The Birth of Bossa Nova
With his soft, quiet and almost whispering vocal style and his revolutionary way of playing the guitar, João Gilberto appeared in the late 1950's, to charm and conquer first Brazil and soon after the entire world. From the city of Juazeiro in Bahia, João Gilberto was the natural front man and the quintessential central figure for a brand new style of Brazilian music: bossa nova.
In the beginning, the term “bossa nova”, simply referred to a new way of playing and singing samba, incorporating some elements from jazz music and with a pronounced softness, both in terms of musical and poetic presentation. The North American influences, in the form of dissonant chords, typical of jazz, was criticized very heavily by some influential Brazilian critics and cultural figures at the time. It may be hard to imagine today, but João Gilberto's low-key and whispering vocal style, full of small details and nuances, was perceived as highly provocative, as it broke completely with the previously existing singing tradition, with its loud voices and flamboyant presentations. Of course many other contemporary critics praised the innovative bossa nova music and hailed it as the single most important event in Brazilian music history. Apart from the music itself, the lyrics of the early bossa nova compositions, with their highly poetical content, also stood apart from the typical Brazilian popular music of the 50’s.
With his trade mark vocal style and his innovative guitar playing, João Gilberto is rightlfully and widely regarded as the most vital link in the birth of bossa nova, but he was certainly not alone in the process. In fact, bossa nova, as a musical genre, came about gradually during the late 1950's. The fundamental ideas and concept of what would become the bossa nova movement, was hatched by a group of young musicians and cultural enthusiasts from Rio de Janeiro’s middle class. They would regularly meet up to talk about, listen to and play music. One of the most enthusiastic participants in these meetings was the then only 15-year-old girl Nara Leão. Her (or rather her parents') apartment on the fashionable Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana district also became an unofficial “headquarter” for the early bossa nova movement, in 1957. Besides Nara Leão the nucleus of the group first consisted of the young musicians Billy Blanco, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal and Sérgio Rica, but soon grew to include, among others, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Chico Feitosa, Luiz Carlos Vinhas - and of course also João Gilberto himself.
In early 1958 João Gilberto was invited to take part in the recording of singer Elizeth Cardoso's new album Canção do Amor Demais. All the songs on the album were written by the newly formed and highly acclaimed song writing duo of Antônico Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morães. João Gilberto's contribution to the disc was as a guitar player on the tracks Chega de Saudade and Outra Vez. In his guitar play, João Gilberto strived to imitate the percussion section of a samba band, though of course all in his own, very elegant and unobtrusive way. Gilberto's guitar playing style (which soon became the hallmark of bossa nova), was therefore dubbed “batida de violão”, which could be translated as “drum rhythm on guitar.”
The Canção do Amor Demais album also became the public breakthrough for composer Antônico Carlos (also called Tom) Jobim and poet Vinicius de Morães, who both went on tio become two of the strongest protagonists of the new bossa nova movement. A couple of months later in 1958, João Gilberto chose Tom Jobim’s and Vinicius de Morães beautiful Chega de Saudade, as his first solo recording – the first bossa nova song ever recorded.
The bossa nova music and movement emerged at a time of profound change and modernization of the Brazilian society, under the popular president Juscelino Kubitschek, or JK, as he is called in Brazil. Kubitschek promised 50 years of progress in five years and one of his first major projects was to begin the construction of a new, ultra-modern capital in the heart of the country: Brasília. The city was designed and planned by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa and was inaugurated in 1961. The Kubitschek presidency also saw huge investments in the country’s industries and also in infrastructure and highways. Culturally, Brazil during the late 50’s and early 60’s also saw the rise of several talented authors, like the now world famous Jorge Amado, and Brazilian film makers in the so called Cinema Novo movement presenting themselves. As perhaps the icing on the cake, Brazil won the soccer world cup two times in a row, 1958 and 1962, driving the national mood up to almost euphoric heights. There was a profound sense of optimism among people in Brazil during these years – and Brazilians started to have faith and confidence in their own future. The bossa nova was the perfect soundtrack for these times.
A few months after the release of the single Chega de Saudade, João Gilberto released his first LP, also named Chega de Saudade. The album was produced by Aloysio de Oliveira and had musical arrangements by Tom Jobim. In addition to songs by Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Morães, Gilberto also interpreted several older songs, by composers such as Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi. There was also the song Lobo Bobo, by the young song writing duo of Carlos Lyra and Ronaldo Bôscoli, straight from the original core group of the bossa nova movement. The whole album was performed in typical bossa nova style, with Gilberto’s “batida de violão” and soft, leisurely voice in the foreground. The album was a huge success in every sense - and bossa nova had come to stay.
