Bossa Nova, Music with a Purpose

The Music of Brazil




Brazil is a country of both climatic and political variation. This variation also has a strong affect on the music that has developed out of the country. One of the most well-known forms of Brazilian music is the style of Bossa Nova. Bossa Nova was developed in the late 50s and 60s through a combination of previous popular styles of Brazilian music. Along with its appealing musical rhythms, Bossa Nova was a form of political statement used by the young people of Brazil to express their opinions on social issues of the times. Bossa Nova set the background that is evident in many of today's musical styles in Brazil .




This website is a brief explanation of Brazilian Bossa Nova music focusing on the distinctive features, origins, and history of the style. I outline basic facts about the Bossa Nova style, the cultural significance of Bossa Nova, and I give an example of a Bossa Nova song with an interpretation of the lyrics.



Location, Geography, and Climate of Brazil

The 3,286,470 square mile country of Brazil is located in east-central South America ( ). This vast nation, which is the largest in South America , accounts for almost one half of the overall area of the continent ( ). Almost 60% of Brazilian terrain is made up of forests, and only about 20% of the land consists of pasture. The world's largest rainforest exists in the Amazon region of the nation. Brazil is also home to eight major rivers that provide for a solid 20% of the fresh water in the world ( ). Brazil breaks apart into five climatic regions: equatorial, semiarid, highland tropical, subtropical, and about 90% of the country is categorized as tropical.

“There is little seasonal variation near the equator, although at times it can get cool enough for wearing a jacket, especially in the rain.” Although, southern Brazil experiences “temperatures [that] can fall below freezing in winter” ( ). “Most of Brazil has moderate rainfall,” but the Amazon region experiences nearly double the precipitation of the rest of the nation ( ).



Brief History of Brazil

Brazil was settled by the Portuguese at the end of the 1400s. The country of Spain also claimed ownership of the land, and the territory was divided between the countries through the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The first permanent settlements were set up by Portuguese colonists in 1530 ( ) at Sao Vicente ( ).

Spain and Portugal were united for 60 years from 1580-1640 after the death of Portugal 's King Sebastian. This union allowed inhabitants to explore the land freely and venture further across the frontier. When Portugal and Spain split in 1640, the Portuguese inhabitants of land across the Tordesillas line claimed the right to the land ( ).

Many years and political incidents later in 1822, Brazil proclaimed independence from Portugal under the lead of Emperor Pedro I. Brazil because an Empire after the war of independence that lasted from 1822-1824 ( ). Brazil was established as a Republic with a federative system in 1889. The nation went under military control from 1964-1985 at which point the democracy was reestablished ( ). Brazil introduced a new constitution in October of 1988 ( ).



Distinctive Features of Brazil

The official title of the nation is the Federative Republic of Brazil and it's capital is Brasilia . The national language is Portuguese. Brazil 's monetary unit is the real, which breaks down into 100 centavos. Beef, cereal, coffee, and cocoa, as well as, diamonds and crude oil are some of the major exports of the nation ( ).

Brazil has a population of 170 million people, 82% of whom are under 44 years of age. Sao Paulo is the biggest city in Brazil with a population of 10.4 million, while Brasilia is home to only 2 million inhabitants ( ).



Origins of Bossa Nova


In 1945 in a small town by the name of Juazeiro, a 14 year old boy, known as Joaozinho da Patu, received a guitar from his godfather as a gift. The boy learned to play and sing, growing to love music and musical performance. He played his guitar in groups with his friends and developed his skills over the years. The boy began “living for music to the exclusion of all else” and “his guitar became almost a part of his body” (Castro 2000: xx). Contrary to the wishes of his family, the boy would eventually venture to Salvador to chase his dream of becoming a professional singer. This boy was Joao Gilberto, and he “knew from the beginning that he would not stay long in Salvador ; he was on his way to Rio de Janeiro ” (Castro, 2000, p. xxii). Joao would perform and record the very first piece of music in Brazil categorized as Bossa Nova in 1958.

Joao Gilberto provided vocals for the earliest recording of bossa nova in 1958. Chega de Saudade , the song performed by Gilberto, was a combination of the lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes and the instrumental arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim. In English, the song title translates as No More Longing (Olsen and Sheehy 1998:317). Bossanovists of the 1950s and 1960s were commonly middle and upper class young adults (Sadie 2001:293), who were searching for a way to express “a musical style that suited their self image” (Olsen and Sheehy, 1998, p.317).


