Arts: Don't worry... be happy
Bossa Nova is 40 this year, the sunny product of Brazil's post- war boom. So how come the beat's as fresh as ever?
Saturday 14 November 1998
It is the archetypal Brazilian guitar shuffle, and an enduring influence on popular music throughout the West, from its breakthrough in pre-Beatles USA to its presence in the music of artists such as The Beautiful South, Everything But The Girl, Sade and, most recently, Beck and Sean Lennon. Today, it is a music library staple for films and ads looking for a gloss of sophistication, as well as the bane of every cheesy hotel foyer. But what explains its extraordinary success?
In Brazil in the Fifties post-war optimism had not yet been tarnished by experience. President Kubitschek was building Oscar Niemeyer's futuristic new capital Brasilia and proclaiming "50 years' development in five"; Cinema Novo was emerging; the national team won the World Cup for the first time in 1958. In the bars of Rio's beach neighbourhood Ipanema, a group of self-aware musicians and poets was gathering, including the established pop and classical composer Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim and the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Significantly, perhaps, almost all of this milieu were the offspring of wealthy parents, and had the luxury of a level of musical experimentation denied to most pop or samba musicians.
It was into this circle that a young guitarist called Joao Gilberto came. The meeting of Jobim and Gilberto was the Brazilian equivalent of John and Paul bumping into each other at Woolton Hall village fete. Gilberto provided the characteristic rhythm that would propel the carefully crafted, jazzy melodies of Jobim's songs into world recognition. Gilberto took a percussion cross-rhythm from samba - the beat of the tamborim - and applied it to the chordal accompaniment he played on guitar; meanwhile others in the circle, particularly Vinicius and Newton Mondonca, contributed the songs' adult, wistful lyrics. These lyrics Gilberto sang in a voice so somnolent that industry bosses hearing him for the first time remarked: "Tom [Jobim] said he'd bring us a singer but he ended up bringing a ventriloquist."
The release of "Chega de Saudade" in the summer of 1958 brought a critical response ranging from apathy to dislike. The Odeon boss Andre Midani persisted, however, and in 1959 released an album by Gilberto.
"As we couldn't get through the radio," recalls Midani, "we went through universities, which in 1958 was an absolute revolution. The artists faced resistance from their middle-class families; on the other hand the music faced resistance from the radio stations. So we went into universities, because that would appease the families and at the same time we would go directly to the young crowd. And here, we had an immediate response. And then it got picked up on radio."
The music's huge international break came in 1962, with the LP Jazz Samba by the US converts Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz, followed famously by the LP Getz/Gilberto in 1964 with Astrud Gilberto's lisping version of "Girl from Ipanema". Getz was to Bossa Nova what Dizzy Gillespie was to Cuban music: a North American who approached the music with genuine humility and sensitivity. Unfortunately the explosion of American interest led to most of the copyrights to the great Bossas being swallowed by US publishers in very poor deals, something that Jobim was to rue to the end of his life. The apathy of Brazilian publishers and the laid-back, vaguely anti- business mentality of the Bossa pioneers did not help.
Two events were to bring the Bossa heyday to a close: the arrival of four young Liverpudlians in the States in 1964, and the imposition of military government in Brazil the same year. The gentle optimism of the Bossa no longer seemed the appropriate sound-track to Brazil's brutal new realities; a new wave of Brazilian songwriters was waiting, armed with the musical techniques of Bossa Nova but thinking in darker, more subversive lyrical terms. Bossa Nova became part of the musical library of Brazil, but was no longer at the forefront.
Jobim continued to make records, including the latter-day standard "Aguas de Marco" in 1972 and the adventurous "Urubu" in 1976. He died in 1994. Gilberto, regarded as increasingly eccentric and unreliable by music promoters, nonetheless still performs and records occasionally. He is the last of the original circle to remain active, and his brilliance is undiminished.
One reason that Bossa Nova is still around is because musicians like to play it - they love the clever middle eight of "Ipanema", the dissonances of "Desafinado". But it also communicates something unique to the listener.
The great Bossas captured an extraordinary, optimistic moment in Brazil and combined it with the country's unique swing and a peculiar delight at both the beauty of nature and the possibilities of modern living. The form also contains moments of wonderful tenderness. There are few more intimate sounds in music than Gilberto whispering Jobim's own lyrics on his neglected classic "Ligia" from the LP The Best of Two Worlds: "I've never dreamed of you," he sings in Portuguese, "I've never been to the cinema/ I don't go to Ipanema/ I don't like the rain, nor the sun /...And when I've telephoned you/ I put the receiver down/ I don't know your name/ And at the piano I forget the silly words of love I was going to say/ Oh Ligia..."
The musicians are playing so quietly, so carefully, that they sound as though they are trying not to wake the baby next door; Gilberto sings as if he is telling you a secret. The great Bossa Nova records are perfect miniatures, moments of serenity in a noisy century.
1. Joao Gilberto & Stan Getz, "Ligia", 1976. From the Getz/Gilberto reunion LP Best of Two Worlds: Bossa at its coolest and most seductive. Getz excels.
2. Joao & Astrud Gilberto with Stan Getz, "Corcovado", 1964. From the best-known Bossa LP of all, Getz/Gilberto, this version of the Jobim song includes both Portuguese and English lyrics.
3. Doris Monteiro, "Regra Tres" 1972. Fast and jazzy, this little morality tale by Toquinho and Vinicius is proof that Bossa need not be soporific. The "rule three" of the title is that less is more, but the singer complains that her boyfriend gives her so little that the rule no longer applies.
4. Joao Gilberto "Chega de Saudade", 1958. The one that started it all sounds surprisingly unassuming now but still delights.
5. Tom Jobim & Elis Regina, "Aguas de Marco", 1974. Do not be put off by its later use as a Coca-Cola jingle; its simplicity conceals a wonderful chord sequence.
6. Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd, "Desafinado", 1962. A close call with many other takes of this song, but this, which starts with the bass and brings in percussion layer by layer, allows the listener to anatomise the rhythm.
7. Tom Jobim & Sting "Insensatez/How Insensitive", 1994. For once, Sting's robotic vocals sound perfectly appropriate. From Jobim's last album, with the composer adding vocal harmonies and piano.
8. Chico Buarque "Construcao", 1971. Buarque was driven out of Brazil by the military. "Construcao" starts as a conventional Bossa but the lyrics, telling the story of the death of a construction worker, are darker than anything Jobim wrote.
9. Ivan Lins & Terence Blanchard "Antes Que Seja Tarde", 1996. Pianist Lins wrote this subtle protest song in the last years of military government.
10. Joao & Astrud Gilberto "Girl from Ipanema" with Stan Getz, 1964. Well, it had to be in there.
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