In 1961 João Gilberto moved to the United States, where bossa nova had become particularly popular among jazz musicians and fans of jazz music. Interesting to note in this context, is that João Gilberto himself never was much of a jazz fan. Gilberto stayed in the US for 19 years, before moving back to Rio de Janeiro. While in the US, his wife Astrud, launched a succesful international career as an artist of her own, taking advantage of the fact that she, contrary to her husband in the early 60’s, was both able and willing to sing songs in English. Her recording of the song The Girl from Ipanema (originally A Garota de Ipanema), has become one of the most famous Brazilian songs of all time.
Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim
João Gilberto gave origin to the bossa nova guitar rhythm and its low-key approach to singing and thus played a fundamental role in the creation of the genre. But when talking about the origins of bossa nova, it would be wrong to ignore the people who actually wrote the first famous bossa nova-tunes, namely Vinicius de Morães and Tom Jobim. The poet Vinicius de Morães (1913 - 1980), was quintessential for the down-to-earh and romantic poetry, which became characteristic of bossa nova lyrics. De Morães, who drew much inspiration from the Portuguese 16th century poet Luís Vaz de Camões, earned a reputation as one of greatest Brazilian poets of all time. The tributes to Vinícius de Morães have been many through the years. For example, the street in the Ipanema district of Rio de Janeiro, where Vinicius de Morães and Tom Jobim sat in a bar watching the young woman who inspired them to write the song Garota de Ipanema, is now named after Vinicius de Morães.
Despite his high-profile and solemn profession as a diplomat, Vinícius de Morães was always an archetypical Rio bohemian. His unfettered passion for life and love (he married no less than nine times) shone through in his poetry and left its mark on the bossa nova legacy. His laid-back personal style was obvious not the least duting his live performances, where he usually appeared comfortably reclined in an armchair with a glass of whiskey at his side.
Vicius de Morães stared working together with the then young composer Antônio Carlos Jobim (or Tom Jobim), in 1956, as Jobim was asked to compose the music for Morães theater peace Orfeu da Conceição. During the subsequent years, Morães and Jobim formed what would be one of the most famous song writing duos of Brazilian music. Tom Jobim (1927 - 1994), accounted for the sophisticated and timeless melodies in many of the bossa nova movement's first, best and most famous work. After his success with the early bossa nova recordings in Brazil, Jobim propelled on to a highly acclaimed international career, while living in the United States. When Tom Jobim died, 67 years old, in December 1994 after having suffered a stroke, Rio de Janeiro's international airport was renamed in his honor.
After João Gilberto's success in the late 1950’s, a long row of artists soon followed in his footsteps and became knows as bossa-novistas. One of the most influential of these musicians was the composer, guitarist and singer Carlos Lyra, who subsequentally became Vinícius de Morães new song writing partner, after Tom Jobim had left for North America. Nara Leão, grew up and became one of the bossa nova genre's most celebrated personalities. She was even dubbed “a Musa da Bossa Nova” (which loosely translated means "the Queen of Bossa Nova"). The young, blond, surfer brothers Marcos and Sérgio Valle, from Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy upper middle class, also emerged as two of the brightest shinging starts in the bossa nova sky. In 1964 Marcos Valle recorded the elegant and catchy bossa nova gem Samba de Verão, which became a big hit not only in Brazil but also in the US, where it has been rerecorded by a wide range of American musicians. Other leading artists during the golden age of bossa nova, which turned out to be the first half of the 1960’s, include Os Cariocas, Johnny Alf, Doris Monteiro, Tamba Trio, João Donato, Bola Sete, Laurindo de Almeida, Luís Bonfá, Milton Banana Trio, Dick Farney and Sylvinha.
Bossa nova today
During the second half of the 1960’s, the bossa nova music became overshadowed by other music styles in Brazil, mainly the emerging pop and rock scene of the Jovem Guarda and the creative revolution of the tropicalists. However, bossa nova as a genre did not in anyway disappear or die. On the contrary, it is still live and well, both through the recordings of its original representatives (several of whom are still active in their careers) and a never ending stream of new, young Brazilian artists who compose, perform and record bossa nova music. A particularly interesting trend during the last two decades has been the fusion of bossa nova and electronic music, perfected by artists like Fernanda Porto.
Examples of bossa nova
Chega de Saudade, João Gilberto, 1959
Desafinados, João Gilberto, 1959
Águas de Março, Elis Regina and Tom Jobim, 1974
Samba da Legalidade, Nara Leão, 1965
Coisa mais linda, João Gilberto, 1961
Samba de Verão, Marcos Valle, 1965
Garota de Ipanema, Vinícius de Morães, 1975
Só tinha que ser com você, Fernanda Porto, 2002
Wave, Tom Jobim, 1967
Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro
Backside of João Gilberto's famous 1959 album, Chega de Saudade.
Brasília, capital of Brazil and built to a soundtrack of bossa nova.
Vinícius de Morães, poet from Rio de Janeiro.
Tom Jobim, composer from Rio de Janeiro.
João Gilberto album cover from the early 1970's.