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

AAJ Staff By

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Bossa nova started out as a nucleus of musicians in Rio who made music more for each other than for their audiences—most frequently consisting of chatty, glass-clinking bar patrons—whose sole role was to pay the bills. Once they found an audience, the music began to explode. The main movers in bossa nova built upon their collective reputation with a series of festival-like performances, but the biggest one they found was held at Carnegie Hall in November of 1962. And along with Tom Jobim, João Gilberto was its biggest star. His new wife, Astrud, came along in her marital capacity but not as a musician. The show was a high water point in terms of visibility, but not really all that special musically. But in the end that didn't matter.

V. The Girl

"The Girl From Ipanema" is "Garota de Ipanema" in Brazilian, referring to the beachside community (Ipanema) that was home to part of the bossa nova nucleus:

As for the famous girl, [Tom] Jobim and Vinicius [de Moraes] did in fact see her as they sat in the Veloso bar, during the winter of 1962—not just once, but several times, and not always on her way to the beach but also her way to school, to the dressmaker, and even to the dentist. Mostly because Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, better known as Helo, who was eighteen years of age, five feet, eight inches tall, with green eyes and long, flowing black hair, lived in Rua Montenegro aned was already the object of much admiration among patrons of the Veloso, where she would frequently stop to buy cigarettes for her mother—and leave to a cacophony of wolf-whistles.


So obviously the song was very inspired. The musical creation of Jobim and Vinicius went out on record in January, 1963, and the beauty was strangely moved:

The girl, Helo, whistled the song daily on her way to the beach, without realizing she had been its inspiration.


Of course, she eventually figured it out. After a prolonged period of restraint, Helo did the obvious thing. She posed for the Brazilian Playboy in 1987.

But, you know, twenty-five years isn't exactly twenty-five days.


VI. Success and the implosion

American listeners oblivious to this entire situation were digging Hel's tribute song, released as a single by Creed Taylor in 1964 after spending a judicious period of time in his drawer. At the original recording session of Getz/Gilberto, João Gilberto clued Stan Getz into the lyrical elasticity of bossa nova (once he had been adequately lubricated). His (then-) wife Astrud Gilberto also sang. The original version of "The Girl From Ipanema" featured both Gilbertos' voices, but subsequent attention in the studio deleted João's part, making the tune shorter (and more radio-friendly)—thus launching the fragile voice of Astrud Gilberto into millions of ears. The full-length Getz/Gilberto came out shortly thereafter, and it remains the biggest bossa nova record in American history.

But ironically, by the time bossa nova was achieving its greatest worldwide popularity, the movement had already begun to fall apart at home. Lured by opportunity, money, freedom, or escape, the movers and shakers had vaporized. Those who remained seemed divided along political, aesthetic, and personal lines to the point where the music lost its center. Castro dutifully tells the story of the beginning of the end, but it's quite clear that he's lost interest by this point. He's an author bent on drama and excitement, and the decline of an empire is hardly fodder for that engine.

Without a nucleus, upon which bossa nova had always depended for its viability, the music lost its broad appeal. Rifts between groups (and their leaders) broke things in half, and between record label infighting and the fickle audience in Brazil, time moved on. Samba, the heart and soul of Brazilian music as we know it, had much more momentum than this particular offshoot. Rock-n-roll (in its Brazilian flavor) rose along with varieties of country music; singers began returning to themes other than Love, Smiles, and Flowers.

The big stars who emerged from bossa nova went on to pursue extended careers. Both Gilbertos (married no more) made beautiful records, as did Tom Jobim. A huge number of other musicians have picked up the threads and woven many beautiful songs. Those who carried the torch in Brazil understood that bossa nova's status as a popular music had come to its proper conclusion.

As a nostalgic touch, the familiar lyricism has its place. There are still plenty of musicians building on the tradition. But instead of thousands of screaming young fans, the audience of bossa nova has grown older. And wiser, presumably.

That's the story in a nutshell. Ruy Castro has his obsessions and his idiosyncrasies, but he certainly does tell an interesting story. It revolves around Gilberto and Jobim, but he does not hesitate to talk about other composers and performers who made independent statements in their own right. He places the music within a meaningful context—temporally, culturally, and socially. And his compulsive obsession with details is matched by a similar devotion to narrative—which, in many cases comes down to friendly, chatty, armchair storytelling.

It's hard to find flaws in Bossa Nova if you approach the book with the right attitude. It contains 335 dense pages (plus discography, glossary, and index) of bossa nova. The level of detail is very high. So obviously this is a tome to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately the author did not see fit to include recording or release dates in his discography, which renders finding this information a historical undertaking in itself. That's a shame, and the biggest objective flaw of the book.

But at the same time, the narrative runs through its breadth of lives and experiences in a way that seems fluid and natural, tying lots of loose ends together. And, of course, as amply illustrated above, it's just plain fun to read. [Check out Castro's story about how Gilberto's cat "Gato" (meaning "Cat") fell off the balcony to his death during a recording session. The cause of death was never ruled accidental.]

Note: this edition represents the paperback version of Lysa Salsbury's translation of Castro's original Brazilian version. Whatever controversy may surround the translation is completely lost on this reviewer. Sorry.

Related Links

IPG Books

Paradise In Brazil

Building a Jazz Library: Bossa Nova

Brazilian Jazz Reader Recommendations

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