From the late 1950s, modernist skyscrapers rose around the curves of Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, and the musicians of the city gathered on beaches to compose melodic tributes to the zeitgeist of their generation. Yet Bossa Nova’s story is as romantic and tinged with melancholy as some of its most famous recordings.
It was an everyday sight in Brazil: the women carried their laundry down the paths of the São Francisco river valley, their hips swaying to the natural rhythms of movement, exaggerated to counterbalance the weight of their baskets. Left right, left right. Bim bom, bim bom.
João Gilberto was living with his sister in Diamantina, Minas Gerais. A short period as a musician in Rio de Janeiro had seen him dismissed from his band for failing to show up for practice. He was following in his own sense of time, staying up through the night to practice over and over again, the same chords in different formations, in the bathroom of his sister’s house where acoustics were best,
The undulating hips of the washerwomen crystallised this obsessive repetition with the distinctive guitar style, and Gilberto’s whispered, cobweb vocals. The melancholic tinge to his style was bordering on a preemptive nostalgia for the Brazil that surrounded him. The country was in a period of national optimism. A regime overthrown, and a government that promised progress, modernism and a better future for the tropical paradise of Brazil. Stars flocked to the beaches of Rio, and social classes mixed freely on the beaches.
It was 1957 when this sound was born, yet its introduction to the cultural hotspots and chicest beach gatherings of Rio was delayed by a week. The musical breakthrough that had so inspired Gilberto was the final straw in a string of eccentric behaviour that had caused his family concern. His father committed him to a psychiatric hospital, where he was promptly dismissed for showing only an introverted, poetic take on existence rather than the lunacy his parent suspected.
After this brief interlude, Gilberto’s Bossa Nova (literally translating to New Style) of playing quickly became a craze in Rio. From bars to balconies, imitations of the unique sound could be heard. Yet the songs that we name today, the Bossa Nova that has seeped into our collective consciousness from films, advertisements, and elevator music, was the product of Gilberto’s collaboration with two other musician-composers: Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. Together they wrote some of the most well-known Bossa hits around: Aguas de Março (Water of March), Corcovado (Quiet Night of Quiet Stars), and Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema).
They also wrote Gilberto’s first record, ‘Chega de Saudade,’ which first spread the sound of Bossa Nova across the country. The sound took off, cleverly encapsulating the national sentiment, and a new pack of musicians soon ruled the Rio scene: Luis Bonfá, Leny Andrade, Gilberto Gil, Nara Leão, and latterly Chico Buarque and Elis Regina.
The albums of these musicians became known as much for their artwork as for their fresh, youthful sound. In line with the Modernist dream for Brazil, the artwork of Bossa Nova albums was influenced by the avant garden of the contemporary art world. They featured bold interactions of primary colours and balanced, almost mathematical layouts. Their visual link to artists such as Mondrian gave them a worldly, sophisticated image. They appealed to the middle-class Brazilians who considered themselves cultured, urbane and prepared for Kubitschek’s accelerated journey to the future.
Less than a decade later a military coup in 1964 would make this period seems naively hopeful, and throw Bossa Nova’s delicate yearning into a poignant contrast.
The credibility leant to Brazilian musicians by the innovation of these records, content and appearance, allowed future musical trends to blossom after the military coup cast Bossa Nova’s relaxed nature in a more complicit role. Some of its leading figures went on to establish the Tropicália movement, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso being the most prominent examples. This more combative evolution of Bossa Nova was politically charged and disruptive, gaining the disapprobation of the military junta, who censored and repressed the music as best they could.
In the same month as the military coup, March 1964, the release of ‘Getz Gilberto’- a collaboration with the world-famous jazz musician Stan Getz- signalled that Bossa Nova had taken over the global music scene. João Gilberto had relocated to New York and continued on in his style. Its waning popularity in Brazil became less important as it created a mythical, tropical dreamworld version of Brazil in the captivated imaginations of North America and Europe.
The soothing exoticism of the music aside, the very story of Bossa Nova had a pleasing romanticism that added to the simplicity of its vision: the tortured musician-genius, his rapid ascension, the mythical spontaneous discovery of Astrud Gilberto’s hypnotic singing voice during the recording of ‘Getz/Gilberto’ - never mind that she had, of course, been singing previous to this.
As quick as it had become a sensation, it became banalised. From an exciting new sound to the easy listening genre of choice for waiting rooms and hold lines, the optimism of Bossa Nova lay dormant as musical wallpaper. Lately this has begun to change, with Brazil- and others- recognising the value of the original movement, and the musical potential of its legacy. Books have been released on the art of the LP covers, and João remained obsessed with his music until his death in 2019, whilst living in New York and writing his own mythological existence as a reclusive, mysterious perfectionist. His daughter Bebel recounted that her father could find ‘the musicality in anyone’ by forcing them to sing, finding tunes he feels they could manage and drawing out the melodies inside that person. Bebel has also carved her own spot in the Bossa story, by updating and personalising the genre for a contemporary audience, her music featuring in pop culture classics such as ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ Bossa Nova no longer seems stuck in its golden years of ’58 to ’64- it has crept back into our culture as a living genre, looking once again to the future, the music of paradise.