How Bossa Nova Made a Mark on Popular Music – Acoustic Guitar

From the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAC RANDALL


A warm tropical breeze. Sand swishing through toes. The rays of the setting sun reflected in the ocean. And yes, maybe a cool adult beverage (or two) in a glass bedecked by a tiny umbrella. For North American listeners, such are the mental images called up by the sound of bossa nova. Because this subtle, sophisticated music born in 1950s Brazil became the center of a brief commercial craze a few years later in the United States, it’s often thought of today as “retro.” But that’s giving it short shrift.

In its home country, bossa was never a fad, and it never really went away. Its distinctive rhythmic syncopation and cool sense of anti-drama have influenced the development of popular music, both in Brazil and elsewhere, for generations. Bossa’s leading exemplars—Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes, João Gilberto, Sylvinha Telles, and Luiz Bonfá, to name a few—are now recognized around the world as artistic giants of the 20th century.

Like so many cultural products of the New World, bossa is a true hybrid, blending a rhythm rooted in Africa (the samba) with the complex harmonies of Western classical music and jazz. It’s further distinguished by the unique characteristics of the Portuguese language, with its heavy emphasis on fricative sounds like “zh” and “sh.” And at its core is an old European instrument—the acoustic guitar—conveniently adapted to meet modern South American needs.

A New Thing

The world is full of foundation myths in which great people go into a kind of exile, sequestering themselves from others until they reach a decision, or experience a revelation, that brings them to a new level of awareness. Think of Jesus in the wilderness, or Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree. So it is with the birth of bossa nova as we now know it. The story goes (and is generally accepted by scholars as true, more or less) that over a period of several months in…

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