by C.A. Perrone

Brazilian Bossa Nova is nearly three decades old. This musical style merits special attention because it is a prime example of modernization in Latin American popular music and because of its impact in other nations, most notably the United States.

Bossa Nova must be understood against the backdrop of traditional Brazilian popular music. In the late 1950s, the working class and slum dwellers consumed carnival type of sambas emphasizing percussive accompaniment. For the middle class, the dominant form of song was the ballad form known as the samba-canção, very similar to the Hispanic bolero in musical substance and lyrical outlook. Compositions typically had a simple, catchy tune with standard harmony. Vocal performance was emphatic and most texts were sentimental, frequently melodramatic.

The Bossa Nova movement, led by guitarist-vocalist João Gilberto and composer Antônio Carlos Jobim, brought innovations in performance style and structural modifications to ballad forms and to the samba in general. Bossa Nova did not replace the traditional samba but offered an alternative for the middle and upper-class listening public. Bossa Nova altered several stylistic parameters, seeking dynamic integration of melody, harmony and rhythm while de-emphasizing the vocalist as the center of attention. Instead of the traditional binary samba beat, diversified syncopation was used, and standard drum set became the norm. Rhythmic foundations set by drums and bass were complemented by syncopated plucking of acoustic guitar chords. Bossa Nova introduced new patterns of harmony or chord progressions, frequently using the altered chords associated with jazz. Melodic lines were often sparse and chromatic, seemingly difficult or dissonant to the unattuned ear. A reserved, understated vocal delivery was characteristic. This approach contrasted sharply with the emphatic style of the samba-canção. Many of these new traits resembled those of the "cool jazz" of the West Coast of the United States, which many young Brazilian musicians admired. Gilberto’s 1959 recording of "A felicidade," from the film Orfeu Negro, is an excellent example of contrast because traditional carnival samba alternates with the new Bossa Nova style.


Bossa Nova texts also showed changes in attitude. Lyricists avoided the melodrama and tragic outlook characteristic of the samba-canção, instead tending to reflect the amenities of middle-class life and using a colloquial tone that corresponded to the speech-like mode of singing. Gilberto’s album title O Amor O Sorriso e a Flor reflects the clichés of Bossa Nova texts. A classic example of understated pleasantries is the internationally known "Garota de Ipanema" or "The Girl from Ipanema" by Jobim and Vinícius de Morais.

The mainstream of Bossa Nova was vocal music performed in an intimate and controlled manner. A branch of instrumental improvisation also grew within the movement. Jazz-like pieces were composed and melodies originally written for vocal performance were explored. Although several Brazilian vocalists, including João Gilberto himself, were successful in the United States in the 1960s, North American interpretations of Bossa Nova tended to be of the instrumental variety. John Storm Roberts’ The Latin Tinge discusses the impact of Bossa Nova in the United States, to which I shall later return.

On the homefront, the international appeal of Bossa Nova was exploited by its leading critic, José Ramos Tinhorão. Emphasizing the links between jazz and Bossa Nova, he argued that the music of Jobim and his associates was a culturally estranged product that contributed to the alienation of the Brazilian public by turning away from the samba, the true tradition of the people, and by encouraging adulation of North American values. These objections are tendentious at best. Bossa Nova was a natural outgrowth of urban modernization and resulting class-stratified patterns of cultural production. The music emerged in the small clubs and apartments of the beachfront districts of Rio’s south zone. The very character of Bossa Nova—intimate, soft, controlled—corresponds to the enclosed physical space in which it grew. Bossa Nova was made by and for middle-class citizens. In his sociological analysis, Tinhorão mistakenly identifies Bossa Nova’s use of altered chords as an emulation of the North American jazz idiom. In a sarcastic response, Jobim pointed out that flat fives and sharp nines are not the exclusive domain of jazz composers, that Bach also used them. Furthermore, given its various stylistic parameters, Bossa Nova cannot be simplified as the crossing of samba and jazz, itself a fluid musical concept. That Brazilian musicians had contact with jazz is undeniable, but the results of this contact are purely Brazilian, a unique synthesis of rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, and performance-bound qualities.

With regard to the ideology of Bossa Nova lyrics, many people shared Tinhorão’s basic concerns, and there was some polarization over the issue, as seen below. Whatever controversies Bossa Nova may have provoked, it became enormously popular in the sixties, in Brazil and abroad. In Mexico and other Latin American nations, Bossa Nova was a commercial success and an influential development among musicians. Versions such as "La Chica de Ipanema" are still remembered as "jits". American lyricist Gene Lees visited Chile in 1962 and was told that "the young intellectuals of Latin America had adopted João Gilberto as a symbol of taste, lyricism and intelligence." Future research may be interested in tracing the spread of Bossa Nova in Latin America to determine to what extent it was received spontaneously as the music of a sister nation and to what degree the adoption and promotion of Bossa Nova by the North American musical industry had an impact on reception in other Latin American nations.

