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A Consolidated History of Bossa Nova Music

Gisele Bündchen walking in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games © Mohd Shahjehan Maamin | Dreamstime.com

You might recall watching Gisele Bündchen flawlessly conquering her last catwalk at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony in 2016.

Yeah, that was something.

But no, I’m not here to talk about Gisele’s walk (although yes, that was cool how she broke the record for the longest runway walk ever). I’m talking about the iconic song that she walked to, “The Girl from Ipanema.”

It is the most famous song of the bossa nova genre (bossa nova translates to “new trend” in English) that singularly captures the spirit of Brazilian culture. Composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes in the 1960s, the song was inspired by a beautiful girl that often stopped by a local bar in Ipanema to buy cigarettes. Jobim took the composition to the recording studios in New York and invited American saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist João Gilberto, and Gilberto’s wife and singer Astrud to collaborate on the track. “The Girl From Ipanema” quickly grew popular among listeners after its release, topping Billboard charts globally and later securing itself a Grammy Record of the Year in 1965.

It is important to note that bossa nova had begun long before “The Girl from Ipanema” took the world’s center stage, therefore making the song more of a final product than a pioneering factor of the genre. In the 1950s, João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and other Brazilian musicians had started a musical experiment that married samba music with jazz and blues to create a family of sounds unlike any of its predecessors. The music traditionally consisted of voice with classical guitar and some soft percussion to create a steady samba-based rhythm. Lyrics were often about women, love, connection to one’s cultural roots and origins – a shift in focus on the more personal and individual rather than about social conflicts and humanity.

“Bossa nova is a sacred music for many Brazilians,” says Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. “It’s political and nationalistic and poetic. It’s a form of high modernist art that somehow became one of the most popular musics on earth. [It] is a rare example of music that becomes popular by being more sophisticated.”

Musicologist Arthur Nestrovski further explains bossa nova’s ties to Brazil.

“This is a music that comes from a specific point in Brazilian cultural history. It’s a product of a brief period of democracy, between the early 1950s and the mid-60s, in between two spells of military dictatorship. The prime minister Juscelino Kubitschek was a social democrat who made great strides in industry, education, health and labour rights. We had a new capital city, Brasilia, designed by a radical young architect called Oscar Niemeyer. Our football team won the World Cup twice in a row! And we had the bossa nova, the highest flowering of Brazilian culture.”

Today, this colorful yet subtle genre of music continues to thrive among bars, theatres, concert halls, and (I kid you not) elevators. Modern bossa nova artists like Eliane Elias, Sabrina Malheiros, and Céu (to name a few) continue to cater new ideas to their listeners while still upholding the genre’s traditions in this rapidly changing modern world.

Here are a few classic bossa nova hits you should check out:

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Vivian Wang

Vivian is a travel enthusiast and food connoisseur living in New York City. Her curiosity and passion for languages and culture has taken her across eight countries over the past year. When not working, you can find her meandering in art museums or sampling food at the street markets.

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