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Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World

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Ruy Castro

Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World

A Capella Press

ISBN: 1556524943

To virtually all Americans, the words "bossa nova" are synonymous with Brazilian jazz. More specifically, they immediately trigger memories of bossa nova's greatest American hit, "The Girl From Ipanema." When Creed Taylor introduced Astrud Gilberto's version of the song to American audiences in 1964, he had no idea what kind of lasting impact it would have. He had no idea that Getz/Gilberto would come to define Brazilian music for American audiences. Forever.

The idea that bossa nova represents Brazilian popular music is all wrong. And all right. It represents the pinnacle of the country's influence on the world's music, the inauguration of an era when tunes like "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Desafinado" would become jazz standards. Hell, even Frank Sinatra did a whole record with Antonio Carlos Jobim! (So what if Jobim had to forsake his piano for a guitar. You play with the Chairman, you play by his rules.) Unfortunately, the rest of the world stood by deaf as Brazilian music moved on in the '60s and beyond. Only nostalgic old farts play bossa nova in Brazil today. Or so they say.

Brazilian muse Ruy Castro takes on this distinctive musical tree in Bossa Nova, going from its deepest roots to its most distant branches. That may sound like a cursory exaggeration, but it's completely true. Castro is a total freak, compulsive about details and obsessive about drawing every line in the big picture:

I think it important to note that I listened to all the recordings mentioned in the text...

Yeah, yeah. But in the process of his exposition, you find yourself increasingly drawn into the deeply personal nature of the music. He might make a point of correcting errors on record sleeves, but he's also got a brilliant sense of humor.

This review has the goal of orienting readers to the general flow of the story, revealing unexpected events and offering Castro's take whenever possible. American listeners who followed bossa nova most likely followed João Gilberto, the clear-cut cult hero of this book. And despite the rich cast of characters woven together in this fabric, one man stands out. So the review will not stray far from the center. But back to the story.

I. Roots

Castro appreciates the tastes of young people in Brazil in the late '40s, when the children of bossa nova were growing up. Frank Sinatra is indeed the subject of several jibes along the course of this story. Some of the founders of bossa nova, oddly enough, were members of Rio's "Sinatra-Farney Fan Club," born in 1949. Membership required a fanatical zeal for Frank Sinatra and Dick Farney, monetary dues, and the ability (at least in a relative sense) to play an instrument or sing. To these young people, Sinatra's only flaw was that he was not Brazilian. Parenthetically, Castro remarks:

Those who are less than a hundred years old might not believe it, but Frank Sinatra was a sex symbol in those days. He was also so thin that when he walked around on stage with the microphone in his hand—he was one of the first singers to do this—he had to be careful not to disappear behind the cord.

As time went on, some of these amateurs developed the ability to sing in tune, even improvise jazz over changes. João Donato, a card-carrying member of the Sinatra-Farney Fan Club, strayed when he also joined the Dick Haymes-Lucio Alves Fan Club. It was no small thing. The rivalry between America's undisputed king of song (Sinatra) and Brazil's first cult singer (Alves) was so strong that when Alves paid a visit to the rival club, he left with an army of young people behind his back sticking out their tongues and pinning their thumbs on their noses.

Donato, however, had the right idea. When he later met the guitarist João Gilberto, both of them immediately stood shellshocked: they looked like twins.

II. Deviants

Donato went on to become one of the heroes of the movement. Gilberto, of course, became its leader (whether willing, eager, or able is a different matter). The collision is meaningful, though, because it represents a clash of musical cultures that would later resolve, rather forcefully, in one direction. Castro speaks later about Roberto Menescal and Carlinhos Lyra, two influential musicians who sold their product to a niche market:

The two of them were also the benficiaries of a virus that took hold of many parents at that time: that of forcing their children to study the accordion with the nationally famous professor Mario Mascarenhas. In order to escape this terrible fate, youngsters bargained with their good grades in school, or with their regular church attendance, and extracted permission from their parents to learn the guitar.


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