Randi Hernandez
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Journey Into Sound: Brazilian Bossa Nova


Various Bossa Nova album covers

Various Bossa Nova album covers

Join Randi on a Funky Expedition to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!

Bossa Nova has a bad name these days. Somewhere along the line, North Americans confused authentic Bossa Nova with the more modern genres of BossaElectrica or TechnoBossa. People compare Bossa Nova to Muzak, or “elevator music”, because of the multi-string orchestral sections. Most people would probably think of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” if asked to identify a Bossa Nova song, and this is more of a mix of a pop song and a Bossa Nova song! Authentic Bossa Nova came out of the Rio de Janeiro area of Brazil between the years 1958-1963, and it is best categorized under the larger umbrella of jazz music. The major players in the Bossa Nova genre included João Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and poet/lyricist Vinicius de Moraes.

Astrud Gilberto

Astrud Gilberto

The words “Bossa Nova” can be loosely translated from Portuguese into “new trend”. The sound of Bossa Nova is most closely associated to Samba, which also originated in Brazil (Wikipedia). Bossa Nova and Samba differ because Samba usually has simpler harmonies and integrates more instruments of percussion to create the sound. The most common forms of percussion used in Bossa Nova tunes simply include a hi-hat (with which to play continuous eighth notes) and/or “rim clicks”, which is when the musician taps the rim of a drum in a clave pattern (Wikipedia).

Antonio Carlos Jobim

Antonio Carlos Jobim

While the up tempo, lively beats of Samba came out of the favelas in Rio, the relaxed Bossa Nova emerged from the beach-side neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro (Wikipedia). In a sense, the sound of Bossa Nova mimics its breezy, swaying, place of origin: The beach. Bossa Nova music is a SUBTLE music. Songs in the Bossa Nova style have an emphasis on the second beat, and usually have challenging melody lines. The songs are on average under 2 minutes each, are devoid of a bridge, and have two verses (sometimes consisting of repeating elements). Another key aspect of Bossa Nova songs is that they are performed as near-whispers. Bossa Nova was unlike Samba in that it was meant to be performed very quietly (the vocals); without the use of ANY vibrato (Daniella Thompson).

Joao Gilberto

Joao Gilberto

João Gilberto, also known as O Rei de Bossa (The King of Bossa), more or less single-handedly created the Bossa Nova genre. His vocal style evolved with time, and he started regularly practicing his guitar and writing songs. João was staying with his sister in the 1960s, and would have to practice in her bathroom for the privacy – As well as for the acoustics, so he could hear himself better. This is where João Gilberto’s vocal style took shape, and where Bossa Nova was born.

João discovered that by singing quietly, without vibrato, he was able to speed up or slow down his vocals in relation to the guitar, thereby creating his own tempo. To accomplish this, he learned to change the way he emitted sounds, using the nose more than the mouth.

-Daniella Thompson from “Plain João: The Man Who Invented Bossa Nova”. Brazzil Magazine.

Vinicius de Moraes

Vinicius de Moraes

Because his style of singing was new, it was very strange to audiences. When João would practice, he would be taunted because of his low pitch and soft feminine tone. He would sometimes practice by the banks of the São Francisco River, and it was on these banks he wrote the first Bossa Nova song ever, called “Bim-Bom” (Daniella Thompson) Then he wrote “Chega de Saudade” with poet Vinicius de Moraes. It was the first song to truly launch Bossa Nova as a movement, and the first song to thrust João into the limelight. The first two artists to record João’s next song, “Chega de Saudade”, did not perform the song in the quiet, vibrato-free style which he preferred. Finally, he recorded this song himself the RIGHT WAY (with separate microphones for voice and guitar – the only way he could sing softly and still be clearly audible).

Stan Getz

Stan Getz

In 1961, guitarist Charlie Byrd heard João while on a good-will jazz tour of Latin America. Byrd brought the sound back to the states, but no labels were biting. He introduced the sound to sax player Stan Getz, and Getz and Byrd recorded Jazz Samba in 1962. There were 4 more Getz Bossa Nova releases afterwards, the most successful of which was Getz/Gilberto with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Stan Getz, and singer Astrud Gilberto. The famous and beloved “The Girl From Ipanema” first appeared on this album in 1964. My dad (he’s a jazz expert) told me that although Astrud and João Gilberto were married during the recording of this album, Stan Getz was having an affair with Astrud Gilberto the whole time. Scandalous! If you have to choose one Bossa Nova album to purchase, I would recommend the Getz/Gilberto album, specifically the song “The Telephone Song” – it’s about calling someone through a landline and getting a BUSY signal. Remember those pesky things?

Sergio Mendes

Sergio Mendes

Please check out our playlist and enjoy the calm of Bossa Nova. There are some classics mixed in with some Bossa Nova songs from the movie Woman on Top as well. The low-pitched, half-whispered tones of the vocals evoke a sultry, sexy atmosphere – It’s almost as if your suitor is in the room with you, strumming the guitar and singing sweet nothings in your ear. You can almost feel the warm breath of your lover on your neck as he croons to you.


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4 Responses to “Journey Into Sound: Brazilian Bossa Nova”

  1. Queen of Bows Stella says:

    Let us also mention the Bossanova is the base of a lot of jazz since! And it’s not always soft, just listen for the bossanova base beat.
    Love that you covered this, Randi! I’ve been playing bossanova on the drums recently@

  2. Hi, Queen on Bows!! You’re definitely right, that Bossa Nova beat can hit hard….but the vocals almost always seem to manifest a type of soft, elegant restraint. Imo, anyway :)

  3. Tara says:

    Be sure to check out Bebel Gilberto, daughter of Astrud and Joao Gilberto! She is more modern and does her own thing but her roots and beats are samba and bossa nova (I think). Either way, if you like the parents you may be happy to hear her. I saw her randomly in NY one 4th of July she played a couple of songs with the jazz band at The Coffee Shop. It brightened my lonely NY summer day (everyone was somewhere else).

  4. Not to nitpick, but she’s actually the daughter of João Gilberto and singer Miúcha. I think João had three or more wives during his life. But yeah, Bebel is great, and definitely has a unique style!

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