The sound of the tropics beckons. You hear a slow Latin rhythm with a groove that makes you want to sway in a leisurely dance. Guitar, exotic vocals, and several percussion instruments all contribute to the irresistible sound of bossa nova.
So, what is bossa nova music? Keep reading for a breakdown of what it sounds like, as well as the rich history of this unique genre.
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What Is Bossa Nova Music?
All schools of South American music originated from the merging of African and Caribbean cultures. It’s recognizable to the ears for its unique rhythms and colorful percussion. Let’s explore the roots to find a definition of bossa nova music.
Bossa nova comes from samba, which is a musical genre of the early 1900s featuring a melody and simple harmonies sung in Portuguese. It’s heavily influenced by percussive beats and usually accompanied by dancing and flamboyant costuming.
An offshoot of samba developed in the 1950s and 1960s in Rio de Janeiro. Though similar to samba, it has some differences. Let’s compare and contrast the two sounds.
Bossa Nova Music Characteristics
The main element that separates bossa nova from samba is the rhythm. A particular syncopation persists throughout each song, played on the guitar instead of with percussion (as in samba).
Instrumentation in bossa nova uses a traditional Latin setup. Classical guitar is the main rhythmic and melodic framework. Percussion such as a drum kit and shaker is fundamental, but performers often include traditional Brazilian instruments as well. As in salsa music, the piano provides colorful interest but is not structurally necessary.
The tone of bossa nova is slow and seductive. Lacking the electric energy of some other Latin styles, bossa instead presents a chill mood. Its vibe is perfect for summer bonfires, island vacations, or a quiet evening spent with a book in hand.
Traditionally, the lyrics to bossa nova music are in Portuguese. Sometimes vocalists prefer Spanish or a mixture of the two. Much of the foundational repertoire has been translated into English for American audiences, such as when it was performed in the big band/swing era. Bossa's lyrics usually portray themes of love or illustrate elements of South American nature.
Singers carry a wistful and romantic bent to their styling. Some are more dramatic, others subdued and intimate. The vocal technique is a natural, smooth sound with none of the precision and clarity of classical opera (for example). The tone can get a bit nasal at times. Singers begin with the standard melody but often move to improvisational or rhapsodic patterns.
9 Examples Of Bossa Nova Music
Several well-known bossa nova songs are well worth a listen to familiarize yourself with the subgenre. Here are our favorites!
1. “Manhã de Carnaval”
Orpheu Negro (Black Orpheus) was a 1959 film that combined elements of Brazilian, Portuguese, and French culture, and reflected this multiculturalism in its accompanying music. The production happened right when bossa nova was coming into its own and didn’t yet have a name or cohesive structure. “Manha de Carnaval,” sung by the famous mezzo Elizete Cardoso, is the predominant song from the film’s soundtrack.
2. “Girl of Ipanema”
Songwriters Moraes and Jobim (who we address later on) became inspired to pen this tune in 1962 after observing a teenaged, bikini-clad beach goer in Rio de Janeiro. It speaks of her beauty and an irresistible allure as she casually strolls by without noticing them. “Girl of Ipanema” has ascended the ranks of Portuguese musical lore and remains one of the most recognizable songs of the bossa nova genre.
3. “Chega de Saudade”
With a title that translates to “no more blues,” musicians consider this tune the flagship bossa nova standard. A Jobim/Moraes composition, its original recording featured Elizete Cardoso (of Orpheu Negro fame). However, the Joao Gilberto version one year later is the better-known recording. The lyrics address passionate longing, presumably for a lover who has departed.
4. “Mas Que Nada”
The first performance of “Mas Que Nada (Just Nothing)” was by Jorge Ben in 1963. Later in that decade, Sergio Mendes adopted it as one of his signature tunes and shot it to fame. The song’s title is a Portuguese colloquialism spoken when disagreeing with someone. Unusual for the bossa nova genre, here there is a relatively upbeat tempo and dance-like energy, with sustained vocals textured over the percussion and rhythmic piano riffs.
Rolling Stone put this at the top of their list of The Greatest Brazilian Songs of All Time. Originally recorded by Chico Buarque, it tells the story of a construction worker’s last day on the job before he dies. There are strong political overtones here, as the song was written during the reign of a Brazilian military dictatorship. It uses irregular rhythms, poetic lines, and symphonic orchestrations to demonstrate the uncertainty of the times, as well as the drama of the story.
6. “Aguas de Marco”
Another Jobim classic, this tune uses isolated words as a text painting to describe the atmosphere of Brazil. The title means “March waters,” with March being the month that the South American region experiences the most rainfall of any time of year. The music employs descending patterns to represent water falling. “Aguas de Marco”s original recording featured Elis Regina and Tom Jobim, but dozens of artists have covered it in subsequent decades.
When Brazilian bossa nova met American jazz in the mid-20th century, it exploded the popularity of Latin music in the U.S. This tune enters the canon thanks to a joint effort from Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. The word “desafinado” translates to “off-key,” so the two musicians wrote the lyrics and harmonies to reflect this unfair label tongue-in-cheek. This song features a prominent saxophone along with the customary guitar, vocals, and bossa percussion.
“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” is another Getz-Gilberto creation and one track off the live album that won the pair a Grammy Award in 1964. It’s a particularly introspective tune that fits best in a nightclub with only a handful of attendees. The lyrics illustrate the beauty, stillness, and romance of nature.
9. “Billie Bossa Nova”
An iconic Gen-Z figure, Billie Eilish is not a Latin musician. On the contrary, her music tends to be a unique synthesis of pop with indie and electronic influences. However, on Eilish’s experimental 2021 album, Happier Than Ever, she explores the bossa subgenre with this track. Eilish and her brother and co-writer Finneas use the exotic bossa nova rhythm to tell a story of incognito lovers, just as the siblings attempt to escape from the paparazzi on their real-life tours.
