Bossa nova

Bossa nova
Stylistic origins Jazz, samba
Cultural origins 1957 (Rio de Janeiro's South Zone), Brazil
Typical instruments Classical guitar, piano, electronic organ, acoustic bass and drums
Mainstream popularity Widely known in Brazil, also significant in the United States, Europe, Japan and the Philippines.
Tropicália (Tropicalism)
Other topics
Bossa Nova (dance)
Bossa nova rhythm.[1]

Bossa nova is a well-known style of Brazilian music developed and popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. The phrase bossa nova means literally "New Trend". A lyrical fusion of samba and jazz, bossa nova acquired a large following in the 1960s initially from young musicians and college students.[2] Since its birth, it remains a vital part of the standard jazz repertoire.


Origin of the term "bossa nova"

In Brazil, the word "bossa" is slang for doing something with particular charm, natural flair or innate ability. As early as 1932, Noel Rosa used the word in a samba:

"O samba, a prontidão e outras bossas são nossas coisas, são coisas nossas" ("The samba, the readiness and other bossas are our things, are things from us").

The exact origin of the term "bossa nova" still remains uncertain. Within the artistic beach culture of the late 1950s Rio de Janeiro, the term "bossa" was used to refer to any new "trend" or "fashionable wave". In his book Bossa Nova, Brazilian author Ruy Castro asserts that "bossa" was already in use in the 1950s by musicians as a word to characterize someone's knack for playing or singing idiosyncratically.[3] Castro claims that the term "bossa nova" might have first been used in publicity for a concert given in 1958 by the Grupo Universitário Hebraico do Brasil (University Hebrew Group of Brazil). This group consisted of Sylvinha Telles, Carlinhos Lyra, Nara Leão, Luizinho Eça, Roberto Menescal, et al. And in 1959, Nara Leão also participated in more than one embryonic display of bossa nova. This included the 1st Festival de Samba Session, conducted by the PUC's (Pontifical Universidade Catolica) student union. (This session was then chaired by Carlos Diegues, a law student that Leão ultimately married.) [4] While these early musicians were likely using the term "bossa nova" as a generic reference this novel musical style, the term took hold as the definition of their own specific artistic creation to this day.

Origins and history of "bossa nova" musical style

The bossa nova musical style evolved from samba, but is more complex harmonically and less percussive. As opposed to Samba's origins in the favelas, bossa nova emerged primarily from the upscale beachside neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. Certain similar elements were already evident, even influences from Western classical music like Gershwin's Cuban Overture with its characteristic 'Latin' clave rhythm. The influence on bossa nova of jazz styles such as cool jazz is often debated by historians and fans, but a similar "cool sensibility" is apparent.

The development of bossa nova is largely credited to artists working in the 1950s including Johnny Alf, Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto. One of the first bossa nova songs was "Bim-Bom" by Gilberto. Other songs that popularized the style included Dorival Caymmi's "Saudade da Bahia" and Elizete Cardoso's recording of "Chega de Saudade" on the Canção do Amor Demais LP, composed by Vinícius de Moraes (lyrics) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (music). The song was soon after released by Gilberto.

An early influence on bossa nova was the song "Dans mon île" by French singer Henri Salvador, featured in the 1957 Italian movie Europa di notte by Alessandro Blasetti; the song was distributed in Brazil and covered later by Brazilian artists Eumir Deodato (Los Danseros en Bolero - 1964) and Caetano Veloso (Outras Palavras - 1981). (In 2005, Henri Salvador was awarded the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit for his influence on Brazilian culture. He received this honor from then singer and Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil in the presence of President Lula.

The initial releases by Gilberto and the internationally popular 1959 film Orfeu Negro ("Black Orpheus", with score by Luiz Bonfá) brought significant popularity of this musical style in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. It soon spread to North America via visiting American jazz musicians. The resulting recordings by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz cemented its popularity and led to a worldwide boom with the 1963 recordings of Getz/Gilberto. Numerous bossa nova recordings by famous jazz performers followed, including those of Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Abraça Jobim) and Frank Sinatra (Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim).

The first bossa nova single to achieve international popularity was perhaps the most successful of all time, the Getz/Gilberto recording "The Girl From Ipanema". This 1964 song was edited to include only the singing of Astrud Gilberto, Gilberto's then wife. From the popularity of this song, the genre would then endure and withstand substantial "watering down" by popular artists throughout the next four decades.


Classical guitar: Bossa nova is most commonly performed on the nylon-string classical guitar, played with the fingers rather than with a pick. Its purest form could be considered unaccompanied guitar with vocals, as exemplified by João Gilberto. Even in larger, jazz-like arrangements for groups, there is almost always a guitar that plays the underlying rhythm. Gilberto basically took one of the several rhythmic layers from a samba ensemble, specifically the tamborim, and applied it to the picking hand.

