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An Introduction to the Music of Brazil

If there’s one thing Brazilians do well, it’s dance.

Brazilians are very at home in their bodies and grow up with a strong sense of rhythm. When they are infants they’re set to dance with the adults and you’ll see 5 year olds swinging their hips perfectly in time with the beat. Music and dance is very much in their blood and the wide variety of Brazilian music styles reflect that.

Few Brazilian artists are known internationally but with a population of 170 million the stars of today have a huge following. Going out in Brazil often centres around the local dance club where live bands set everyone dancing. This is also a great way to pick up girls/boys though the steps aren’t too easy for your average stiff-hipped gringo. There are dance classes around and if you buy your partner a few drinks maybe you’ll get a local to run you through your paces. Large amounts of caiparinhas will help loosen up your steps…

The music of Brazil expresses as effectively as anything the melting pot of culture that the country represented. Jazz, rap and rock and roll all blended with the African rhythms to create a variety of Brazilian sounds. Sadly the cd’s in the stores remain beyond the reach of most Brazilians at around ten dollars each. There are, however, thriving bootleg markets and street traders who set up their wares on the pavement and sell disks for a dollar each. They lay their wares out on plastic tarps that can be gathered up in a moment when they have to run away from the police.

Sacred and Sexy Samba – the Music of Rebellion

Samba is an underground music that evolved in the cultural mixing pot of colonial Brazil, emerging as a style in its own right at the turn of the 20th century. The word itself comes from ‘semba’ or ‘san-ba’, a word that can be found in many African languages. It had several potent meanings but is generally taken to mean ‘to pray’ or ‘invoke the spirits’.

Samba evolved under the patronage of old women coming down from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro and they carried with them elements of their African heritage; The dances of the slaves were meant to invoke certain African deities known as Orishas and the dancer would then allow that spirit to take possession of her body.

This kind of thing didn’t go down too well with the Catholic Portuguese plantation owners and so the Orishas took on the masks of various Catholic saints to hide their true identities. In this respect samba is very similar to capoeira, a martial art that had to be disguised in the form of a dance.

Yet despite the disguise the authorities sensed something was going on and the gatherings would often be broken up. In Rio de Janeiro samba shed some of its religious connotation and became more of a music of protest and expression in the poor communities of the favelas.

A pioneer of Samba, Angenor de Oliveira, was quoted as saying:

“In my childhood, we played the Samba in the backyards of the old ladies, whom we call ‘tias’ (aunts), and the police stopped us often, because the Samba, then, was considered a ‘thing’ of bums and bandits.”

In many respects samba has parallels with the blues in America. Still today it remains the music of the poor and the schools are all centred in the favelas. It received little popular attention aside from the mass-marketed Carnival that draws tourists from the world over. The original parades were a home-grown affair but now the ticket prices are so high that no one from the favelas could afford to watch the blocos pass.

Still, samba is alive and well in the bloco performances that happen all over Brazil and every weekend impromptu performances can be seen in small cafes on the street. In Rio the residents of the favela above Ipanema come down on Sunday to play around plastic tables and chairs and sing. Samba needs only a basic rhythm to be knocked out on claves, triangle or drum and these small sessions are often accompanied by a guitar or mandolin. Everyone knows the words to the songs and it’s about as democratic as music can get.

Sadly mainstream acceptance of samba is still pretty much limited to TV shows of well-endowed women in bikinis shaking their stuff. The dance is very evocative with foot-shuffling that sets the hips and breasts swinging. It’s generally danced alone but also works in pairs.

Samba is catching on big-time internationally and now performance of samba bands and dance classes can be found in most major European cities.


Bossa Nova – the Sugary Language of Brazilian Romance

Bosaa Nova is the language of love for tragic guitarists the world over but especially in Brazil.

Tall and tan and young and lovely

The girl from Ipanema goes walking

And when she passes, each one she passes goes – ah

When she walks, she’s like a samba

That swings so cool and sways so gentle

That when she passes, each one she passes goes – ooh

(ooh) but I watch her so sadly

How can I tell her I love her

Yes I would give my heart gladly

But each day, when she walks to the sea

She looks straight ahead, not at me

Tall, and tan, and young, and lovely

The girl from ipanema goes walking

And when she passes, I smile – but she doesn’t see..

(The Girl from Ipanema, Vincius de Moraes)

Ah, yes, we were all young and heartsick once – we just didn’t all have diminished 7th chords and a bohemian beat to make it eternal. Bossa Nova was the first Brazilian music to make a splash overseas but nowadays is considered a little cheesy by most young Brazilians . The jazz melodies are still beautiful but the lyrics are seen to be a little meloso (honeyed) in the same way that few would now identify with Louis Armstrong singing “Cheek to Cheek”.

Bossa Nova originated in the 50’s with roots in samba but was essentially based on the new vogue instrument – the guitar. It was a very middle class, bohemian thing with none of the social comment of samba. Instead singers like Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim sang of ‘saudade’, the Brazilian blues of the yearning in the soul. Principally a yearning for an attractive young women on the beaches of Rio.

Case in point is the song “The Girl from Ipanema” which soon became a jazz classic and a big hit in the States. The song is basically about watching a beautiful girl pass by and being too shy to speak to her. As pitiful as the story sounds it’s actually true. In 1962 Vincius de Moraes and Tom Jobim used to sit in a café and watch pass by an 18 year old girl called Helo Pinheiro,; a stunning girl of five feet, eight inches tall, with green eyes and long, flowing black hair. She eventually worked out that the song was about her and became a mini-celebrity in her own right. She finally gave into the pressure and posed for the Brazilian play boy in 1987 with her daughter.

It was “The Girl from Ipanema” that made it big in the US when Stan Getz teamed up with Joao Gilberto and his wife, Astrud Gilberto. It was performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and has since become a jazz classic along with other songs like “Desafinado”. Boosa Nova was seen as a ‘Brazilian jazz’ and fitted in well in the swing period that preceded the Beatles.

Back at home Brazil entered a military dictatorship and Bossa Nova became the language of protest music for a while though the regime was fairly effective at silencing the outspoken. After all, this was in a time when the majority of countries in South America each wiped out tens of thousands with US-trained police squads.

Bossa Nova is now largely confined to the past but its influence on modern Brazilian music (MPB) is undeniable. Artists like Milton Nascimiento and Eliane Elias and Djavan all recognize their debt to Bossa Nova and the inspiration can be heard within their music.

You might enjoy:

Joao Gilberto

Vincius de Moraes

Stan Getz

Astrud Gilberto

Tom Jobim

Chico Buraque


Brazilian Music on the Web

All Brazilian Music – Complete reference on Brazilian music and artists. Includes over 800 biographies, more than 8000 albums listed, real-time news, professional reviews with audio clips of releases and online radios.

Buying instruments for samba and capoeira – Commercial site with wide range of instruments

Guide to Racism and Samba in Brazil – Interesting culture analysis

Lyrics and Chords to Popular Brazilian Music – Extensive and user-friendly site offering free tablature. Excellant for students of Brazilian music

The Wonders of Brazilian Music – Extensive listing of contemporary and past Brazilian music. Admittedly opinionated but humourous.