The music genre, born in Rio de Janeiro during the mid 1950s, is typically associated with samba and jazz – but it’s much more than that.
By Pierina D’Amico
The year was 1959. Guitarist João Gilberto had been working on a few songs, developing a new sound with a different beat. Synthesizing the rhythm of traditional samba on a classical guitar, Gilberto released his debut LP, “Chega de Saudade” (“Enough Longing”), now considered the first bossa nova album.
The LP, which would go on to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001, contained “Desafinado” (“Off-key”), a song composed by Antônio Carlos “Tom” Jobim and Newton Mendonça. In it, Gilberto sang: “Se você insiste em classificar/ Meu comportamento de antimusical/ Eu mesmo mentindo devo argumentar/ Que isto é bossa nova, isto é muito natural” (“If you insist on classifying/ My behavior as anti-musical/ I myself must argue/ That this is bossa nova, this is very natural”).
And so, the genre was introduced to the world. Characterized by its unique rhythm and tempo, as well as a slightly nasal vocal style derived from Northeastern Brazil’s caboclo folk tradition, bossa nova typically includes classical guitar, bass, surdo (a large Brazilian bass drum that accents downbeats), claves (wood sticks that play a clicking pattern similar to the son clave of Afro-Cuban music), cabasa (a wood-and-metal shaker) and a drum set. Sometimes, traditional jazz instruments such as saxophone, flute, clarinet and trumpet can also be heard.
With its literal meaning being “new trend” or “new wave”, bossa nova emerged in Rio de Janeiro’s music scene as an innovative way of playing samba, while influenced by jazz. In explaining this complicated mix of genres, Gilberto himself said in 1990: “But this, this bossa, is something else: it is samba and not samba”. According to musician and author Walter García, this paradox comes down to finger placement: while Gilberto’s thumb was usually close to the double bass mark like in samba and jazz, the rest of his fingers played at three beats per measure, creating bossa nova’s characteristic “only one” base.
Interestingly, bossa nova’s two biggest influences have another aspect in common besides thumb placement: their origin. While jazz had its beginnings in New Orleans’ African-American communities in the late 19th century, samba was born in Rio de Janeiro’s Afro-Brazilian communities in the early 20th century.
But this shared history doesn’t end there. In the 1960s, bossa nova was popularized in the United States, right when the “cool jazz” movement was taking place. Particularly, OST “Manhã de Carnaval” (“Carnival Morning”) from the movie “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”) became a major hit. The genre’s popularity got to a point where even US jazz artists such as Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims, Paul Winter and Quincy Jones recorded bossa jazz albums.
In 1964, bossa nova reached worldwide success with the song “Garota do Ipanema” (“Girl from Ipanema”), a collaboration between Gilberto, Getz and Gilberto’s then wife, Astrud. Often referred to as the most famous bossa nova song, it became one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.
Nowadays, bossa nova is recognized as one of Brazil’s greatest gifts to the world. Contemporary artists such as Billie Eilish (in “Billie Bossa Nova”) and Juice WRLD (in “Make Believe”) have incorporated the sound into their music and further expanded its reach to a wider audience.
Singer Caetano Veloso once said, “Bossa nova is a sacred music for many Brazilians. It’s political and nationalistic and poetic. It’s a form of high modernist art that somehow became one of the most popular musics on earth.” And it’s no surprise – after all, one of the many meanings of “bossa” is “charm”.
Batucada do samba cabia na mão de João Gilberto, Folha de São Paulo, 22 July 2019
Guide to Brazilian Bossa Nova Music: The Basics of Bossa Nova, MasterClass, 2 November 2021
Bossa Nova Became a Turning Point in Brazilian Culture. João Gilberto Helped Launch It, Smithsonian Magazine, 8 July 2019
Why bossa nova is ‘the highest flowering of Brazilian culture’, The Guardian, 1 October 2013
How Bossa Nova Is Infiltrating Rap and R&B, Rolling Stone, 29 May 2019
Bossa Nova, Wikipedia, 17 November 2021
Chega de Saudade (album), Wikipedia, 3 August 2021
Manhã de Carnaval, Wikipedia, 16 October 2021
Samba, Wikipedia, 16 November 2021
Jazz, Wikipedia, 16 November 2021