Piano: Though not as prominent as the guitar, the piano is another important instrument of bossa nova; Jobim wrote for the piano and performed on it for most of his own recordings. The piano has also served as a stylistic bridge between bossa nova and jazz, enabling a great deal of cross-pollination between the two. In addition to the piano, the electronic organ is also prominently featured on many classic bossa nova tracks, such as "(So Nice) Summer Samba" by Walter Wanderly.

Percussion: Drums and other percussion are generally not considered essential bossa nova instruments. Nonetheless, there is a distinctive bossa nova drumming style like that of Helcio Milito and Milton Banana, characterized by continuous eighths on the high-hat (mimicking the samba Pandeiro) and tapping of the rim or "rim clicks" in a clave pattern. The bass drum usually plays on "1-&3-&1".

Strings: Lush orchestral accompaniment is often associated with bossa nova's North American image as "lounge" music. It is present in many of Jobim's own recordings, and in those of Astrud Gilberto. Dusty Springfield would both feature and epitomize this element on her Philips recording of "The Look of Love", a song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and one of the most respected American pop interpretations of the bossa nova. (That version is not the Phil Ramone version Springfield first recorded.) The unique aural texture of bossa strings, when used, is an important secondary characteristic of the genre. Bossa nova is at heart a folk genre, and not all bossa nova records have strings.


In the early bossa nova recordings, in terms of lyrical themes and length of songs (typically two to four minutes), bossa nova's was very much a popular-music style. However, its song structure often differs from European and North American popular music's standard format of two verses followed by a bridge and a closing verse; bossa nova songs frequently have no more than two lyrical verses, while many lack a bridge. Some of João Gilberto's earliest recordings were less than two minutes long, and some had a single lyrical verse that was simply repeated.

Certain other instrumentations and vocals are also part of the structure of bossa nova:

Bossa nova and samba

Bossa nova has at its core a rhythm based on samba. Samba combines the rhythmic patterns and feel originating in former African slave communities. Samba's emphasis on the second beat carries through to bossa nova (to the degree that it is often notated in 2/4 time). However, unlike samba, bossa nova doesn't have dance steps to accompany it.[5] When played on the guitar, in a simple one-bar pattern, the thumb plays the bass notes on 1 and 2, while the fingers pluck the chords in unison on the two eighth notes of beat one, followed by the second sixteenth note of beat two. Two-measure patterns usually contain a syncopation into the second measure. Overall, the rhythm has a "swaying" feel rather than the "swinging" feel of jazz. As bossa nova composer Carlos Lyra describes it in his song "Influência do Jazz", the samba rhythm moves "side to side" while jazz moves "front to back". Bossa nova was also influenced by the blues, but because the most famous bossa novas lack the 12-bar structure characteristic of classic blues, as well as the statement, repetition and rhyming resolution of lyrics typical of the genre, bossa nova's affinity with the blues often passes unnoticed.[6]

Bossa nova and jazz

In terms of harmonic structure, bossa nova has a great deal in common with jazz, in its sophisticated use of seventh and extended chords. The first bossa nova song, "Chega de Saudade", borrowed some structural elements from choro; however, later compositions rarely followed this form. Jobim often used challenging, almost dissonant melody lines, the best-known being in the tunes "Desafinado" ("Off-Key"). Often the melody goes to the altered note in the chord. For example, if the chord is DM7#11, the note sung in the melody line there would be G#, or the sharp 11.


Aside from the guitar style, João Gilberto's other innovation was the projection of the singing voice. Prior to bossa nova, Brazilian singers employed brassy, almost operatic styles. Now, the characteristic nasal vocal production of bossa nova is a peculiar trait of the caboclo[7] folk tradition of north-eastern Brazil.[8] Gilberto managed to dramatically reduce that to a subtle near-whisper.

Themes and lyrics

The lyrical themes found in bossa nova include women, love, longing, and the best of youth. There are two thematic types of bossa nova: the early bossa nova (beginning in the late 1950s), and the bossa nova after the coup d'état of 1964. The musical lyrics of the late 1950s depicted the easy life of the middle to upper-class Brazilians, though the majority of the population was in the working class. However, in conjunction with political developments of the early 1960s (especially the 1964 coup d'état), bossa nova style became more "angry", with lyrics becoming more thematically charged, referring explicitly to people's struggles and liberty.[9]

Modern developments

From the mid-nineties, various other European artists reached out to bossa nova for inspiration, incorporating electronic music and creating styles such as BossaElectrica and TechnoBossa. New singers like Bebel Gilberto, daughter of bossa nova co-creator João Gilberto and singer Miúcha, and new European bands like Nouvelle Vague and Koop, used modern approaches to further interpret this soothing style of music. Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim used a bossa nova rhythm to connote a "nightclub" feeling in his song "The Ladies Who Lunch" from the album Company (1970).