In Brazil, the ascendance of Bossa Nova coincided with growing nationalism and activism. In the early sixties, popular music became increasingly identified with a surge in political activity and socio-economic awareness. Dissatisfied with the apolitical, inconsequential and frequently banal discourse of mainstream Bossa Nova, songwriters began to expand their perspectives and express social concerns of local and national import. Composition of protest and topical songs gave rise to a trend known as "the content line" in opposition to the original "formal line." As the ideology of national liberation and populism spread, there was heightened emphasis on the social function of song, on message-oriented art integrated in a process of transformation.

Popular music, like all sectors of Brazilian society, was affected by the right wing coup of l964. Authoritarian rule sharpened sociopolitical awareness and motivated further protest in song. Despite stricter application of censorship laws, some forms of dissent were still tolerated, and social discourse in song was widespread by 1965. Committed artists began to gain larger followings, aided by the expansion of the music industry, which could service diverse interests. Protest through musical messages was but one symptom of general discontent with the military regime.

After 1964, participation, nationalism and regionalism were prime concerns in Bossa Nova. Many still cultivated the established style of Gilberto and Jobim, but the so-called "second generation" of Bossa Nova implemented various modifications. A successful rock and roll movement known as Jovem Guarda was perceived by many to be an unmediated import and fostered concern with the authenticity or national character of popular music. Interest in social problems, especially those of the rural Northeast, led to changes in musical material too. Songwriters began to blend elements of the more "primitive" samba de morro in Bossa Nova frames. Others, led by Geraldo Vandré from the Northeastern state of Paraíba, incorporated some regionalist features into their Bossa Nova sound and used folk diction in texts. Increasingly, musicians turned away from jazz-like configurations to draw on traditional and rural genres. In many cases, only the characteristic instrumentation or syncopation of Bossa Nova was maintained. Some performers moved towards a more forceful manner of presentation, eschewing the self-effacing finesse of early Bossa Nova. More aggressive performance approaches were consistent with protest thematics. Texts often focused on the urban working class, injustices in the interior, or the plight of the backlands. Urban middle class music-makers emphasized rural settings in lyrics and identified with the country as a whole through such musical means as the use of typically Brazilian instruments, the utilization of different regional rhythms, and the imitation of popular melodies. This folk or traditional orientation usually implied what might be termed cultural nationalism but not always a committed political ideology.

Given the extent of changes in musical approach in the second generation of Bossa Nova musicians, by the mid-1960s the term "Bossa Nova" no longer signified a distinct style or unified concept. With songwriters drawing on diverse sound sources and often focusing on social phenomena in their texts, "Bossa Nova" came to represent a compositional spirit opposed to escapist and simplistic imitations of North American rock and roll. In a broad sense, the words "Bossa Nova" represent an epoch of change and musical fertility.

Other Latin American nations had direct contact with significant songwriters of this second generation. When military repression became severe in Brazil in 1969, Geraldo Vandré fled to Chile. Oswaldo Rodríguez speaks of his encounter with Vandré in his book Cantores que reflexionan. A Spanish version of the song that led to Vandré’s persecution, the militant "Caminhando", was recorded by musicians involved in nueva canción during La Unidad Popular. "Funeral de um lavrador" by the well known Chico Buarque was recorded by Los Quatro de Chile as early as 1967. Today Buarque is known throughout Spanish America through recordings by Daniel Viglietti and Soledad Bravo, his own LP in Spanish, several appearances in Cuba, and his landmark performance at the Central American Peace Concert in Nicaragua.

The rise and fall of Bossa Nova in the United States is a fascinating chapter of the history of jazz. The reception and fate of this foreign music reflects, through production and consumption of the musical medium, commonly held misconceptions about Latin America, some paternalistic mentality, and the manipulative inner workings of the North American recording industry. The crossing of samba and jazz has been traced as far back as 1953 when Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida did a series of recordings with West Coast saxophonist Bud Shank. These collaborations continued through the fifties as isolated, individual efforts. Some copies of these recordings circulated among Brazilian musicians during the 50s. With this evidence, some bandwagon music critics of the early 1960s claimed that Bossa Nova actually began in the USA. This kind of short sighted history is written by chroniclers with sparse or no knowledge of musical developments in Brazil. Simply put, João Gilberto is the source of Bossa Nova, and he developed his particular style of guitar playing on his own; it is far from the classically based style of Almeida. It should be further noted that no percussion was used on the Shank-Almeida recordings, and they therefore cannot have served as models for Bossa Nova’s characteristic alterations of syncopation. Gilberto has said that his singing style was influenced by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, but this does not justify crediting Bossa Nova to American ingenuity. Yes, American cool jazz did affect musical consciousness in Brazil but as Robert Thompson had to remind less open minded readers: " to the extent that we do not measure this expression against Brazilian criteria we damn ourselves and we damn a very special art."

