with the music scenario at the time, encouraged the musical revolutionaries to modernise music, thus creating the beautiful style known to all of us as bossa nova. Another definite and positive musical influence coming from Brazilian popular music is of local singers Lucio Alves and Dick Farney. Both singers were famous in the 1950’s for having soft and peaceful vocals, as opposed to the stereotypical stronger and more powerful voice which was very common at the time. Dick Farney’s music is considered nowadays to be the “Pre bossa nova phase”. All of these factors contributed to the creation of the style and practically differentiated the bossa nova style from all of the other existing acts in the world.
During the year of 1957 and onwards, a selective group of middle classed young and aspiring musicians would gather together frequently in order to socialise, but most importantly, to play and make music. These people would get together and share their ideas in apartments or houses, at different spots around the city. The main place however where these people played music was at Nara Leao’s apartment in Copacabana, a noble district in the city of Rio de Janeiro. The beautiful Nara Leão, at the time was only 15 years old, but nonetheless still participated in those reunions and already at that age showed great taste for music and outstanding vocal abilities. Nara Leao would later become a professional singer, touring with artists such as Sergio Mendes and becoming one of the style’s greatest female icon, being referred to as the”bossa nova’s muse”” and becoming forever immortalized in bossa nova’s history. In those musical reunions great musicians and singers such as Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal played part and were frequent attenders. As time progressed, that group gained more visibility and increased in size. Artists such as Ronaldo Boscoli, Chico Feitosa and the great Joao Gilberto soon made part of that same group which would revolutionize Brazilian music. Bossa nova was above all an emerging urban movement in the country during the developing phase of Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency years. It is believed by many critics that the style happened after the re-encounter of two members from the groups, Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto in the year of 1957. According to writer Sóstenes Pernambuco Pires Barros (2001, my translation) “Some researchers believe that from those meetings Bossa Nova was created. Poet Vinicius de Moraes agrees however the theme is very controversial”.
A massive surprise that was introduced by the style was the fact that the lyrics in the songs contrasted heavily with what was being played at the time. The lyrics from the style generally adopted light and easy going themes, something very different to the original samba songs which were usually sad and depressing. As was mentioned before, the form of singing and the way in which the lyrics were delivered in bossa nova style was completely different to the other more operatic voices in the music business. The style brought a form of different singing, instead of actually singing the words, singers would practically speak in a very colloquial way the words, thus singing in a not so loud way. By doing this, the focus of the song was ultimately the lyrics of the song, the way in which they were narrated to the listeners and most importantly the form that the accompaniment and harmony of the song were directly connected to the singing, as opposed to having weak harmonies and powerful voices. In order to revolutionise Brazilian music, composers from the style would use extensively the so called dissonant chords, which later rather ironically as a form of manifesto against the critics, Tom Jobim composed the tune called “Desafinado” (Out of Tune, my translation). It is important to state that the musical revolutionaries didn’t in any way dislike the existing national musical styles, but intead believed that the the old samba tunes were especially melancholic and very depressing. The youth of the nation believed that the music had to be changed sooner or later. They would in the future go ahead and create the style bossa nova. A style that contained different harmonies, simpler lyrics and poetries, happy thoughts and most importantly, new rhythms. The style was however not intended to be better or worse than the other styles, it was meant to be simply different. Different from everything, more refined and with more optimistic views on the future. Brazilian writer who lived and took part in the whole movement Sóstenes Pernambuco Pires Barros (2001, my translation) states that “In reality, it can’t even be classed as a musical genre. It is the form in which the music is treated, in relation to beats and rhythm”.
The first Bossa Nova mark officially started in May 1958 when female singer Elizeth Cardoso’s tracks were released in a LP with various artists. One of her two tracks was called “Canção Do Amor Demais” (Loveful Tune, my translation). The LP featured the legendary Joao Gilberto playing guitar in her both tracks. These turned out to be the recordings that would characterize the new invented guitar accompaniment made by Joao Gilberto, which in a few years would be one of the style’s greatest trademark feature. This feature was in actual fact the syncopated guitar groove, which was syncopated on every weak drum beat. That same LP was produced by label Festa and featured the other track by singer Elizeth Cardoso called “Chega de Saudade” (Enough of Longing) by the genius musical partners Tom Jobim and poet Vinicius de Morais. The LP when released intended to focus mainly on the partners and especially on Vinicius de Morais’s work, since he wished to record his best poetry and as consequence release it to the people. Surprisingly enough, according to a famous local journalist at the time Ruy Castro (1990, p.175, my translation) “As opposed to what is believed today, that LP was not a hit when it was released in May 1958”. Later on that year the same Joao Gilberto went on to record an LP as a solo artists in which for the first time he would sing and play. The LP featured one of the singer’s own songs, the tune “Bim Bom” but most importantly featured the same song from before “Chega de Saudade” of partners Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. Joao Gilberto brought his own special touch again to the cover version such as the characteristic guitar accompaniment and beat to the music, and in a sense brought to life once more the important features that would later become strong characteristics of the style. Joao Gilberto in his version also innovated and created the new way of singing to fit the style. He had sung the song using the features of the style mentioned previously above, this is singing with a not very loud voice and in a sense, nearly whispering into the microphone. The singer would later achieve both national and international success with that same song which features over 100 different covers by different artists, from those days until nowadays. According to the original composer of the song Tom Jobim “The bossa nova of the song ‘Chega de Saudade’ is practically concentrated on the harmonies, the altered chords which were not so used by musicians at the time, and in the new guitar hand picking groove executed by Joao Gilberto”(2002, http://www.dicionariompb.com.br/verbete.asp?nome=Bossa+Nova&tabela=T_FORM_C).
