Snore & Guzzle Radio Hour #5 – Brazilian bossa nova
1. Orlando Silva – Ultima Cancao
2. Joao Gilberto – Farolito
3. Luiz Bonfa – Da Cor do Pecado
4. Sylvia Telles – Tu e Eu
5. Antônio Carlos Jobim – Ana Luiza
6. Baden Powell & Vinícius De Moraes – Canto de Yemanjá
7. Tuca – Verde
8. Nara Leao -Morena dos Olhos D’Agua
9. Baden Powell – Euridice
10. Joyce – Ave Maria
11. Edu Lobo & Maria Bethania – Sinherê
12. Carlos Lyra – Coisa Mais Linda
13. Doris Monteiro – Nos E O Mar
14. Dick Farney & Norma Bengel – Voci
15. Elis Regina – Dengosa
16. Vinicius de Moraes e Toquinho – Carta ao Tom 74
17. Toquinho – A Agua Negra Da Lagoa
18. Wanda Sa – Aruanda
19. Quarteto Em CY – Amaralina
20. Caetano Veloso & Gal Costa – Nenhuma Or
21. Nara Leão – Chega De Saudade
22. Caetano Veloso & Gal Costa – Remelexo
23. João Gilberto – Falsa Baiana
TRT = 1 hr 4 mins
The Radio Hour for this month is all (with the exception of a single song) Brazilian bossa nova music from 1958 to roughly, 1970. I wish there was a better phrase than “bossa nova” to describe this music. The word has become so corrupted, that for most people living in North America, the mention of bossa nova suggests high schmaltz, slick lounge, fluorescent drinks and exotic ladies wearing fruit basket hats. The original music however, had nothing to do with any of this. In fact, it was the antithesis.
Bossa Nova became an international phenomenon in the mid 1960s, and projected an image of Brazil to the world as a lush, happy-go-lucky, tropical wonderland. However, the country was anything but. The three milestone commercial bossa nova releases were, the soundtrack Black Orpheus (1959), by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim, the recording of “The Girl from Ipanema” in 1964, by Astrud Gilberto, and the Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim album, released in 1967 (essentially marking the end of an era). None of these recordings have been included on the radio show.
The tropicalia movement that came to rise in the late 60s was a strong reaction against the perception of Brazil as an equatorial disneyland. The term “tropicalia” – although it sounds like it’s embracing the Western idea of Brazilian culture – is actually a strong rejection thereof. It’s mocking itself.
Americans have been exposed to Brazilian music with tepid and watered-down major studio recordings, often using pre-established state-side musicians to prime the commercial potential. Most of the bossa nova records distributed in the United States were tainted by one of three things: 1) the English language 2) Stan Getz’ saxophone, or 3) heavy orchestral arrangements, a la Frank Sinatra. Authentic bossa nova is more like Swiss graphic design, or modernist architecture — it is understated, minimal, and more about the negative space than anything else.
The Portuguese language is as crucial to the music as any of the instruments in its standard repertoire. The language shapes the body of the music, and the body of bossa nova is soft, sweet and as light as a summer dress. Portuguese — and specifically Brazilian Portuguese, as opposed to European — is perfectly suited to this style. It’s a language that takes place on the lips. Very few words require guttural sounds. Phonetically speaking, the language is flush with soft consonants, frequent shh sounds, and word endings that often dissolve rather than snap. It also lends itself to whispering without losing semantic integrity. A good example of this in practice is João Gilberto’s “Hô-bá-lá-lá.” Gilberto sings the phrase “Hô-bá-lá-lá” — which is an onomatopoeia for a beating heart — in a near whisper and with a lilting and mellifluous touch. Like the best love songs, Gilberto’s interpretation is understated and de-dramatizes the lyrics. In short, bossa nova is not the same when sung in any language other than Portuguese. Can you imagine a Germanic language interpreting a bossa nova song?
