By Isabel Morales
Bossa nova began on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950s, when a group of middle-class students, artists, and musicians came together to create a new sound (ABC, n.d.). This new generation of middle-class people frequently went to jazz clubs and were exposed to American movies and music, so they moved away from samba and embraced the quieter sounds of bossa nova (Brown University Library, n.d.). Bossa nova is a style of samba with jazz influences that came to reflect the political and social climate of the country during this period. It gained enormous popularity, dominating Brazilian music in the 1960s, and was one of the most influential movements in the history of popular music in the country, reaching great international recognition and praise.
The 1950s was an evolutionary time in Brazil. It was a period in which Brazil won the World Cup, and new artistic movements such as Cinema Novo, and figures like architect Oscar Niemeyer were all coming out to the spotlight. So, Brazilians had a strong sense of national pride during this time (Brown University Library, n.d.). The Presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek, between 1956 to 1961, marked a period of optimism, modernization, and national development. For instance, Kubitschek thought it would be politically and economically favorable to bring focus to the country’s interior, so he decided to build an entire new capital city: Brasília. This idea of a fresh start was an incentive for bossa nova to arise.
In comparison to samba, which is characterized by its energetic, danceable and drum-heavy music, bossa nova offered a new sound that was not typically reflective of Brazilian traditional music. But, although it was a break from samba, bossa nova took specific elements of samba and blended it with jazz music. One of the main concepts that is transmitted through bossa nova is the feeling you have when you listen to it, called saudade. There is no English translation for it, but it is related to the idea of longing and a distinctive melancholy emotion. This saudade sentiment was created through its instrumentation, but also through its lyrics. Most bossa nova lyrics reflect themes like falling in love, nature, and longing (Garsd, 2015). This represented a shift in Brazilian lyrics, now that samba songs usually refer to the public sphere with themes like carnival, social conflict, and politics—something for which bossa nova was greatly criticized (Lewis, 2019). The tranquil sounds that characterized bossa nova were not just from incorporating jazz sounds, but artists used more traditional Brazilian instrumentation like guitars to create softer sounds. The use of the acoustic guitar was widely used, particularly finger-plucking, to follow the soft melodies and a subtle acoustic. However, even the rhythm of bossa nova played by the guitar and other instruments like the drums, are elements taken from samba.
One of the earlier criticisms bossa nova received, was that the singing was off key. This unconventional harmony received a lot of criticism by many Brazilians that did not understand the value of this new style. In response to this, João Gilberto, one of the principal architects of bossa nova, released a song titled Desafinado, which translates to off-key, and it was his way of making a statement in response to this criticism (Contreras, 2019). However, it is believed that this “off-key” singing does not diminish or lessen the music in any way, but rather, complements it, and it adds to the innovative sound that bossa nova offered (Reily 1996).
In addition to João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim was one of the key founders of bossa nova. He was one of the most important Brazilian songwriters, arrangers, and musicians that emerged during the 1960s, and his work aided the expansion and growth of bossa nova internationally by influencing well known artists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The song that sparked the craze for bossa nova in the U.S. and other parts of the world was called Garota de Ipanema or, The Girl From Ipanema, sung by Astrud Gilberto, featured in the Getz/Gilberto album. The song’s phenomenal success reaching No.5 in the 1964 U.S. pop singles chart, created a “bossa nova fever” in the U.S. that attracted many jazz musicians who began recording Brazilian music and transforming popular songs using bossa nova-influenced rhythms (Waring, 2020).
With international recognition, bossa nova became extremely popular, but a transition in music practice was in full swing when the military assumed power in 1964. The military regime affected popular music when the “protest music” that existed before the military coup d'état grew with public indignation and restrictions on free speech. Along with this, bossa nova was criticized for alienating itself from cultural traditions and the experiences of the nation’s poor. This belief stemmed from the idea that bossa nova’s lyrics were considered superficial, in the sense that they lacked any sort of class consciousness and aligned ideologically with a capitalist idea of modernization (Perrone, 2002). As a result, a second generation of bossa nova songwriters stepped forward with new and progressive ideas that aligned with the overall sentiment of indignation and resistance within the country that led to stylistic modifications of the genre. Standard bossa nova music that was more jazz-like fell into disfavor in several sectors, and in the late 1960s, it was overshadowed by new movements known as Música Popular Brasileira and Tropicália (Brown University Library, n.d.).
While traditional bossa nova sparked a wave of criticism and its popularity was eventually diminished, it left a significant legacy for Brazilian culture and future musicians (Daley, 2019). Bossa nova was more than just a new musical style. It was a revolution in Brazilian popular music. The urban middle class, that historically did not tend to participate in musical practices, found itself actively taking part in this movement as composers, instrumentalists, and singers. Though for many critics it failed to reflect crucial components of Brazilian culture, bossa nova did incorporate popular Brazilian themes, aspirations, traditions, and folklore into its essence that left an imprint for many Brazilians and people around the world (Perrone, 2002).
ABC. (n.d.). Bossa Nova: a brief history. https://www.abc.net.au/rn/features/bossanova/about.htm#:%7E:text=Bossa%20Nova%20began%20on%20the,new%20style%20of%20Portuguese%20lyrics.
Contreras, F. (2019, July 6). João Gilberto, Master of Bossa Nova, Dies At 88. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/07/06/739224759/jo-o-gilberto-master-of-bossa-nova-dies-at-88
Brown University Library. (n.d.). Bossa Nova | Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. https://library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-6/bossa-nov/
Daley, J. (2019, July 8). Bossa Nova Became a Turning Point in Brazilian Culture. João Gilberto Helped Launch It. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/remembering-bossa-nova-pioneer-joao-gilberto-180972578/
Escobar, L. (2015, October 29). Bossa Nova: An introduction to Brazilian Jazz. Pura Aventura. https://pura-aventura.com/travel-stories/bossa-nova-an-introduction-to-brazilian-jazz
Garsd, J. (2015). Saudade: An Untranslatable, Undeniably Potent Word. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/altlatino/2014/02/28/282552613/saudade-an-untranslatable-undeniably-potent-word
Lewis, J. (2019, June 12). Why bossa nova is “the highest flowering of Brazilian culture.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/01/bossa-nova-highest-culture-brazil
Perrone, C. (2002). Nationalism, Dissension, and Politics in Contemporary Brazilian Popular Music. Luso-Brazilian Review, 39(1), 65-78. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3513834
Ratliff, B. (2019, July 8). João Gilberto, an Architect of Bossa Nova, Is Dead at 88. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/06/arts/music/joao-gilberto-dead-bossa-nova.html
Reily, S. (1996). Tom Jobim and the Bossa Nova Era. Popular Music, 15(1), 1-16. Retrieved April 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/931201
Waring, C. (2020, October 29). Bossa Nova: The History Behind Brazil’s Quiet Revolution. UDiscover Music. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/bossa-nova-history-brazil/