Bossa Nova’s arrival in the USA can be ascribed to the interest and promotion of sincere musicians. In 1961, under the auspices of Kennedy’s Good Neighbor programs, guitarist Charlie Byrd made a Good Will tour to Brazil and experienced Bossa Nova in loco. He was taken by the music and recorded, with Stan Getz, the now historic Jazz-Samba LP upon his return to the USA. This album raced up the charts and began an immediate wave of imitations. The most prominent event in the ascendance of Bossa Nova occurred in 1962. An entourage of Brazil’s best new musicians played Carnegie Hall in New York. This event touched off a veritable explosion of Bossa Nova on the radio air waves, in recordings and, to the surprise of xenophobic music producers, of sales. What was unusual about this development was that a music in the jazz category, of foreign origin, was achieving the mass popularity usually associated with pop music. What was inevitable was the deformation of the musical experience, of an international exchange, by the record industry. As an articulate musician involved in this process said, "almost all the Bossa Nova to which the American public has been exposed has been false and shallow." Elsewhere, he notes: " the remarkable and significant Brazilian musical development [...] that had promised to have a refreshing and healthy influence on the sick American music business, was ravaged and ground into the turf." The process of spontaneous and gradual assimilation of musical concepts by composers and performers was truncated. Dozens of jazz artists were hurriedly encouraged or pushed into slapping together Bossa Nova albums, many of which had very little to do with the style whose name was exploited.

Even more embarrasing were the pop renditions of Bossa Nova. In the early sixties, new dance crazes were promoted at every opportunity to create profitable consumer fads. The twist is the best example. Bossa Nova is a soft, sophisticated vocal music for listening or instrumental improvisation, decidedly not dance music. Nonetheless, record promoters tried to make of Bossa Nova another fad, another dance craze. Vocalist Edie Gormé recorded the pop tune "Blame It on the Bossa Nova," a song in which the style is depicted as a dance. Other songs like "Bossa Nova Baby" by Tippy and the Clovers moved Bossa Nova into the realm of what is today called "bubble gum music." The sensitive music critic of the Saturday Review called the industry’s version of Bossa Nova "one of the worst blights of commercialism ever to be inflicted on popular art."

A telling example of that blight is this product: "Brazilian Detour", by Paul Smith and Orchestra. While the name of the lead musician suggests distance from any Latin music, we can make no fair judgement on that basis alone. The packaging of this artifact, however, bares the limits of commercial Bossa Nova and implies the very attitudes that spelled the downfall of a "foreign" music for mass audiences here. The title, cover art, headlines and liner notes appeal not to intrinsec musical interest but to a desire for secure and non-challenging sampling of an exotic product. The colorful art work on the cover suggests a tropical land of wild vegetation, tribal peoples and deregulated behavior. This is a chromatic and formal abstraction of stereotypes and misrepresentations of South America which began with the Carmen Miranda phenomenon in the 1940s, when North America learned through music and film that samba came from Mexico or Argentina, tango from Brazil, and that Buenos Aires was the capital of Brazil, which had a "whole lotta coffee" and women dancing about with enormous collections of fruits on their heads, especially bananas. This image, of course, has nothing to do with the urban, middle class and cosmopolitan music of Bossa Nova. Yet the artist’s depiction does tie into the promotional scheme. The bold type of the album’s back jacket offers this: "An exciting trip to the land of bossa nova. Paul Smith and orchestra escort you on a swinging BRAZILIAN DETOUR." These words, as if from a travel brochure, offer the consumer entertainment, distraction, and, most significantly, protection and security. The suggestion is not that Bossa Nova is here, in the United States. Rather, the record represents a safe trip abroad to hear the natives. The home bred musicians will "escort" the listener to the wild and unpredictable tropics, and the experience will be only a "detour," nothing to shake comfortable routine or question the validity of more familiar sound structures. This example is admittedly extreme, yet there are countless instances of record reviews, promos or jackets giving a distorted or misinformed view of Bossa Nova and its land of origin. One clear sign of falsity was the use of Spanish language titles and promo plugs. Worthwhile interpretations could hardly be expected from composers and promotors who did not even know which was the language of Bossa Nova.

It must be noted that even as Bossa Nova died as a pop fad, it gained force in the jazz world for a few more years. The best Bossa Nova recordings, featuring João Gilberto, Jobim and other Brazilians, often in collaboration with North American artists, were made after 1963. The vast majority of songs recorded were of the intimate, "amor-sorriso-flor" variety that typified the first generation of Bossa Nova. Around 1965, a few North American releases included songs by the second generation of Bossa Nova composers with regional touches or socially relevant texts. Even when such songs were recorded, their original meaning was not illuminated, neither through English versions nor through liner notes. In a review of Wanda de Sa’s recording of "Berimbau", for example, Robert Thompson notes "The Portuguese text talks topical politics behind a mask of folklore. The liner notes, of course, offer no hint of what’s happening." Not here nor elsewhere in later Bossa Nova in the United States. Brazilian music’s appeal and selling point would remain its rhythmic, sonorous and performative vocal features.

Bossa Nova became a permanent part of the jazz repertory, to judge by the number of compositions by Jobim in the "real book", the collection of lead sheets and charts professional musicians most often consult. There are 12 of Jobim’s songs in that book; only one North American composer has more in the same source. But if Brazilian popular music made an indelible imprint in the jazz scene, a minority domain, the mainstream reception of the same music from abroad made other revelations. That taking commercial advantage was an overall priority and that only a select and sincere few were interested in understanding that music in its natural habitat, whether it express banalities or social discontent.