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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blame It on the Bossa Nova

Image courtesy of Putumayo.com

The bossa nova, samba, lambada, these are just a few of the styles of music that came from Brazil.  Influenced by European, African, and Amerindian music, Brazil has been a great cooking pot creating a wide variety of music.

Image courtesy freealbumart.com

Bossa nova literally means a "new trend".  It became very popular in the 1960s, and has contributed a number of songs to the standard jazz repertoire.  Rising out of the Rio de Janeiro beach culture, it is a fusion of samba and jazz, with a splash of the blues.  Today it is commonly referred to as simply "bossa".

Everyone gets in on the act.  Image courtesy of israbox.com

While it evolved from samba, it is more harmonically complex with less percussion.  It was developed in the 1950s, the credit for its development going to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, and Johnny Alf.  The most famous song, perhaps, to U.S. ears is Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema".  I, personally, grew up listening to Jobim and others as my father was a huge fan, and "Girl" was one of his favorites.  (My favorite Jobim is "Like a Lover".)  The film Black Orpheus, released in 1959, did a lot to popularize the music.  Dusty Springfield's "The Look of Love" is a good example of a pop standard interpretation of the bossa nova.

Astrid Gilberto, vocalist on "The Girl From Ipanema".  Image courtesy www.lastfm.fr.

The purest form of bossa nova would be an acoustic guitar (played with the fingers) accompanied by vocals.  Played in 2/4 time, like a samba but slower, the beat is from the guitar.  Even in a large group of instruments, the acoustic guitar carries the underlying rhythm.  The piano is also a prominent feature, as is the electronic organ.  Although drums and other percussion instruments are not considered essential there is a bossa nova drumming style.  Strings are sometimes included but bossa nova is really a simple genre.

Image courtesy of freealbumart.com

The rhythm is based on a samba, which has patterns that came from African slave music.  But unlike the samba, bossa nova doesn't have dance steps.  Harmonically, bossa nova shares the use of seventh and extended chords with jazz.  Vocals tend to be subdued, modest, and sort of breathy, a change from the operatic singing style that preceded it.  The wording of the songs tend to reflect love and longing. They usually have two verses; some have a lyrical verse that is just repeated.  One of bossa nova's most famous songs is "Desafinado", by Tom Jobim and Newton Mendonça.  It means "off key", and melodies in a minor key are an important element.

Image courtesy of Putumayo.com

Bossa nova was born at a time when Brazil began to experience some economic prosperity and a sense of national pride.  Then came rock and roll.  Bossa nova faded into the background and has often been considered lounge music. Curiously, it spurred on the formation of a new bossa nova, one that didn't address the daydreams of the upper classes, but became more political, depicting the plight of the working class and of having a military government.

This new bossa nova made use of traditional Brazilian instruments and borrowed from other genres of Brazilian music.  Thus the music born of an optimistic time of growth and prosperity was revised to fit a time of addressing inequality and strife, updating the genre and reinvigorating it.

Bossa Nova by artist David Roberts, 2007.

Perhaps it is this fact that makes the bossa nova truly Brazilian music of the people: that it can change like the nation has.  While I embrace the bossa nova's past, I look forward to its future.

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