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Theoretically Speaking S5-E16: What Makes Bossa Nova,  Bossa Nova?

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The most recorded song in history is The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” 

There are at least 2,200 recorded versions.

It’s hard to say exactly how many different artists have recorded it.

Or, for that matter, any other song. Royalty collection agencies – like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC – keep track of this sort of thing, but they rely on musicians to report new recordings. Many don’t.

For example:

Musicians who perform in a restaurant in a tourist area, let’s say in a tropical beach town, may supplement their income by selling CDs.

It’s entirely possible that these small batch CDs aren’t sold anywhere else, and also possible that the musicians didn’t pay royalties.

So it’s really hard to say if that 2,200 figure is accurate. Besides, more covers of “Yesterday” have probably been recorded since I wrote this sentence.

With all that in mind, can you guess what the second most recorded song is?

Maybe another Beatles song. Or John Lennon’s “Imagine,” or a Broadway/Jazz song like “Summertime?” I suppose it could well be any number of Christmas songs.

Good guesses.

But it’s thought that the song with the second most versions is the Bossa Nova classic “The Girl From Ipanema,” written by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes.

Finding this out got me interested in Bossa Nova… and here we are.

Bossa Nova is actually a subgenre of Samba, which I haven’t covered yet, so let’s talk about that a little, too.

“Bossa Nova” is Portuguese for “New Wave” but it’s called “Bossa Nova Samba” in Brazil. That helps define it as “Samba’s new wave.”

Samba started in Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and has become an integral part of Brazilian identity. It’s always played during Carnival and other gatherings, in part because it’s dance music.

There’s also a dance called the Samba. The dance features fast footwork, sexy hip movements, and big smiles.

Samba pulls together indigenous Brazilian musical influences with African and European traits. Melodies are catchy, the rhythm is syncopated and complex, and the instruments are percussion forward. These percussion instruments include the tamborim, which is like a tambourine without the little cymbals, and the pandeiro, which is also like a tambourine – but with fewer, bigger cymbals.

It rattles less than a tambourine, its sound is sharper and has less sustain.

Bossa Nova is generally slower than its parent. It’s relaxed, soft, and thoroughly chill. Where Samba is usually in 4/4 time, Bossa Nova is in 2/4. Yes, two measures of 2/4 have the same number of beats as one measure of 4/4, but the emphasis is different.

In 4/4, the first beat is accented with a softer accent on the third. In 2/4, the first beat is accented with the same emphasis:

There’s a profound American Jazz influence in Bossa Nova that Samba doesn’t have. While Bossa Nova isn’t overtly political music, there was a lot going on in Brazil in the late 1950s, and it affected everything, including music, so let’s compress hundreds of years of history into a few paragraphs.

When Napoleon invaded Portugal, the court moved to Rio de Janeiro and declared it the capital of the Portuguese empire.

Since then, Rio has been a cosmopolitan city.

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. It was the last country in the Americas to do so. Post-slavery, cities like Rio accepted people and influences from everywhere, including Salvador, a city 800 miles up the coast.

Salvador was a mostly black city and its African heritage influenced its music.

A lot of it was based on an Angolan genre called Semba, which translates to “a touch of belly buttons.” My guess is that it’s from the dance of the same name. When you’re cheek-to-cheek, you’re also navel-to-navel.

Anyway, Semba made its way south to Rio, and from Semba: came Samba.

Getúlio Vargas worked his way up through Brazilian politics but lost his bid to become president in 1930. However, he took the presidency after a military coup and was elected outright, though under a new constitution, in 1934.

Three years later, under the false pretense of a communist uprising, he seized power, canceled the 1938 election, and was Brazil’s dictator for the next seven years.

During this nationalist “Estado Novo” period, Brazil attracted international business, especially the oil industry, and attempted to improve its global reputation. The arts come in handy for that sort of thing.

Vargas knew that the arts keep people happy, too, so he supported Carnival, parades, and Samba schools.

These schools are more like social clubs than actual schools, but they do teach traditional music and dance.

In the years before World War II, the United States worried that the dictator might side with Germany and, given Brazil’s location, become a mighty sea power. The ever-practical Vargas stayed out of the war but maintained relations with both the Allies and the Axis. Whatever’s good for business, y’know?

After Pearl Harbor, however, Vargas thought it best to side with the Allies.

Good move, but defending democracy abroad isn’t a good look when it doesn’t exist at home and, after the war, the military forced him to resign.

His successor, Eurico Gaspar Dutra, couldn’t keep Brazil’s economy stable and Vargas was re-elected in 1951.

A violent attack on one of his political adversaries resulted in the death of an Air Force officer. The military didn’t like losing one of their own and insisted Vargas resign. After all, the murder suspect was his chief of security.