Notable bossa nova artists

Stan Getz
João Gilberto
  • Laurindo Almeida
  • Badi Assad
  • Luiz Bonfá
  • João Bosco
  • Chico Buarque
  • Charlie Byrd
  • Oscar Castro-Neves
  • Gal Costa
  • Eliane Elias
  • Quarteto em Cy
  • Gilberto Gil (early years)
  • Bebel Gilberto
  • João Gilberto
  • Astrud Gilberto
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim
  • Edu Lobo
  • Nara Leão
  • Carlos Lyra
  • Maysa Matarazzo
  • Sérgio Mendes
  • Newton Mendonça
  • Roberto Menescal
  • Vinicius de Moraes
  • Paula Morelenbaum
  • Sitti Navarro
  • Paulinho Nogueira
  • Hermeto Pascoal
  • Rosa Passos
  • Agustín Pereyra Lucena
  • Baden Powell de Aquino
  • Elis Regina
  • Elza Soares
  • Sylvia Telles
  • Toquinho (Antônio Pecci Filho)
  • Marcos Valle
  • Caetano Veloso
  • Bola Sete
  • Zimbo Trio
  • Wanda Sá

Bossa nova in pop music outside of Brazil

Over the years the genre of bossa nova has reached beyond its Brazilian and jazz roots, influencing popular music and other popular rhythms.

  • American entertainer Pat Boone scored a hit in 1962 with "Quando, Quando, Quando", with music by Tony Renis and lyrics by Alberto Testa.
  • American jazz musician Dave Brubeck released the album Bossa Nova U.S.A. in 1962, mixing jazz with bossa nova.
  • In 1963, Elvis Presley released the hit song "Bossa Nova Baby". The song's only link with bossa nova, however, is the name, as there is nothing in the musical composition of the song that resembles bossa nova.
  • Also in 1963, Eydie Gorme had a Top 10 hit with the song "Blame It on the Bossa Nova".
  • The Beatles' "And I Love Her" (1964) and The Kinks' "No Return" (1967) are both in the style of bossa nova.
  • In 1967, Frank Sinatra performed several songs with Antônio Carlos Jobim.
  • Also in 1967, The Doors released the hit song "Break on Through (To the Other Side)", which featured a prominent bossa nova style drum beat by drummer John Densmore.
  • Robert Palmer's 1988 album, Heavy Nova, fused bossa nova rhythms with hard rock and blue-eyed soul.
  • In 1990, alternative-rock band Pixies released the album Bossanova.
  • In 1995, George Michael released "Jesus to a Child", a song influenced by the bossa nova style. The song was dedicated to his former lover, Brazilian Anselmo Feleppa (who died in 1993).
  • In 2001, Jamiroquai recorded the song "Corner of the Earth" on the album A Funk Odyssey.
  • In 2006, The Black Eyed Peas recorded the song "Mas Que Nada" on Sérgio Mendes' album Timeless.
  • In 2006, Taiwanese singer Jay Chou recorded the Mandarin-language song "迷迭香" ("Rosemary")
  • Before her solo career, singer Lani Hall sang in the band Brasil '66.
  • José José started his musical career playing the bass and double bass in a bossa nova trio named "Los PEG".
  • Shakira was strongly influenced by bossa nova in her 2005 song "Obtener un sí".
  • In 2009, Russian rapper Timati recorded the song "Bossa" on the album The Boss.


  1. Blatter, Alfred (2007). Revisiting music theory: a guide to the practice, p.28. ISBN 0-415-97440-2.
  2. "The aesthetic of bossa nova" ("A estética da bossa nova") by Mariana Garcia, Com Ciência, 10 July 2006 (in Portuguese)
  3. Castro, Ruy (transl. by Lysa Salsbury). Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. 2000. 1st English language edition. A Capella Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, Inc. ISBN 1-55652-409-9 First published in Brasil by Companhia das Letras (1990)
  4. "Nara Leão"
  5. "Step one, pour yourself a drink", Mark Collin, The Guardian, 27 June 208
  6. "Blues and Samba: Another Side of Bossa Nova History" article by Bryan McCann, from the Luso-Brazilian Review, cited in the Project MUSE (in Portuguese)
  7. "Cabaclos refers to the mixed-race population (Indians or Africans 'imported' to the region during the slave era, and Europeans) who generally live along the Amazon's riverbanks." From "Two Cases on Participatory Municipal Planning on natural-resource management in the Brazilian Amazon", by GRET - Groupe de Recherche et d'Échanges Technologiques, France (in English)
  8. Oxford Music Online article (subscription only)
  9. "What is Bossa Nova?" from

Further reading

  • Castro, Ruy (transl. by Lysa Salsbury). Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. 2000. 1st English language edition. A Capella Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, Inc. ISBN 1-55652-409-9 First published in Brasil by Companhia das Letras. 1990.
  • McGowan, Chris and Pessanha, Ricardo. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil. 1998. 2nd edition. Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-545-3
  • Perrone, Charles A. Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB 1965–1985. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.
  • Mei, Giancarlo. Canto Latino: Origine, Evoluzione e Protagonisti della Musica Popolare del Brasile. 2004. Stampa Alternativa-Nuovi Equilibri. Preface by Sergio Bardotti; afterword by Milton Nascimento. (in Italian)

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