Bossa Nova: The Misunderstood
" Tall and tan and young and lovely,
The girl from Ipanena goes walking and,
When she passes each one she passes goes, Ahh.' "
These are the first lyrics of, probably, one of the most famous bossa nova songs sung by Frank Sinatra. The melody of the song is as smooth as the singer, the rhythm is laid back, and the lyrics are simple. Unfortunately, Frank Sinatra's portrayal of this Bossa Nova classic is detrimental to the music's image. The Bossa Nova should not just be considered lounge music, for it is much more than that. The Bosa Nova is a style of Latin music that has subtle complexities and deserves much more credit than is given; once people have been exposed to what these complexities are, it is plain to see that there is quite a bit to the Bossa Nova.
When listening to the bossa nova, most people in America think that the music resembles jazz (in a laid back way) more so than it does samba. This might have to do with the fact that we, in America, listen to jazz much more often than we listen to samba rhythms causing our ears to be prone to noticing the jazz aspects of the music and somewhat disregarding the samba aspects. And on top it all, because the bossa nova resembles jazz but in a laid back way, the tendency is to believe that it is laid back because the music is not as complicated. The fact is however, that bossa nova is a lot like jazz in the sense of its complicated harmonies, syncopation, swing and improvisation, but the structure itself, the melody, off-key sound, is very much like the samba. So in order to understand how complex this music actually is, we must understand the roots of the bossa nova.
The primary genre that Bossa Nova takes after is the Latin music entitled "Samba". The Samba was first developed in Rio de Janeiro, at the time the capitol of Brazil, during the beginning of the 20th century. To understand this area a little more, it is important to note that there are three major ethnic influences to this musical genre. First, there is the music that was brought to Brazil by the slaves that were coming in from Africa. Second, there is influence from the people of Europe, more specifically, the people of Portugal. Finally we have the music from the native indigenous people of Brazil. These three ethnic groups are responsible for what samba music is today which is prevalent when we listen to the music itself.
The African influence is very noticeable in samba. As we know, call and response and polyrhythm played by multiple instruments simultaneously are common characteristics in traditional African music. Another common characteristic that is shared between the Samba and African music is the tonal quality of the singer's voice. They do not necessarily need to sound on key because perfect pitch is not a main goal of the singers. Instead what is important in both traditions is involving the public, getting everyone to sing and dance (which is especially important in samba for samba is music for dance). As many of us know, Brazil (especially Rio de Janeiro) is the home of the well known celebration of Carnival. It is at this special occasion where the Samba is really featured and shown off for the entire world to see. Many "Escuela de Sambas" compete in a parade-like event where they use this music along with dance to tell stories about history, mythology, and present day situations that are part of Brazil. Recently, the Bossa Nova was actually included in part of an escuela de samba's routine for Bossa Nova is part of Brazil's music history. It is in these "escuela de sambas" where it is prevalent to see exactly what their music is about. The music has a fast-paced beat with a heavy emphasis on percussion. The melodic aspect comes mostly from singing and not so much the instruments that are being played. In these parades, the bateria includes the people who actually play the instruments while the rest of...
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Appleby, David P. The Music of Brazil. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1983.
McGowan, Chris & Pessanha, Ricardo. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1998. pp. 21-74
Anonymous, "Jazz History- Bossa Nova," Verve Music
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