Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World / Edition 1

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Bossa nova is one of the most popular musical genres in the world. Songs such as “The Girl from Ipanema” (the fifth most frequently played song in the world), “The Waters of March,” and “Desafinado” are known around the world. Bossa Nova—a number-one bestseller when originally published in Brazil as Chega de saudade—is a definitive history of this seductive music. Based on extensive interviews with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and all the major musicians and their friends, Bossa Nova explains how a handful of Rio de Janeiro teenagers changed the face of popular culture around the world. Now, in this outstanding translation, the full flavor of Ruy Castro’s wisecracking, chatty Portuguese comes through in a feast of detail. Along the way he introduces a cast of unforgettable characters who turned Gilberto’s singular vision into the sound of a generation.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Recreates the perfect image of Rio during the height of Bossa Nova’s popularity."  —Weekly Standard 

“Friendly, chatty, armchair storytelling.”  —

New Yorker
Follows an Altmanesque cast of night-club pianists, newspaper columnists, students, diplomats, and poets in a milieu as free-wheeling as Fifty-second Street at the birth of bebop.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
For North American audiences, bossa nova was "a brief Brazilian seduction" before the British invasion of the 1960s, when it fell from the world stage into the background, where it continues to appeal. But in Brazil, bossa nova meant an innovative new sound--a "serenely syncretic" take on samba--to accompany the country's other modernizations. A bestseller in Brazil, Castro's book might lack some context for readers here. But it is an energetic journalistic history with a lively cast of characters, set mostly in the beachside neighborhoods and nightclubs of Rio de Janeiro. Castro outlines the careers of, among others, pioneers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. Gilberto has always cut a curious figure: a poetic, idiosyncratic, charming young man, he became in later years a productive, exacting recluse. Enumerating poets, diplomats and critics who wrote music or lyrics, the narrative depicts a music-loving society--the wide-reaching R dio Nacional was likely "the largest rhythmical democracy in the world"--that incubated bossa nova throughout its inception--in the music of Frank Sinatra and Stan Kenton--and evolution during the composition of Black Orpheus. Bossa nova was finally released, full-fledged, in the instant classic "Chega de saudade" (the Brazilian title of the book, which translates as "no more blues"), and made its notable U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Having interviewed everyone available, Castro has at his fingertips elemental details, like the moment Billy Blanco conjured up a musical phrase on a bus, then ran into a bar and, over the din, shouted his creation to his collaborator Jobim, marking the birth of the song "Sinfonia do Rio de Janeiro." Photos. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A translation of a 1990 Brazilian best seller, this history of what happened when "street samba" moved indoors and became an international form of pop/jazz is filled with material from interviews with performers and people close to them, but it does not include one piece of documentary evidence to support its claims to authenticity. This is truly a fan's book: chatty, enthusiastic, opinionated, and list-prone. Big names (e.g., Jo o Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim) appear from the beginning, but artists known mainly in Brazil enter in historical order. Throughout, Brazilian journalist Castro makes clear the importance of bossa nova to Brazilian musical life and pride. The select discography gives online addresses for augmentation. Recommended mainly for active public library collections on world music.--Bonnie Jo Dopp, Univ. of Maryland Libs., College Park Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781556524943
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/1/2003
  • Edition description: First
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruy Castro grew up in Rio to the sound of bossa nova. He has been a staff writer, reporter, and editor for more than half a dozen major Brazilian magazines and newspapers. He lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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Read an Excerpt

A few months before, in the middle of 1957, Menescal was at home, at his parents' silver wedding anniversary celebration, in their Galeria Menescal apartment, when someone knocked at the door. It must be another guest. He went to open the door and a young man he had never seen before asked: “Do you have a guitar here? Maybe we could play something.” Menescal's face twisted into a question mark. He didn't know what to say. All became immediately clear when the guy introduced himself: “I'm João Gilberto. Edinho, from Trio Irakitan, gave me your address.”

For Menescal, if that truly was João Gilberto, the name of singer-guitarist Edinho was irrelevant by way of recommendation. He had already heard of João Gilberto. Who, among the young Rio musicians in the last few months, hadn't? He knew he was a half-crazy and cheerful Bahian, who was a fantastic guitarist and an extremely refined singer who sometimes appeared at the Plaza. He invited him to come in. João Gilberto cut through the dozens of guests as if they were made of steam—likewise, no one saw him—and they went into one of the back rooms. He saw nothing else. He just examined Menescal's guitar, loosened a few of the tuning pegs, strummed a couple of chords, and sang “Hô-ba-la-lá,” his own composition.

It was a beguine—a Caribbean rhythm that, even in 1957, would have been long forgotten had it not been for a song by Cole Porter called "Begin the Beguine." Menescal did not completely understand the lyrics and, even if they made sense, he, like most musicians, did not pay much attention to lyrics. And who would be concerned about lyrics in the light of what he was hearing?

