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

AAJ Staff By

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Needless to say, the guitar was not exactly hip with the older generation. (Speaking from personal experience, I can testify that the average age of polka fans exceeds the average life expectancy, and so this comes as no surprise.) The guitar represented idleness, sloth, and sin. Over time, hundreds of young girls joined these classes, along with a few token boys. (Apparently there was sex appeal involved. No surprise. Remember, this is Brazil.)

In 1958, a common obsession united those young men: to free themselves from the accordion and take up the guitar, which, incidentally, would make them much more popular with girls. They all believed that their chances with members of the opposite sex would increase if they could only duplicate what they heard on certain records they played until they wore out...

While spoken in jest, this point about the guitar is no small thing.

When João Gilberto bumped into his cosmic twin João Donato in Rio, he had recently gotten off the plane from Bahia. He was a country bumpkin come to the big city to join Os Garotos da Lua (The Boys From The Moon), a vocal group whose ousted leader just couldn't sing loud enough. In those days, Gilberto sang with "considerable volume," which was exactly what Os Garotos needed. (How ironic, given the softness of the voice for which he became famous.) Os Garotos gave him a platform, and they introduced him to reefer. He also played the guitar.

In those days, João Gilberto was one of the biggest slackers in the business—continually out of money, staying with friends (or even acquaintances) for as long as they would tolerate him. He had a remarkable ability to show up late for performances, or not even show at all. He would disappear for days, only to return as if nothing had happened. The continual cycle eventually got to him, and he shipped out of Rio for rehabilitation. He stayed with relatives, where he did not emerge from his room for days on end (when he wasn't lingering in the bathroom for hours). He went to see psychiatrists (who couldn't find much wrong). He quit smoking.

But mostly, he played the guitar and sang. When he got back to Rio, he was a new man. Of course, Rio was a new place, too. But as Gilberto made his rounds and connected with the music scene, people found he had come up with something exciting. It wasn't exciting in any obvious way—after all, he had started singing very softly, riding freely over the tempo of the music. His chordal guitar playing had a light, understated rhythm. But it worked. And it reflected a lot of the sounds that his musical community had cultivated for years.

At the same time, Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim had developed his own career as a composer, arranger, and pianist. His lifestyle concept was diametrically opposite to Gilberto's: he had a day job, requiring regular attendance, arranging for a recording company called Continental. He, together with Vinicius de Moraes, put together the music for Black Orpheus, a musical that eventually became a play and a movie—in 1958, winning the Palme d'Or and an Oscar.

One night Jobim teamed up with his neighbor, Newton Mendonca—both suffering from a serious degree of inebriation—to write a bossa nova classic: "Desafinado" (Off-Key). Ronaldo Boscoli supplied the lyrics. It was an inside joke, a difficult tune with lighthearted words. Nobody could sing it right, except for a select few. One of them was João Gilberto. This was the same man who exclaimed,

"In Brazil, even the canaries sing off-key."

He had perfect pitch. João Gilberto's quiet and fluid singing was actually quite controversial at the time:

João Gilberto's singing style, hitherto unknown, was what sparked discussions. Those who were tone-deaf asked sincerely, "But is he really off-key?," which usually generated an answer that was as ridiculous as the question: "Are you crazy? The man has the hearing of someone with tuberculosis!"

(A common myth at the time posited that victims of tuberculosis actually had superior hearing and perfect pitch. That little piece of information is very helpful in piecing the story together.)

III. Bossa Nova

Jobim, Mendonca, and Gilberto would team up for the emerging star's first record, Chega de Saudade (No More Blues, 1959), along with poet-diplomat Vinicius de Moraes—who composed the title track, along with Jobim. A hard sell to a record store chain triggered the album's release, and it was followed by the record that came to define bossa nova in Brazil: O amor, o sorriso e a flor (Love, a Smile, and a Flower, 1960).

Bossa nova, a term coined under obscure circumstances in 1958, became so popular it was used by salesmen and musicians of all stripes. It just seemed a hip name for things. "Bossa nova," contrary to common understanding does not mean "new beat ":


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