Instead of resigning, the president of Brazil shot himself.

In death, his legacy remained powerful and his nationalistic policies continued for many years. This is the backdrop of the 1950s, when Bossa Nova was invented.

With the influx of American companies, American culture followed.

The U.S. State Department sponsored Jazz performances in Latin America. After hours, the Americans would find jam sessions with Brazilian musicians. The Americans learned Samba. The Brazilians learned Jazz and loved its extended chords, like 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths. You’ll find them throughout Bossa Nova songs.

João Gilberto wrote a song called “Bim Bom” in 1956 but didn’t record it until 1958. He wrote it while watching women carrying laundry on their heads, and he imitates their steps with bims and boms.

It appears on the same album as his recording of “Chega de Saudade,” which was composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim with lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes. “Chega de Saudade” was recorded before “Bim Bom” but written after, so you can debate which is the first Bossa Nova song.

What’s not debatable is that Gilberto, Jobim, and de Moraes are the big three names in Bossa Nova.

They slowed Samba down, made it elegant and sophisticated, and wrote many of the songs other artists would make famous.

One of the American Jazz musicians who gigged in Brazil was a sax player named Stan Getz.

He loved Bossa Nova, and together with guitarist Charlie Byrd, recorded an album called “Jazz Samba” in 1962. It included a cover of Jobim’s song “Desafinado,” for which Getz won the 1963 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance.

Likewise, the State Department sent sax player Paul Winter and his sextet on a 160 gig tour of Latin America. Following that, they played the first Jazz concert at the White House.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy loved it. Bossa Nova was getting popular anyway but Jackie was something of a tastemaker. Her approval made it even more chic.

With its laid back atmosphere, it fit in well with the Easy Listening records of the time. Bossa Nova sits midway between Easy Listening and Exotica.

But the opinions about Bossa Nova varied back in Brazil.

Some folks liked it, but others thought the Jazz touches were intentionally added for the American market.

Samba came from and was for the lower class, Bossa Nova was by and for the middle class. Some saw Bossa Nova as the gentrification and commercialization of Samba.

Of the people who thought that, some saw it as hope for Brazil’s position in the world. With Brazilia, the country’s shining new capital, and Pelé, one of the greatest football players in sports history, Brazil’s star was on the rise

Except, of course, for its politics. By 1968, it was a dictatorship again.

But in 1964, “The Girl From Ipanema” became a worldwide hit.

Written by Jobim and de Moraes and recorded by Gilberto, it’s the most successful song any of the big three were involved in.

It was originally recorded by Pery Ribeiro in 1962.

However, the version that went global included a new voice. Jobim, Gilberto, and others went to New York to record with Getz. Gilberto’s wife Astrud went, too. English lyrics had been written by Norman Gimbel, but neither Jobim or Gilberto spoke English, and Getz didn’t sing.

Astrud, however, spoke English and several other languages because her father was a language professor. Her mother was a multi-instrumentalist so, while she wasn’t a professional musician, she understood music.

Part of the charm of her performance of “The Girl From Ipanema” is that it’s unaffected. She sings it straight, with no flourishes or any attention seeking techniques that a professional might have used. It defines Bossa Nova singing.

The radio edit version cuts out João’s vocal and leaves only Astrud’s.  She had a successful singing career, even after divorcing João.

Jobim and de Moraes wrote “The Girl From Ipanema” in Rio.

Jobim had the melody and de Moraes had the idea for the lyrics while sitting in the Veloso bar near Ipanema’s beach. The bar is still there, though it’s a little touristy now.

Heloísa Eneida Paes Pinto Mendes Pinheiro lived in the neighborhood. She was 17 and would go into the bar to buy cigarettes for mother, ignoring the cat calling of the patrons. The idea of longing for someone so beautiful but who won’t acknowledge you is what inspired “The Girl From Ipanema,” but de Moraes made it a lot less lecherous.

Better known now as Helô Pinheiro, she became a model, reality TV star, and businesswoman.

In 2001, she opened a clothing store called Garota de Ipanema, which is the song’s title in Portuguese, and was promptly sued by Jobim and de Moraes’ children who had inherited the copyright.

Public sentiment was with her. In court, she presented a document in which Jobim and de Moraes called her the original girl from Ipanema. The lawsuit was decided in her favor.

Though part of Bossa Nova’s popularity with the Brazilian regime was how apolitical and calming it was, Jobim realized he could slip in some hidden messages.

He and Chico Buarque wrote “Sabia,” a song about longing to go back to Brazil, but it’s all in the past tense. Perhaps the singer is homesick for Brazil the way it used to be.

Buarque’s “Construção” tells the story of a construction worker killed on the job. From the afterlife, he criticizes the working and living conditions of Brazil’s poor, as well as pollution and alcoholism.

