In Vienna, Austria, I graduated as an opera singer, but actually I don’t love opera as much as I love bossa nova. Wait. You don’t know what bossa nova is?!
Well, bossa nova emerged in Brazil, in the late 1950s. Young Brazilian musicians, residing in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, where the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches lie, were more interested in jazz than in the Brazilian music of that time, which they considered antiquated. Similar to opera arias, Brazilian songs were then sung with a classical voice. The lyrics were old-fashioned, their phraseology was not that spoken by the youth.
Many of those musicians played at Rio’s nightclubs and bars. Being big fans of jazz, elements of this musical style ended up flowing into their compositions, making their music sound different. They frequently came together to listen to the latest jazz albums or show their compositions to each other. Yet, they were not aware that they were creating a new musical style.
That changed when a young man called João Gilberto, from the Northeast Brazilian State of Bahia, moved to Rio de Janeiro to try a career as a musician, which at first failed miserably. Unable to pay the rent, he lived at the apartments of fellow musicians, who constantly threw him out. Every time João Gilberto had no place to go, he left Rio and lived for several months with his sister. There, he sometimes locked himself in the small bathroom and played on the guitar one and the same chord for many hours in a row, obsessed by the idea of finding a new way of playing this instrument.
And he found it. João Gilberto stylized the samba rhythm, applying jazz chords to it. Instead of strumming the strings, with the thumb he played the bass notes and with the index, middle and ring fingers gently plucked the other strings at the same time. As for the singing, he started to sing quietly, softly, in a velvety way, and without vibrato.
That was it! Returning to Rio, he showed the other musicians his new way of playing and singing. One that was very impressed was Antonio Carlos Jobim, better known as Tom Jobim, who would become the most international bossa nova composer. In 1958, the singer Elizeth Cardoso recorded an album entitled “Canção do Amor Demais”, entirely with Jobim’s compositions, with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. João Gilberto accompanied Elizeth on the guitar on two tracks: “Chega de Saudade” and “Outra Vez”. This was the first record to register his new way of playing. Three months later, João Gilberto recorded his own album, singing and playing.
The bossa nova, also called Brazilian jazz, was officially born. “Nova”, in Portuguese, means “new” and “bossa” “protuberance”, or “swelling”. In the slang of that time, it stood for fashion, talent, sophistication, someone or something that excels or is cool. Therefore, bossa nova came to mean something like “new coolness”.
American and European musicians, traveling to Brazil, came in contact with this new musical style. Bossa nova became so popular in the United States that in 1962 Brazilian musicians were invited to perform at the Carnegie Hall, in New York, in a concert entitled “Bossa Nova (New Brazilian Jazz)”. It was attended by jazz icons, like Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Herbie Mann. The concert was broadcast live to several American and European radio stations. Two weeks later, the cream of the bossa nova musicians performed at the George Washington Auditorium and was welcomed at the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy.
From then on, bossa nova conquered the entire world. According to the Performing Songwriter magazine, the song “Garota de Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema) is worldwide the second most recorded song of all times.
While appreciating some album covers, listen here to the first records to feature the guitar beat invented by João Gilberto and which gave birth to the bossa nova musical style:
Chega de Saudade (1958)
Composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes
First record: Voice by Elizeth Cardoso, guitar by João Gilberto
Second record: Voice and guitar by João Gilberto