The radio show begins with Orlando Silva, who João Gilberto consistently cites as his single biggest influence. Silva is not bossa nova, but proto-bossa nova. He was a crooner that recorded in the 30s, 40s and early 50s. The show ends with Caetano Veloso, who consistently cites João Gilberto as his biggest influence. Veloso has been quoted as saying, “When I first heard João Gilberto, I had the desire to make music.” And further described him as, “…madder than the mad, and more lucid than the sane; that seducer who enchanted so thoroughly without possessing a drop of glamour; that artist who proved himself even more the artist when he was not practicing his art…” The first album Caetano Veloso released, along with Gal Costa, is highly derivative of Gilberto’s sound. The first wave of bossa nova musicians were deeply influenced by American jazz. Musicians like Nat King Cole, Barney Kessel, Bing Crosby, Julie London and — especially — Frank Sinatra. There was a Brazilian word that referred to these type of musicians, and it roughly translated to “pillow-voices.”
João Gilberto is singlehandedly the artist most responsible for crafting the sound of bossa nova. He fashioned a rhythm that is as distinctive as the Bo Diddley beat. The bossa rhythm has become synonymous with his name, although bossa nova also refers to the Brazilian new wave at large, and encompasses new jazz and samba forms. Gilberto was an audiophile and an eccentric, who often practiced in a tile lined bathroom because of its acoustics. Later in his career, he would frequently refuse to play if the p.a. system wasn’t up to his standards. Caetano Veloso described his contribution like so: “What João Gilberto proposed was a deeply penetrating and highly personal interpretation of the spirit of samba. He did this through a mechanically simple but musically challenging guitar beat that suggested an infinite variety of subtle ways to make the vocal phrasing swing over a harmony of chords progressing in fluent equilibrium.”
Gilberto worked with Stan Getz, and his wife Astrud, to create some of the most commercially successful bossa nova records of all time. However, many sources say that he didn’t get along with Getz, and often spoke about him nastily in the studio (using Portuguese). Gilberto’s career started in earnest around 1958, but his recordings only got better with time. He released my personal favorite album in 1973, which was simply self-titled. Slipcue.com has a wonderfully articulate description of this album:
“Joao’s ‘white album’ — a hauntingly sparse, beautiful, and quite ethereal recording. Upon sober reflection (and countless hours spent listening to it), I think I can quite comfortably say that I think this is the single greatest bossa nova album ever recorded. Gilberto is gentle and graceful beyond the reach of practically any other musician alive, and this record is a masterpiece. It includes revamped acoustic takes on several bossa nova and pre-bossa oldies, along with newer material such as his lullaby for his daughter, Bebel, and one song each by the upstart tropicalistas, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Gilberto sings barely at a whisper, while his percussionist is the absolute model of restraint and economy.”
Also worth mentioning is a short lived Brazilian record label – Elenco Records. Elenco was active from 1963 to 1968, and started by Aloysio de Oliveira. Elenco was essentially an independent label and recorded some of the most influential bossa nova musicians, including: Sylvia Telles, Edu Lobo, Nara Leão, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes, Baden Powell, Maria Bethânia, Dorival Caymmi, Sergio Mendes, Maysa and Roberto Menescal. Elenco is also worth mentioning for their distinctive design sensibility. Their record covers consistently had the same look, defined by high contrast black and white photographs, counterpointed by illustrations in bright red. The clean and disciplined design was a perfect complement to the music it was representing. My personal favorite is this Nara Leao cover. (you can purchase a print in the store)
Footnote: Nara Leao straddled the bossa nova movement and the tropicalia movement. She held an impromptu salon in her parent’s house in the early days, and later associated with tropicalismo. She was sometimes referred to as “the muse of bossa nova,” although she later rejected that notion, and the movement altogether. Full disclosure: I have an unabashed infatuation with Nara Leao. Miss Leao will get her due from me at a later date, possibly as a book or article. By that same token, at some point in the future, I’d like to develop a more specialized and well developed piece on Brazilian music from the bossa nova era, but in the meantime, this will have to do.