Its discordant horns and vocal harmonies mimic the noise of city life and chaos of an unfair system. It’s not the relaxed vibe that made Bossa Nova famous.

“Construção” could be more blatant than “Sabiá” because Buarque was living in exile. In Brazil, the military dictatorship kept its eye on musicians, which is why Jobim’s criticism had to be so subtle.

That’s part of the reason Bossa Nova’s popularity faded. The regime censored all the arts. Some artists watered down Bossa Nova to make it more commercial. Others went into the underground avant garde. The music industry got more global so outside influences came in. The British Invasion invaded Brazil, too.

Tastes change. But Bossa Nova never became passé.

Authoritarianism and inequality continue. So do protests. Things change slowly and they change for the better, but we still need chilled-out music.

Sixty years later, people are still recording “The Girl From Ipanema.” 

And when she passes, each one she passes: goes “aah.”

Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

Bim Bom
João Gilberto
1956

Desafinado (Out Of Tune)
Stan Getz / Charlie Byrd
1962

Journey to Recife
The Paul Winter Sextet
1962

The Girl From Ipanema
Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto and Stan Getz
1964

Wave
Antônio Carlos Jobim
1967

The Look Of Love
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66
1968

Construção (Construction)
Chico Buarque
1971

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
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Phylum of Alexandria
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December 15, 2023 7:30 am

America tried its darnedest to brand Bossa Nova as Easy Listening music, and it is quite easygoing!

But those gentle rhythms and sweet melodies are imbued with melancholy, and the singers have a cool insouciance that calls to mind the ‘tudes of Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Chet Baker.

As a teenager I dismissed this stuff as elevator music, but not too long after high school I was able to get how cool this music was.

Great write up. The political content provides the perfect backdrop for a sequel, starring some of the folks listed here.

Both Grouse
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December 15, 2023 11:13 pm

I think I was out of college before I started paying attention to anything this acoustic and mellow. But “Girl From Ipanema” and the Getz/Byrd album were captivating, and David Byrne’s series was electrifying. I think you’re hinting at a sequel starring figures such as Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil and I am completely here for it.

Another word of thanks for the historical context!

Zeusaphone
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December 15, 2023 8:13 am

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. It was the last country in the Americas to do so.

Indeed, a number of wealthy Confederate slave owners relocated to Brazil with their slaves rather than give them up at the end of the Civil War.

mt58
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December 15, 2023 8:46 am

Bill’s excellent article provided a bonus memory-flip switch for yours truly.

I remember watching Sunday night TV with my father when I was a little kid. As a musical act was performing, I became very worried about something. I asked, “Papa, what are they gonna do next year?“ He didn’t take my meaning.

What I was obsessing about was the fact that in less than 12 months, the name that they had given themselves was going to be irrelevant.

Fast forward 11 years: Ed Sullivan is long gone. One night, I’m flipping the dial and come across some cheesy variety show which I can’t recall the name of, and who pops up but Sergio Mendes And Brazil… wait for it… ’77. We would meet again in 11 more years with the refreshingly named Brazil ’88. And then he did the same thing in 1999.

Someday, maybe I’ll figure out why insignificant little quirks like this trouble me so much, and why it elated me every time there was a Brazil XX reboot.

Oh, and remake or not:

“Mas Que Nada” é nota 10.

https://youtu.be/BrZBiqK0p9E?si=N4ZxHJqIhKMHCbcI

rollerboogie
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December 15, 2023 9:39 am
Reply to  mt58

Very funny that you had the foresight as a child that Sergio apparently didn’t when he named the band after a year. As a child, due to my dad’s love of the easy listening stations, I first knew about Brasil ’77 before I knew of its original incarnation as ’66. As an adult, I know there’s no comparison. ’66 is it, baby. Count me as someone who is still listening and they have been a big influence on me as a musician. I’ve told my choir more than once on a particular song that they need to sound like Brasil ’66, and darn it if it doesn’t work. One of my recent liturgical compositions owes its entire sound and feel to Sergio Mendes, and I’m proud to say it.

mt58
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December 15, 2023 10:21 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

“I’ve told my choir more than once on a particular song that they need to sound like Brazil ’66, and darn it if it doesn’t work.”

