Music by VICE

You Need to Listen to More Bossa Nova

After the death of João Gilberto, one of the Brazilian genre's founding fathers, we look back on how the style's mid-century success changed pop music forever.

by Rob Arcand; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
Jul 29 2019, 12:00pm

Before American pop music openly took cues from the rest of the world, bossa nova changed how the country thought about international music. The reflective genre flipped the jazz world on its head, blending the rhythms of Brazilian samba with the storied traditions established across decades of jazz history. The style also came to inform the pop landscape of the 1950s and ‘60s, bubbling up into the mainstream through the curiosity of popular jazz musicians like guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz, whose collaborative 1962 album Jazz Samba provided a lite and picturesque alternative to the rock and roll of its time.

Perhaps the biggest hit of the era, “The Girl from Ipanema” has become an inescapable part of the American songbook—jazz, pop, or otherwise. After debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart way back in 1964, the song helped revive Getz’s career and launch his collaborators—João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos (a.k.a. Tom) Jobim, and Gilberto’s then-wife Astrud—into a new level of celebrity unprecedented for a South American act. The single went on to appear on Getz/Gilberto, a collaborative album from the group which to this day remains among the best-selling jazz albums of all-time. The LP earned them the 1964 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, got them invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, and spent a record 96 weeks on the Billboard albums chart.

Yet not everyone was happy with bossa nova’s international success. The version of bossa nova exported to North America was never the same as its Brazilian counterpart, and many of the genre’s greatest innovators grew frustrated with the singular success of “The Girl from Ipanema.” While Americans were soundtracking cocktail parties with breezy lounge music, Brazil faced one of the bloodiest political interventions in its history as a U.S.-backed right-wing military coup swept through the country. Politicians were arrested, outspoken artists, activists, and academics were tortured, and—as Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha note in their landmark history of Brazilian popular music—hundreds of dissenters were killed in the violent coup.

The prospect of celebrating Brazil’s contributions to popular culture took on darker undertones in the advent of a military dictatorship, and by 1964—the same year as “The Girl from Ipanema’s” breakthrough success internationally—the genre entered a period of sharp decline domestically, as McGowan and Pessanha also point out. Bossa nova soon became a relic of a simpler time when celebrating Afro-Brazilian cultural identity didn’t mean cheering on military violence. Even in the States, the style’s trendiness always had a limited lifespan, flooding jazz clubs with a delicate, danceable energy that could never escape being pigeonholed as a fad. “The Girl from Ipanema” in particular became a lounge music standard in its own right, piped into nearly every elevator movie scene as bland filler muzak in what’s now become an inescapable Hollywood trope, as Brazilian historian Bryan McCann points out in his 33⅓ book on the subject.

But bossa nova’s roots run deeper than “The Girl from Ipanema” alone, and the so-called “new fashion” represents a broad expanse of diverse artists, releases, and styles. João Gilberto’s music in particular has seen an exciting resurgence, not only due to his recent passing; younger artists like Juice WRLD, Cuco, Bas, and Kota the Friend have each looked to Gilberto and bossa nova for recent inspiration, either sampling classic songs directly, or loosely imitating Gilberto’s innovative playing style on their own recordings. Even Mac DeMarco has been influenced by the genre, infusing its smooth and silky chord progressions into his own blend of hazy sleaze-rock bliss.

In light of its recent resurgence, the time feels right to look back on bossa nova’s impact, both within Brazilian culture and in the broader landscape of jazz and pop music around the world. Whether you’re a longtime fan or just looking for a place to get started, what follows is a guide to the style spanning its early years as an outgrowth of Afro-Brazilian samba through later, more politically charged styles like música popular brasileira (MPB) and tropicália, both of which followed in bossa nova’s wake. Along the way, artists like Gilberto and Jobim helped bring the style to global consciousness, performing with artists like Frank Sinatra and being covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis to Herbie Handcock, in addition to topping the charts. This is the story of the highs and lows of the Brazilian genre, and a few of the ways that it helped make pop music a little bit more global.

So you want to get into: Pre-Bossa Nova Samba?

Bossa nova never existed in a vacuum. The style was always indebted to the music that preceded it, and represents just one point in the broader continuum of Afro-Brazilian culture. Dances like the lundu, maxixe , and xote were shaped by Brazil’s history of colonial occupation, which facilitated the blending of African, Portuguese, and indigenous Brazilian traditions. Samba specifically began to take shape around the turn of the 20th century, when songs like “Pelo Telefone” swept through cities like Rio and São Paulo during their annual Carnaval celebrations.

