Few musical genres have the ability to paint such pretty pictures in the head of the listener as Bossa Nova. There are very strong visual associations with the sound that may be irredeemably clichéd, but nevertheless retain a naive, innocent charm that immediately evokes a dreamy, summery Neverland free from the concerns and crises that lumber the real world with such depressing pessimism. It often feels that if sunshine had a sound, it would be Bossa Nova. Indeed, Bossa Nova exudes an incurable optimism that permeates even its more melancholy moments; a ‘sad’ song in that style never gives the listener the impression that the singer is condemned to be consumed by sadness for eternity; one always feel they’ll have shrugged their shoulders and picked themselves up in the brief silence before the next song kicks off in a far more joyous, upbeat fashion. There aren’t many musical genres of which that can be said.
As with all ‘new’ sounds, Bossa Nova emerged as an organic amalgam of pre-existing genres and was a novel blend that produced something genuinely fresh. Appearing in Brazil towards the end of the 1950s, the name of the style roughly translates as ‘new wave’, an anglicised tag coincidentally attached to a simultaneous movement in French cinema which our Gallic friends knew as the Nouvelle Vague. The traditional Brazilian samba rhythm was intact in the sound, as was the influence of jazz – although Bossa Nova tends to gently sway rather than swing; the intimate, almost folk-like vocal delivery was an innovation in contrast with the more operatic Brazilian singers that had been popular up to that point; another distinctive hallmark was the percussive classical guitar, and – as with the minimalist jazz ensembles of the era – double bass, piano and saxophone were the other key instruments in the archetypal Bossa Nova combo.
Most musical scenes tend to consist of an incestuous collective of musicians, and Bossa Nova was no different as it rapidly developed into the first true Brazilian sound to spread way beyond the Latin landscape. João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Sérgio Mendes loom large in any discussion on Bossa Nova, but crucial in bringing the genre to a wider audience was American saxophonist Stan Getz, whose collaborations with Jobim and Gilberto gave the kiss of life to jazz when it was in danger of declining into a minority interest following the rise of rock ‘n’ roll; Getz’s endeavours also found favour with the easy-listening listeners of the early 60s. During the recording of the 1963 LP ‘Getz/Gilberto’ in New York – sessions which included the wonderfully-named Milton Banana on drums – the group had a crack at a new Jobim song called ‘The Girl from Ipanema’.
Initially recorded with a Gilberto vocal in Portuguese, the potential of the song was instantly apparent if it could be recorded in English. The only member of the Brazilian troupe who spoke English with any fluency was Gilberto’s young wife, Astrud, who had come along for the ride. The daughter of a German language professor based in Rio, Astrud had never sung professionally before, but her background gave her an advantage on this occasion and she was persuaded to have a go. The end result was Bossa Nova’s biggest international hit as ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, with Astrud’s adorably untrained and naive, natural vocal style enhancing the song’s effortless charm, zoomed up the US Hot 100 at the height of ‘The British Invasion’, perhaps further highlighting the dazzling variety on offer for record-buyers of the 60s. It also, in its own distinctive way, echoes so much of the optimistic vibes that characterise the pop music of the period.
As was the fashion for hit songs of the time, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ quickly became a standard via the deluge of cover versions that followed; for the remainder of the decade, no set-list of any MOR cabaret performer was complete without their own interpretation of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – with some female singers even changing the sex of the beautiful girl whose daily walks past Rio’s seaside Veloso bar-café inspired the song (something that seemed unnecessary considering the original hit was sung by a woman anyway). Instrumental incarnations were just as prevalent as the song established itself as the most ubiquitous ‘Muzak’ tune, providing the soundtrack to endless elevator journeys for years to come.
The exotic Bossa Nova rhythm flowed through every strand of pop aimed at a non-teenage audience in the 60s; outside of coffee and its national football team, the sound was easily Brazil’s most successful export. It sold an especially appealing Brazilian dream to the rest of the world that continues to have a grip on the popular imagination outside of the country itself. Ironically, however, at the peak of the music’s international popularity, Brazil itself experienced turbulent political times, with a 1964 US-sponsored military coup provoking a change of musical style as the largely apolitical Bossa Nova was superseded in popularity on home soil by more socially-conscious musical movements. Sérgio Mendes reversed the trend on a global scale with his Brazil ’66 band, giving the world the best-known Brazilian hit after ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ with his classic, ‘Mas Que Nada’; unlike Astrud Gilberto’s signature song, ‘Mas Que Nada’ was sung entirely in the original Portuguese, but was helped by the patronage of Herb Alpert, who introduced the outfit to an American audience.
Perhaps mirroring the political turbulence in Brazil, all was not well at the top of the Bossa Nova hierarchy by the mid-60s either; following her work on the ‘Getz/Gilberto’ LP, Astrud Gilberto became intimately involved with Stan Getz, resulting in divorce from João Gilberto and a relocation to the US for Astrud. She then embarked on a professional singing career in which she sang in numerous languages, including her native Portuguese; the latter recordings showcase her vocal style at its most exquisite, not to mention pure Bossa Nova at its easiest on the ear. She released a series of albums through the 60s and into the 70s that blended her Brazilian roots with jazz standards and contemporary pop songs, though she never managed to eclipse the big mainstream breakthrough of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, instead remaining a cult figure on the fringes, albeit one beloved by devotees as Bossa Nova’s premier chanteuse.
The benign images the sound of Bossa Nova conjures in the mind are probably bound up with memories of cheesy easy-listening LP sleeves from the 60s as well as its use in the background of movies from the era whenever a scene is set in a nightclub, casino or restaurant; it’s a very persuasive salesman for a fantasy lifestyle that probably never existed outside of those contexts, but even knowing that doesn’t diminish its appeal. I’ve found it a useful sedative for the here and now in recent months, almost as though I’ve been subconsciously searching for a sound to remind me there is hope after all – and hope is embodied in the sound of Bossa Nova. The simplistic, childlike vocals of Astrud Gilberto in particular provide the most suitable accompaniment to a durable musical form that is easily dismissed as lightweight by some – yet at a moment when we have an abundance of shade, a little lightweight goes a long way.
© The Editor