5 Top Bossa Nova Musicians
As with any musical subgenre, there are a handful of performers whose work solidified its formation and crafted its unique sound. Here are a few important names within the bossa nova genre.
1. Joao Gilberto
Brazilian guitarist and singer Gilberto was pivotal in originating the bossa nova sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In his home country, the people referred to him as “O Mito,” a word translating to “legend.” In other countries around the world, he is known as the “Father of Bossa Nova.”
Gilberto was nominated for several Grammy awards during his lifetime and has been inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. Professionally, he often collaborated with Jobim, Getz, and other fixtures of the Latin-jazz crossover era. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, was another respected singer of the bossa genre.
2. Antonio Carlos Jobim
Also known simply as Tom, Jobim was one of the most prominent figures in the development of bossa nova. He wrote and performed dozens of Brazilian tunes that are now some of the most well-known examples of the bossa sound and style.
It’s no accident that Jobim was born in Rio de Janeiro, the heart of where bossa originated. As a young man, he worked as a bar musician, then moved to arranging and composing. There were several non-Latin influences in his compositional style, including the French Romantic composers of the classical tradition.
Jobim reached American audiences when he began performing onstage with Frank Sinatra in the 1960s. Their English rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema” has become one of the standard versions of the classic Brazilian tune, which Jobim himself wrote.
3. Vinicius de Moraes
Nicknamed “O Poetinha (The Little Poet),” Moraes was the creative mind behind many of the bossa nova songs in the current musical canon. Though he was also a singer, it’s his lyricism that he’s known for. Moraes penned the words to such tunes as “A Felicidades” and “Chega de Saudade,” often collaborating with his friend and musical partner Jobim for the final product.
Later in life, Moraes became politically involved as a Brazilian diplomat in conjunction with his writings. He was a consummate artist and controversial personality in his native country, known to be an alcoholic and a womanizer who married nine times.
4. Baden Powell de Aquino
In the realm of Brazilian guitar virtuosos, Powell (who went by just his first two names professionally) deserves a place of recognition. The most active years of his career were the 1960s, and in the 1970s he worked to release multiple recordings in Europe and South America.
Powell’s stage and studio performances encompassed many styles, including but not limited to bossa nova. He also incorporated elements of jazz, swing, classical guitar, and scat singing. He employed a unique playing style with innovative finger techniques that influenced generations of Brazilian musicians who came after him.
5. Stan Getz
Unlike others on this list, Getz is an American musician. He was irreplaceable in the era of mid-20th-century jazz, contributing saxophone performance to keep Latin music alive during a time when rock n’ roll was king.
Though he’s considered a jazz musician, Getz was pivotal in the meeting of jazz and bossa nova stylings. The famous Getz-Gilberto studio album won three Grammy awards and sits high atop the list of iconic works that progressed bossa nova forward. Getz worked tirelessly as a performer, arranger, composer, and entertainer for most of his life.
The History Of Bossa Nova Music
As we’ve seen, the history of Latin music is long and colorful. The musical traditions of South America are almost as extensive as the cultures of the people who write and perform them.
One additional figure who we haven’t yet addressed is a man who went by the stage name of “Milton Banana.” Born Antonio de Souza, he was a self-taught Brazilian jazz drummer who we now credit with inventing the bossa nova beat. Banana was most active in the 1960s through the 1980s, putting out several jazz-bossa albums under the name of the “Milton Banana Trio.”
Along with Banana, several notable names like Gilberto, Jobim, Moraes, and Getz collaborated in the mid-20th century and perpetuated the popularity of bossa nova. Its roots in samba made the subgenre of bossa immediately acceptable to those of Hispanic origin, sounding slightly different from their customary traditions but retaining the basic elements of form and rhythm.
As with any new style, bossa took a few decades to fully cohere into its own distinctive sound. The sultry vocalizing, soft percussion, and classical guitar riffs joined together to create a unique aesthetic that adapted well to nightclubs and jazz performances.
In the U.S. in the 1960s, bossa crossed over into popular sounds. Artists such as Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, and Quincy Jones recorded bossa-themed albums that incorporated their twists. In addition, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney put out radio hits of the era in a bossa style.
Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma often borrows exotic sounds for his classical performances. In 2003, he recorded Obrigado Brazil, an album of Latin music that paid homage to the bossa nova style. Many of the tracks are classic songs written by Jobim as well as Heitor Villa-Lobos. Ma pairs his classical cello with noted Brazilian performers for a modern yet authentic sound.
Today, bossa nova can be heard in any jazz club as part of the night’s set. Typically bossa is the more laid-back sound when the musicians take down the tone, just as a rock band might perform a ballad to shift the onstage mood. The current globalization of cultures means that bossa vocalists may sing in English, Spanish, and Creole, rather than only Portuguese.
Travelers to Brazil will find that locations like Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leblon are the current hubs of bossa. The music is synonymous with Brazil’s carnival celebrations. What began as an offshoot of other Brazilian music is now its style, with a musician who specializes in its particular brand of structure and instrumentation.
What Is Bossa Nova Music? Final Thoughts
Bossa nova is one of the most influential developments in Brazilian pop music. What began as a subgenre of samba is now its own voice, inspiring generations of Latin musicians all over the world.
Whether traveling to Brazil, learning to play a traditional South American instrument, or simply listening at home for recreation, bossa nova is a lovely and calming experience. We hope you will listen to these artists and discover some new favorite songs for yourself. Did we leave out any of your favorite bossa nova songs or artists? Let us know in the comments below.