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

AAJ Staff By

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The word bossa, at least, was far from new, having been used by musicians since the days of yore to define someone who played or sang differently. Veteran singer Cyro Monteiro, for example, had a lot of bossa.


And so bossa nova was a very big thing.

IV. A nucleus

It came, and it represented a lightness of tone that young Brazilians needed after years of samba-canção, music with lyrics like "I'm lost/He doesn't love me/He never told me/And now I am alone in the world." One of the hits of 1952 was noir journalist Antonio Maria's "Ningum me ama" (Nobody Loves Me). And so on and so forth. This was some pretty melacholy stuff, so the concept of Love, a Smile, and a Flower was like a fresh breeze off the shore. A show with that name was one of a handful of collective performances by the stars of the movement. It was eagerly received by hordes of young people.

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.

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