During the initial years, musicians from the old reunion groups formed in 1957 would play and present some of their music in local universities, in order to introduce their music to the people. Bossa nova music was in fact the first Brazilian musical movement to egress from universities, seeing that all of their initials performances took part in those areas. The musical group as a result gained even more visibility and followers, such as of composer Leny Andrade, famous for his instrumental music and the nowadays famous Sergio Mendes. As time progressed, the style was taken slowly to the other parts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, such as small venues and bars in the district of Copacabana, before achieving worldwide success and become a musical epidemic. After a few performances, musician Tom Jobim started to rise in popularity, as people got to listen more and understand better the new style being played. Tom Jobim’s music plays an important part in the history of classic bossa nova with tunes such as “Desafinado” and “Samba De Uma Nota Só” (One Note Samba, my translation). Those two songs in actual fact were the first songs chosen from the bossa nova style to enter the competitive American music market in the early 1960’s. Together with Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim created the all time “bossa nova anthem” known as “Garota de Ipanema”(Girl From Ipanema, my translation). That song in actual fact would later become the second most famous Brazilian song in the whole word, after only “Aquarela do Brasil” by composer Ary Barroso. Following the great acceptance of the style in American grounds, bossa nova artists were invited to play in what is known to many Brazilian musicians, as a historical concert in 1962 in the Carnegie Hall, New York. Some artists that played part in this event were obviously Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto, Carlos Lyra, Sergio Mendes and many other famous names at the time. The concert was intended to approximate the bossa nova artists to the American people and the event proved to be a great success, opening new doors and boundaries for that style of music internationally. That concert had such great demands and visibility that it was broadcast to the whole world live. Since then, Tom Jobim’s song “Garota de Ipanema” has been featured and played in more than 150 different recordings by different artists. The song was such a successful hit that besides being played by the composer himself in 1963, it was also played shortly after by Sarah Vaughan in 1964, Stan Gets in 1966, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim together in 1967 and even the great Ella Fitzgerald in 1971, amongst other great national and international artists. Jazz saxofonist Stan Getz and guitarrist Charlie Byrd in 1962 even recorded a cover instrumental version of the song “Desafinado” by Tom Jobim, showing once more the great acceptance of bossa nova music on international grounds.
The chronological end of the style in 1963 didn’t by any means signify that the style would whatsoever become extinct. In fact, the style left a great big legacy of fans and followers and especially admirers of the great style. As was mentioned before, songs were extensively covered by great names of jazz music even after the official end of the “Bossa Nova Years” as a form of paying back what the Brazilian style did to their music. As Bossa Nova grew in America consequently so did Jazz music. In 1965, thus after the end of the musical movement, poet Vinicius de Moraes and musician Edu Lobo composed a song called “Arrastao” (Dragging, my translation). That same song was covered by singer Elis Regina. That song marked the end of Bossa Nova but only the start of what was going to be called in the future as MPB(Brazilian Popular Music), a style that would fuse many Brazilian styles and influences until the 1980’s. In present time concerts are still put on dedicated to the Bossa Nova style such as when the style completed 40 years and other celebratory events. Also, in more recent years the style influenced greatly other generations of artists from a post British punk scene such as bands Style Council, Everything but the Girl and even Jamiroquai. The style can still be frequently heard also in electronic music where dj’s have used bossa nova influences, creating the style bossa electrica.
From all of this it can be finally be concluded that although the style only lasted roughly six years, the great impact that it had on the people at those times and even nowadays is unquestionable. Bossa nova was undoubtedly a revolution in Brazilian music for the important changes it brought such as the developed way of singing and especially the syncopated guitar picking, thus creating the classic bossa nova groove. During the years, it was widely recognised as being an exotic style with songs being covered restlessly by many different artists around the world. The style also brought and made people more aware of great composers such as Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto, which is considered to be the “pope” of the style for his creations and creations in Brazilian music. Bossa nova left behind a great legacy in music and with no doubts whatsoever will hopefully continue to do so, bringing happier, harmonic and enjoyable music to its listeners.
Word Count: 2498
Barros, S.P.P. (2001) Histórias da Bossa Nova
Available at: http://www.almacarioca.com.br/mpb.htm
(Accessed: 17 April 2009)
Castro, Ruy. (1990) Chega de Saudade, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1990
Dicionário Cravo Albin da Musica Brasileira, 2002
(Accessed): 17 April 2009)
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