Amongst a broad expanse of diverse styles and subgenres, each samba composition is united in its adherence to 2/4 meter. At its most traditional, a pounding surdo beat provides the underlying structure for each piece, with musicians often layering interlocking rhythms composed of claps, hand drums, and other percussive instrumentation in stiff syncopation above the beat. For early composers like Heitor dos Prazeres, Orlando Silva, Sinhô, Pixinguinha, and João da Baiana, this propulsive rhythm became the backbone for an entirely new way of thinking about ensemble-oriented jazz music, with guitars, pianos, brass and other tonal instruments comping along to the beat in styles reminiscent of swing and big band in North America.

The most sparse of all its subsets, samba canção prioritized melody and harmony over a rigid adherence to danceable grooves. Where Carnaval-oriented styles like samba-de-enredo encourage sprawling drumlines and widespread participation, composers like Ary Barroso and Noel Rosa stripped things down to their essence, building structures from the ground up around rhythmic piano, guitar, and vocal lines, often with very little percussion. Rosa pieces like “Com Que Roupa?” and “João Ninguém” reveal the outer limits of the samba form, removing thumping percussion near-completely in favor of softer arrangements for piano and guitar.

One of Barroso’s most well-known pieces, “Aquarela do Brasil” introduced a lush, romantic sensibility to the style, welling up with the sort of full-bodied orchestration that wouldn’t sound out of place in a George Gershwin standard. As McGowan and Pessanha note in their book, the piece was later used in Disney’s 1942 film Saludos Amigos, kickstarting Barroso’s career as a Hollywood composer. While its most popular arrangements can feel pretty far removed from the close-cropped asceticism on which the canção style was premised, the piece shows a broadening interest in rethinking the foundations of Brazilian music that would continue with the advent of bossa nova.

Playlist: Martinho da Vila - “Pelo Telefone” / Pixinguinha - "Odeon" / Pixinguinha - "Naquele Tempo"* / Noel Rosa - "Conversa de Botequim" / Noel Rosa - "Com Que Roupa" / Noel Rosa - "João Ninguém" / Ary Barroso - "Aquarela do Brasil" / Carmen Miranda Ary Barroso, Orquestra Odeon, Simon Bountman - "Deixa Falar!" / Ary Barroso - "Olvidame" / Orlando Silva - "Carinhoso" / Heitor dos Prazeres - "Nada de Rock Rock"

So you want to get into: Antônio Carlos Jobim?

If the canção style marks the beginning of a shift away from samba, the career of Antônio Carlos Jobim represents the earliest emergence of a completely new genre. While other artists like guitarist Luiz Bonfá and pianist João Donato helped bridge this transition, Jobim was the first to embrace the unusual arrangements and off-kilter harmonies that would prove to be a foundational part of the bossa nova style in the years to come. Some of this has to do with his time as a student of Hans Joachim Koellreutter, a German piano teacher educated at the prestigious Berlin State Academy of Music who moved to Rio in 1937. Koellreutter introduced Jobim to serialism, atonality, and other ideas of the European avant-garde, which helped inform his approach arrangement and composition, even if his preferences ultimately led him back to Brazilian popular music in the end.

Jobim’s musicianship as a pianist, guitarist, and vocalist was always secondary to his skill as a composer, and while he did go on to become one of bossa’s most visible faces, it was often his work behind the scenes that had the largest impact. His performances in Rio nightclubs brought him into contact with the poet and diplomat Vinícius de Moraes, and together they began work on Orfeu da Conceição ("Orpheus of the Conception"), an influential stage play that reimagined the Greek character of its namesake in the favelas of Rio at the height of the city’s Carnaval festivities. With its political undertones and unwavering celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture, the show would become widely successful within Brazil, bringing newfound attention to Rio’s Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) group, as Bryan McCann notes in his 33⅓ book on the subject. The show’s popularity continued when director Marcel Camus released a film adaptation of the play in France called Orfeu Negro (“Black Orpheus”) in 1959, which won the highest prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960.

Jobim and Moraes helped supply an authentic Brazilian soundtrack to both the play and film, which not only shed a new spotlight on what would eventually become the bossa nova style, but also kicked off a long and fruitful relationship between the two musicians. Together, they would collaborate on songs like "Insensatez" and “Chega de Saudade,” which became beloved bossa nova standards thanks to João Gilberto’s infamous acoustic renditions. As Ruy Castro notes in his extensive history of the genre, the latter piece combined samba-canção with the melodic style known as chorinho, which emphasizes plainspoken language and improvisational melodies. Where earlier sambas skewed toward the booming, theatrical voices of the past, “Chega de Saudade” was packed with textural syllables and nearly impossible to sing in the style of Brazil’s more traditional crooners. The song was thankfully a perfect fit for João Gilberto, who recorded it for his very first 78-rpm single and 1959 debut album of the same name.