The style of Bossa Nova music originally revolved around the expression of the “national euphoria” that was shaping the lives of middle class youth who were raised in an era of freedom and relaxation (Olsen and Sheehy 1998: 317). As a result, “traditional romantic love themes” (Sadie 2001: 293) flooded the lyrics of Bossa Nova songs. Additionally, nightlife for young adults had moved to the nightclub scene and “the nightclub context called for a mellow music style, which could promote the romantic intimacy young dreamy-eyed couples were seeking” (Olsen and Sheehy 1998: 317).

The 1960s and 1970s of Bossa Nova expressed poetic and creative influences of songwriting. Writers such as Newton Mendunca, Chico Buarque, and Torquato Neto were among the poetic celebrities of the style (Sadie 2001: 293). A “close relationship of text and melody in many songs” (Sadie 2001: 293) was becoming more prominent. With the political uprising that occurred in the mid-60s this political commentary became an important aspect of Bossa Nova music. As the nation underwent military control in 1964, artists used Bossa Nova lyrics to speak out to the public on issues of protest. In 1965, Chico Buarque launched the expression of political dissatisfaction, specifically “the urban conditions of northeastern migrant workers in large southern cities,” in his song Pedro Pedreiro (Sadie 2001: 293).

Bossa Nova is often described as a combination of music from the samba-cancao genre, jazz, and other classic sambas (Sadie 2001: 293), drawing on the tastes of the teen generations. This appealing flavor of music matched with lyrics that presented concepts of social debate was used to maintain the awareness of the young adult crowd (Olsen and Sheehy 1998: 318). The Bossa Nova style evolved from complimenting the carefree existence of middle class young people to describing the unfair living and working conditions of people less fortunate than themselves (Olsen and Sheehy 1998: 318).

“The international success of bossa nova was the first large-scale global exposure of Brazilian music and musicians” (McGowan and Pessanha 1991: 54). “Pop and jazz listeners alike were entranced by the cool Brazilian swing and warm lyrical beauty of the ‘new way'” (McGowan and Pessanha 1991: 54). The genre provided many enduring tunes of remarkable lyricism, musical economy, and harmonic sophistication” (McGowan and Pessanha 1991: 54).

Sample song: Desafinado by Joao Gilberto  

Original Lyrics of Song and Translation

Interpretation of Song


Prognosis for this Musical Genre

Bossa Nova music began to lose its appeal to Brazilian popular music in the mid-60s. New styles developed with clear Bossa Nova backgrounds, showing the impact of Bossa Nova on Brazilian musicians (Olsen and Sheehy 1998: 318). Bossa Nova and the songs it created will continue to live on in the hearts of Brazilians, especially those positively affected by the outcomes of the political statements from many of the song lyrics. Bossa Nova will not be forgotten. It shaped the style of Brazilian music forever.




For a country made up of a variety of climates and cultures, a musical style made up of a variety of genres is definitely appropriate. The Bossa Nova style of music originated from the laidback attitudes of playful teenagers and developed into a form of political statement for young people across the nation of Brazil . The way it combined many previous styles of Brazilian music attracted a vast amount of listeners. Bossa Nova was poetic, creative, and unique. The brilliant and thought provoking lyrics created a style of music that greatly impacted the approach of Brazilian people to new music styles. Without Bossa Nova, the young people of Brazil may never have spoken out.



Internet References Cited


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Castro, Ruy

    2000       Bossa Nova , Prologue pp. xv-xxii. Chicago Review Press, Chicago , IL .

    Olsen, Dale A. and Daniel E. Sheehy

    1998       The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 2: South America , Mexico , Central America , and the Carribbean , pp. 300-321. Garland Publishing, New York and London .

    McGowan, Chris and Ricardo Pessanha

    1991       The Billboard Book of Brazilian Music: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Sounds of Brazil , pp. 53-75. Billboard Books, New York .

    Sadie, Stanley

    2001       The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Second Edition , pp. 293-294. Grove's Dictionaries Inc., New York .



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