In Portuguese “Bossa Nova” roughly translates to “new trend” and that’s exactly what it was from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Since then though, the music genre originating in Brazil has become much more.
Every story has a start and some main characters. If the mid-20th century was the setting the main protagonist of this tale would be Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim (or Tom Jobim) and Vinicius De Moraes.
The first of the trio, Joao Gilberto is often credit it as the “creator” of bossa nova. Having received a guitar in his early teenage years, an initial interest would blossom into an obsession. For more than a decade he would endlessly play his guitar like a possessed man. Even in the face of poverty and depression, he would continue to strum his guitar.
In his late 20’s he started to develop the technique and sound that would soon become bossa nova. It was at this time that he was credited with writing the first bossa nova song, “Bim-Bom.” The song inspired by the side to side movement of the hips of the women he watched walk up and down the banks of the San Fransisco River in Brazil. Both in composition and conception it represents the easy-going, relaxed but sophisticated nature of bossa nova.
“Bim-Bom” is a classic in the genre and a seminal song for modern music but it was another song that really sparked the flame that would lead to the widespread popularity of bossa nova. This was “Chega de Saudade.
” Though Joao Gilberto was involved in this track he was neither the composer nor the creator of the lyrics for this song those titles belonged to the other two main characters: Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius De Moraes, in that order. Released in 1959 its significance is double fold – the popularity it garnered raised the profile of the music in Brazil and it also represents one of the earliest collaboration between the three forefathers of bossa nova.
This collaboration and the work of other musicians of the time would launch bossa nova right into the mainstream, making waves not only in the sphere of music but also of culture in general. Bossa Nova’s rise to prominence neatly coincided with a period of national pride and optimism instigated by progressive leader, President Juscelino Kubitschek. Though somewhat opposed by traditionalists and critics, it’s breezy feel and light-hearted themes of beauty and romance were very much in keeping with the near euphoric mood amongst the young, middle class section of Brazil society, and captured the spirit of a nation, if not only for that moment.
With the release of the “Girl from Ipanema
” – a song crafted by Jobim, Gilberto, and Vinicius .Bossa nova’s grasp would soon extend pass the borders of Brazil, further up to North America. The success of the song and the album it came from would be unprecedented at the time. “The Girl from Ipanema” would become a world-wide hit, being one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, translated several times over and even win the Grammy for record of the Year. To this day it’s still one of the most recognizable songs of that time and is still being covered by musicians from all genres.
The album it came from Getz/Gilberto was also a run-away success. It boosted the careers of prominent artists involved in its creation, including Stan Getz, Jobim and Gilberto and his wife Astrud Gilberto. It would go on to win the Grammy for “Album of the Year” – the first for an album in the “Jazz category” and would also go on to be one of the best –selling albums of all time in that category. Songs featured on the album such as “Desafinado” and “Corcovado” would go on to be classic included in the repertoire of Jazz Standards.
A barrage of albums and songs capitalizing on the bossa nova craze came swift and in quick succession, with mixed results. In some cases Brazilian artist steeped in the culture would be at the forefront of such projects, in other instances North Americans would make their own version of bossa nova songs. Collaborations between Brazilian and North America musicians were also present at the time – one of the most notable being between Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim on their joint 1967 full-length album
Back in Brazil, several musicians inspired by the work of Jobim and the like were creating waves locally. Many would play in bars and a particularly talented set were known to meet in an apartment in Copacabana. Amongst this group of budding musicians would be future stars such as Roberto Menescal and Nara Leao.
However, despite the commercial success of the genre locally and abroad, bossa nova’s dominance in pop culture would soon be challenged at home and in North America by shifts in both societys. The hopeful years under President Kubitschek would be consequently followed by a period of military dictatorship. Censorship would soon become a serious issue for all artist and musicians were no different. Some fled the nation and the ones that stayed were drawn to write music fuelled by the economic and social strife brought on by the drastic change in political idealogy. Bossa Nova’s dreamy themes of dreamy beaches and beautiful women would soon be viewed as being out-of-step with the reality of the country. Música Populara Brasileira, popularly known as MPB, would soon replace bossa nova as the music of the masses. It’s politically fuelled lyricism and rebellious sound was more in tune with the feeling amongst the disenfranchised of the time.
Around the same time In North America, English Rock with popular acts such as the beetles would usher in a new craze and bossa nova would soon be notably absent on the charts. As in Brazil, the themes were becoming out-of style. Bossa Nova would never again command such commercial success abroad or even in Brazil but still the music would live on.
Bossa Nova has become an essential source of inspiration for countless Jazz musicians and artists from various genres. Whether it be the tranquil sounds of Lounge music or the more energetic fusion of electronic and bossa nova music, that was en vogue during the turn of the century, bossa nova still influences musicians across the world. With a new generation of contemporary artists such as Bebel Gilberto, Fabiana Passoni, Sitti Navarro and a world-wide audience in the millions bossa nova looks set to continue to be the grand creative force it has always been; even if it exerts this influence in a subtle and calm way.