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The Bossa Nova and Other Genres During the 20th Century

The 50s and 60s were a turning point for Brazil in terms of music. In 1958, "Chega de Saudade" was published, a vinyl version written by Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim and interpreted by João Gilberto. It was not only the beginning of the Bossa Nova but also greatly influenced the following musicians and movements that were to come. Various musicians from the 70s and 80s expressed n for this epoch on them. Caetano Veloso, a very well-known musician from Bahia expressed that he could not stop listening to this remarkable album; he was not able to afford a new copy, but he used to go to a local bar where the owner played it all day long. He also concluded that it was one of the main reasons why he started to play the guitar and considered seriously his advocacy for the music path. In the same line, Gilberto Gil, another great musician from the same period as Caetano who still performs live presenting shows all around the world, stated that he started to play the guitar because of Joao Gilberto.

João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, three of the most iconic Brazilian musicians of all time, perfoming alive on a TV Show in 1971
Figure #1: João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa performing at TV Tupi show (1971)

In the 50s, the United States had a very important effect on Brazil because of all the agreements negotiated during the post-war. A lot of the culture and modernism of the United States was introduced in South America during this period and music was no exception. The Bossa Nova, a Brazilian genre that started at the end of the fifties in Río de Janeiro was represented by a Spanish guitar with nylon strings and played with the fingers (without plectrum) and was inspired by many genres, but jazz occupies a very important position. One of the greatest singers of all time, Frank Sinatra, was very attracted to the Bossa movement and wanted to record an album with some of the most famous songs of the genre. “Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings” was the name of it and helped to export this new music from the giant of South America to the world.

Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim recording a Bossa Nova album in Hollywood
Figure #2: Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim recording Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings (1967)

Sometimes music is an expression of a negative reality. Art in general works like this and shows the emotions of society at a particular time. And this was the case of the Bossa Nova. Its style is characterized by being melancholic and nostalgic, with a soft way of interpreting the instrument as the guitar is being played slowly with the fingers and the singing is quite slow too, like whispering in the ear of someone else. All of this can be summarized in one word: Saudade; A word that does not have a particular translation but means a deep emotional state, like Nostalgia but also from things that could not happen. And it was not by accident that the emergence of the Bossa Nova was at the same time when Brazil entered a dictatorship period that started in the 60s and lasted for 20 years. This kind of nostalgic expression, visualizing a previous time, was somehow reminiscing about a time in the past that had been more enjoyable.

On March 31st of 1964, a military government took place in Brazil which overthrew the then-elected President Joao Goulart. As in any authoritarian and anti-democratic movement, the main flanks of the attack were the media and art like music and writing, considering that they are very important sources of dissemination and resistance. Regarding the media, it was used by the different military governments since was an excellent tool for the promulgation of official propaganda. In many cases, they also received support from these media, but this was also because it was difficult to confront them during a military dictatorship that had control of almost everything and that was least interested in the respect for the main rights, such as many kinds of freedom like expression, religious freedom and in the worst scenario, life. Another of the points attacked by the dictatorship was culture and within it, music. It often happens in countries invaded by a de facto government that local artists are a conduit for the expression of the people through their creations. This was reflected in Brazil in the 60s and marked notoriously with later movements such as Tropicalismo and MPB (Brazilian Popular music), given that the dictatorship lasted until the mid-80s.

João Goulart in an official visit to Chile in 1963
Figure #3: João Goulart ex president of Brazil and Jorge Alessandri ex president of Chile (1963)

Tropicalismo was another crucial music movement in Brazil that started in the 60s. The most influential individuals were Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who we already talked about in the previous paragraphs, who were very close to the Bossa Nova in the beginning. Perhaps in that time of Brazilian history, the Tropicalismo was an iconic example of cultural resistance against authoritarianism. A lot of examples can be found of this expression and how many musicians were supporters of different movements politically opposed to the dictatorship. The military governments considered this generation of musicians as "subversive" since they felt that they came to promulgate socialist ideas that were contrary to the official ideology, threatening their government plans.These ideas were not only offensive to governments, but they also undermined their broadcasting plans. Therefore, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (giving an iconic example of two of the hundred cases) were arrested. In 1969 Gilberto Gil needed to escape to London because of being pursued by the Government. The Tropicalia movement was considered “dangerous” for the local government and with this situation, it was very well expressed which was the context of the art and music during the period between the 60s and the 80s in Brazil.

Brazil exposed what almost always happens: the incompatibility of art with authoritarian governments. Art, music, and any means of expression know no limits; it is the opposite of the military, of the mandate, of the established. Art exposes what is pure and transparent, something that needs to be said without any kind of concealment or measurement. It is for all this that the Caetanos, the Joaos, the Gil´s, Gal´s, Tom´s and Vinicius´, are not well received by those governments that claim to promote free states or want to fight to maintain them, but all they achieve is the opposite. In the Brazilian period covered, there were musical births that had an impact beyond its borders and crossed generations, reaching the present day, and they did so during unstable contexts for freedoms and fundamental rights. Perhaps those uncertain contexts pushed artists of this size to appear and make their voices heard as they did. Perhaps in other, kinder contexts, that lack of social and political difficulty would not have generated this quality of struggle wrapped in song.

Bibliographical References

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Baldomero Villamil

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