At the same time, Jobim’s music wasn’t limited to collaborations, and his solo catalog remains an essential part of any discussion of the bossa nova songbook. Following the genre’s global boom in the wake “The Girl from Ipanema,” Jobim enjoyed an extended period of commercial success, gradually shifting away from recording his own renditions of samba favorites to composing a lengthy catalog of original solo material. Songs like “Wave,” “Surfboard,” “Outra Vez” helped define best-selling albums including 1965’s The Wonderful World of Antônio Carlos Jobim, 1967’s A Certain Mr. Jobim, and 1968’s Wave, while others like “Triste,” “Corcovado,” and “Águas de Março” have gone on to become bossa standards in their own right, performed by everyone from Miles Davis to Ella Fitzgerald to Herbie Handcock.

Jobim’s success continued when in 1967 he recorded an entire album with Frank Sinatra, bringing bossa nova even further into the American consciousness. Composer, performer, lyricist—it’s hard to overstate just how much the Rio native did to change the course of Brazilian pop, bringing his music to the masses without ever compromising his sound.

Playlist: Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinicus de Moraes, Roberto Paiva - "Um Nome De Mulher" / Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinicus de Moraes, Roberto Paiva - "Se Todos Fossem Iguais A Você" / Antônio Carlos Jobim - "Triste" / Antônio Carlos Jobim - "Corcovado" / Antônio Carlos Jobim - "Aguas De Março" / Antônio Carlos Jobim - "Wave" / Antônio Carlos Jobim - "Surfboard" / Antônio Carlos Jobim, Frank Sinatra - "How Insensitive (Insensatez)" / Antônio Carlos Jobim, Frank Sinatra - "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)" / Antônio Carlos Jobim, Elis Regina, Aloysio de Oliveira - "Só Tinha De Ser Com Você" / Antônio Carlos Jobim, Elis Regina - "Fotografia"

So you want to get into: João Gilberto?

Jobim wasn’t the only architect of the bossa nova movement, and much of the style’s technical innovation can be traced back to guitarist and vocalist João Gilberto. One of Brazil’s most beloved and well-known performers, Gilberto notably abandoned samba’s loud, operatic style of singing in favor of the low whisper so closely associated with bossa nova today. Where someone like Frank Sinatra (or his Brazilian counterpart Johnny Alf) would use a carefully-controlled breathing style to boost the rich, sonorous qualities of his voice while downplaying the sharper “S” and “T” sounds, Gilberto wielded the microphone like a flashlight in the dark, emphasizing the shape and texture of the space around him as he strummed softly to the beat.

As numerous sources have previously noted, the vocal approach came to him in the mountains of Diamantina, where he stayed with his sister in a moment of personal distress. After struggling to make a living as a musician on the Rio nightlife circuit (in no small part due to his fussy perfectionism and frequent refusal to perform while people were talking), the songwriter retreated to the region in 1955, where he spent the next eight months rethinking his entire approach to performance. Depressed and practically penniless, Gilberto would hole up in his sister’s bathroom for extended periods, practicing guitar and lightly singing along as the sound reflected off the tiled walls. The warm, natural reverb sounded vastly different from the muggy clubs of Rio, and eventually, he realized that he could still project his voice without all the schmaltzy vibrato used by other vocalists of the era.

His time in Diamantina also reshaped his approach to the guitar. Where earlier samba performers tended to either strum on the backbeat, like Noel Rosa, or play intricate melodies in the classical style, like Luiz Bonfá, Gilberto’s bathroom hermeticism required a new approach that combined the pulsing downbeat of samba’s surdo rhythm with the steady backbeat of earlier performers. The result was a radically new form of playing sometimes referred to as violão gago (“stammering guitar”) for the way that it pedals back and forth across the right hand. “He imitated a whole samba ensemble, with his thumb doing the bass drum and his fingers doing the tamborins and ganzás and agogôs,” guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves tells McGowan and Pessanha in their book. “The rhythm was right there with his voice and guitar alone. You didn’t feel anything was missing.”

Like his collaborators, Gilberto enjoyed a period of newfound celebrity in the wake of Getz/Gilberto, traveling around the world with the group to perform songs from the album. Their 1964 performance at Carnegie Hall was later released as Getz/Gilberto #2, a 15-track LP filled with as many American jazz standards as it had bossa nova favorites. The release failed to achieve the same commercial success as its predecessor, ultimately demonstrating how rare it was that the “The Girl from Ipanema” ever took off with such intensity.