To which we can only reply:

Both Grouse
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December 16, 2023 9:15 am
Reply to  mt58

Lovely tune, and that’s some STYLISH percussion playing!

rollerboogie
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December 15, 2023 8:47 am

Since the Beatles, specifically “Yesterday”, were the focus of the beginning of this article, I’m going to go full circle and post a Bossa Nova cover of a Beatles’ song, from Polish jazz singer, Grazyna Auguscik, and Brazilian singer/guitarist Paulinho Garcia. My wife and I have been fans of Grazyna for years and saw her live multiple times, including once with Paulinho. She’s usually works the more experimental wing of jazz, but she can do it all.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HG2P_HRuiH8

rollerboogie
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December 15, 2023 9:17 am

I really appreciate this article and I have some thoughts. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Bossa Nova would not have become the smash in the U.S. that it did without Astrud Gilberto’s vocal on “The Girl from Ipanema”, so it’s worth mentioning that Getz made sure she received no royalties for it, and she wasn’t even credited on the first album release. And while it is true she had no professional recording experience before that day, and she was there just to accompany her husband, it is important to note that she volunteered to sing the English that day, and that it wasn’t anyone’s idea, as others in the room would try to claim, in order to take credit for “discovering her” and minimalizing her contribution, most notably Getz. The way he belittled her in the press was downright ugly, and the way she was treated by the press in general was deplorable. Your distinction that she understood music and grew up with it puts it into context, that it was her voice and her talent. While the big three you mentioned are responsible for basically inventing Bossa Nova, as you said, Astrud’s voice defines Bossa Nova singing. It is inseparable from that sound, at least to the English-speaking American ear, and without it, we may not be talking about this today.

Last edited 4 months ago by rollerboogie
LinkCrawford
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December 15, 2023 9:25 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

These are great points, rollerboogie!

LinkCrawford
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December 15, 2023 9:23 am

I have no idea what I was watching, but in the early 2000s I saw a video of David Byrne singing “Waters of March” (a song I’d never heard) with Marisa Monte (a Brazilian artist I’d never heard of). I liked the song immediately. I love that descending chord progression that just goes on and on.

Looking into it, I bought an Antonio Carlos Jobim compilation and really liked it. Then I discovered Basia had recorded the song, too (a version I like much better).

I have a day off work today, but I feel like I’m coming down with a bit of a cold or something. Today’s article was refreshing…I listened to all of the songs. I knew a number of them (though you found album versions of radio edits that I was more familiar with), and liked most of them. So chill, so understated. There is a lot of overlap on the Venn diagram of easy listening, jazz, lounge and bossa nova, and I love it all. Thanks for the article, Bill!

LinkCrawford
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December 15, 2023 9:32 am

My first career job was in Medford, Oregon, where we lived for 4 years. They had a fantastic radio station that already seemed anachronistic for the 1990s, that played a lot of easy listening oldies back to the 50s. I remember hearing “Summer Samba” by Walter Wanderly. Luckily I had an musical trivia nut I worked with and he was able to identify the song for me. It is fantastically cheesy and wonderful Bossa Nova with focus on organ. I adore it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGNwXq6vPoI

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 15, 2023 4:42 pm

History, politics, music theory and I learnt that Bossa Nova means new wave. The career of French band Nouvelle Vague now makes total sense.

https://youtu.be/p9jCwA8mW_E?feature=shared

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 16, 2023 3:38 am
Reply to  Virgindog

If you like that they’ve a whole back catalog of new wave covers in a bossa nova / lounge style with alluring French accented vocals.

From I Wanna Be Sedated to Road To Nowhere. There’s something for everyone.

thegue
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December 15, 2023 5:42 pm

Another great entry Bill.

After Swingers came out, a lot of these “lounge” genres became popular again. I never learned how to dance to any of them, but I did enjoy them.

Also, I went to Rio with a bunch of ex-pats for NYE in ’04. We stayed in Copacabana for 2 weeks and Ipanema for 1. I did NOT bring my girlfriend at the time.

She asked to go, and I told her no. “You don’t bring sand to the beach!”

The relationship did not last.

Zeusaphone
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December 15, 2023 9:55 pm
Eric-J
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December 17, 2023 4:43 pm

In 1966, Stephen Sondheim wrote a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema” called “The Boy From…” for “The Mad Show” an off-Broadway review based on Mad Magazine.

https://youtu.be/WFC9uuHcxbA?si=sHE6tULZ0a9344HP

Countdowner
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December 19, 2023 8:54 pm

Thanks for this great article. Now I know who Chico Buarque is, mentioned in this lyric from Silvio Rodriguez where he compares songwriters to magicians and explorers.

Estoy buscando melodías
Para tener como llamarte
Quien fuera ruiseñor
Quien fuera Lennon y McCartney
Sindo Garay, Violeta, Chico Buarque
Quien fuera tu trovador

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LhqewIGe0w

mt58
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December 19, 2023 9:54 pm
Reply to  Countdowner

Great to see you, !

cappiethedog
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December 20, 2023 8:39 pm

“When you bossa nova, there’s no holding/But you have me dancing, out of nowhere.”

-Bryan Ferry

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