As one of bossa nova’s most-defining voices, Gilberto continued to release new music into the 1970s and ‘80s, both as a solo performer and in collaboration with Jobim and Getz, among others. Throughout the period, the vocalist appeared on over 10 full-length albums, even as he relocated to the U.S. and Mexico. His 1973 self-titled album (often referred to as the “white album”) and 1976 LP Amoroso remain among his most beloved, but after returning to Rio in 1980, Gilberto largely retired from public life, rarely granting interviews and performing almost exclusively as a solo artist. 2000’s João Voz E Violão and 2004’s In Tokyo continue to breathe life into his early skill as a performer, even as almost no original compositions exist to his name.

Despite his recent death, Gilberto’s memory lives on as one of the defining voices of the genre, and his influence extends beyond bossa nova alone. Later musicians like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil would cite him along with the Beatles as one of the most important influences on tropicália, and for many international listeners, the sight of the soft-spoken guitarist has become the defining image of Brazilian music abroad. With his muted, finger-picking style and gentle demeanor, Gilberto revolutionized Brazilian music without ever rising above a whisper.

Playlist: Elizeth Cardoso - “Outra Vez” / João Gilberto - “Chega de Saudade” / João Gilberto - "Desafinado” / João Gilberto - "'Bim Bom" / João Gilberto - "'Tin Tin Por Tin Tin" / João Gilberto - "Doralice" / João Gilberto - "'S Wonderful"

So you want to get into: Post-Bossa Nova MPB?

“The Girl from Ipanema” became the default point-of-entry for many Americans into Latin jazz, and in the years following its breakthrough, the song—like the Brazilian style more generally—quickly reached its saturation point. Legions of late-night jazz performers would perform the hit at bars, night clubs, and other social spaces without much consideration for its origins, and its unavoidable presence in movies and television further bastardized the style. The hit kicked off a long tradition of (mostly) white jazz musicians cribbing influence from the music of the Global South, a trend which would continue through the development of kitschy subgenres like lounge, fusion, and smooth jazz in the decades to come.

As recently as 2015, American saxophonist Kenny G continued this tradition with his own bizarre renditions of “Corcovado” and “The Girl from Ipanema” on an album called Brazilian Nights, which to this day remain among the most egregious interpretations of the songs ever recorded.

Bossa nova’s international recognition especially frustrated Brazilians, whose lives dramatically changed in the years following its global breakthrough. Weeks after Getz/Gilberto was released in the States, military forces invaded the offices of President João Goulart, overthrowing the government and installing an authoritarian regime. Bossa nova’s breezy cosmopolitanism suddenly felt vastly out of touch with the political reality of the country, and the style gave way to a new form known as música popular brasileira, or MPB.

While MPB represents a broad expanse of styles, the musicians were united their efforts to introduce a new political edge to Brazil’s musical tradition. A guitarist and vocalists often associated with the style’s emergence, Chico Buarque was directly influenced by the ballads of Noel Rosa, infusing the operatic style with lyrics about Brazil’s downward spiral into fascism. Gilberto and Jobim’s music took on a newfound significance for these younger musicians, even as they rejected the way the style was taken up by others. Caetano Veloso would become an especially strong proponent of the acoustic style of João Gilberto; his 1967 debut album Domingo offered a near-perfect recreation of the soft voice and playing style of the Bahia native, even as his lyrics had more to do with staying strong amid political uncertainty than lazing about on the Ipanema shores.

Veloso would go on to establish a variant of MPB known as tropicália, which blended MPB’s respect for the Afro-Brazilian tradition with the nascent sounds of American psychedelic rock. “Tropicália,” the opening song on Veloso’s next album, found the guitarist layering the percussive tamborim patterns of samba over a noisy collage of sounds that recalled the Beatles. Other artists like Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé and the group Os Mutantes would help establish tropicália as a distinct style, even as the movement itself remained relatively short lived, tapering off around 1968.

Bossa nova’s influence would continue through later developments in MPB and beyond, remaining a central part of Brazlian music and identity to this day. Even as it begins to rear its head here in America as a source for eclectic samples and chord progressions, current interpretations pale in comparison to the sound of the genre’s originators, whose music remains as accessible as ever on streaming platforms. And with João Gilberto’s recent passing, who knows? Maybe another bossa boom is right around the corner.

Playlist: Caetano Veloso - "Coracao Vagabundo" / Caetano Veloso - "Domingo" / Gal Costa - "Que Pena" / Gilberto Gil - "Beira-Mar" / Gilberto Gil - "Mancada" / Gilberto Gil - "Domingou" / Edu Lobo - "Boranda" / Edu Lobo - “Ponteio” / Chico Buarque - "Roda-Viva" / Chico Buarque - "A Banda"