João Gilberto's voice was an instrument—more precisely, a trombone—of the highest precision, and he made each syllable fall on every chord as if the two had originated together. Which was remarkable, because the man sang at one speed and played in another. In fact, he didn't even appear to sing, he spoke the words softly, as Menescal had already heard others doing. But he felt that João Gilberto, if he wanted to, was capable of making himself heard in the living room, with or without the party going on. João Gilberto sang “Hô-ba-la-lá” five or six times, with imperceptible changes, but each version sounded better than the one before. And what kind of beat was that? Menescal couldn't resist. He took him by the arm, guitar and all, and went out into the night with him. He was going to show him off to his friends.

They started at Ronaldo Bôscoli's apartment, in Rua Otaviano Hudson. João Gilberto sang “Hô-ba-la-lá” again innumerable times. He also sang another beautiful song of his, entitled “Bim-bom,” and a series of sambas that they had never heard—and that João Gilberto identified as being huge hits for this or that vocal ensemble from the past. In just one night and almost the entire following day (no one slept), he opened their eyes to a Brazilian music that was far richer than they had ever thought possible. And when he spoke to them about his heroes—Lúcio Alves, Dick Farney, Johnny Alf, João Donato, Luiz Bonfá, Tom Jobim, Tito Madi, Dolores Duran, Newton Mendonça, many of them their friends—they understood everything. For Menescal and Bôscoli, on that night, João Gilberto was the personification of what they had, up until that point, been blindly searching for.

Completely insomniac, they left Bôscoli's house first thing in the morning and went to Nara's apartment, where the epiphany was repeated, and from there they went to Aná and Lu's house in Urca. Menescal wanted to learn the beat<$> that João Gilberto performed on his guitar—the knack of playing chords, not notes, producing harmony and rhythm with one single stroke. During this pilgrimage, which lasted almost two days without a break, he did not take his eyes off João Gilberto's hands, particularly his right hand: Menescal noticed that João Gilberto's thumb and little finger stretched out practically in a straight line, while his three middle fingers formed the chord, and tightened all the muscles in his forearm. And he, Menescal, considered himself a guitar teacher!

And there were the things that João Gilberto talked about as they went from house to house and back to Ronaldo's apartment. Poetry, for example. Carlos Drummond de Andrade was clearly his favorite, but he also recited, by heart, long extracts from Letters to a Young Poet by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Literature was a distant preoccupation of musicians, including singers, and it was unusual to hear one citing authors with such familiarity. On another occasion, João Gilberto started to talk about the technicalities of voice projection. He admired the way that Dick Farney controlled his breathing while singing, managing to release miles of verse in a single breath, despite smoking “two packs of Continentals per day.” (Menescal later observed that, during the entire time they were together, João Gilberto never smoked and appeared to grumble whenever anyone lit a cigarette near him. He didn't drink either, which was doubly strange. Hell, everyone smoked or drank!)

But what left Menescal really perplexed was when João Gilberto explained to him how he used yoga techniques to breathe, and how this allowed him to prolong or cut short musical passages without skipping syllables or tiring himself out. He gave one example after another. Menescal took in these gold nuggets of information, and, fascinated, he understood that he was becoming this man's prisoner. The image that came to mind when he thought of João Gilberto was of a spider in its web, weaving seductions around the flies. He needed to be careful. But being aware of this fact didn't help him in the slightest: when he finally said good-bye to him in the street and went home to try and get some sleep, he was already talking, thinking, and behaving like João Gilberto.

Almost nobody among the young crowd in Rio in 1957 knew much about João Gilberto—who he was, what he had been doing before, where he learned to sing and play like that. They vaguely knew that he had come from Bahia to sing in a vocal ensemble (which one was it, anyway?), that he had left the group, and that he worked sporadically at night. Everything was unclear regarding specific names, dates, and places, and amusingly enough, people weren't very interested—or had not dared to break the barrier of silence that he personally had set up regarding his life. But the big question was: why weren’t they aware of this wonder before?

Carlinhos Lyra, who had met João Gilberto in the doorway of the Plaza in 1954, vaguely remembered those late-night vocals under the light of the street lamp, and even the nickname they gave him, but he did not remember him being such a wonder in those days. He certainly didn't sing like that, let alone play the guitar. Ronaldo Bôscoli had never seen him before. And there weren't many other people who could give the boys any information. Johnny Alf had moved to São Paulo and Jobim was practically inaccessible to them, as were Bonfá, Newton Mendonça, and Os Cariocas. It was a shame, because some of them, who had known him in the past, had been among the few to realize that in the last few years, João Gilberto had vanished from the scene. But if asked, not even they knew for sure how, when, and where he had gone, although they had a—mistaken—idea of why.

In Search of the Lost Self

Two years before, at the beginning of 1955, João Gilberto had reached rock-bottom in Rio. He had no money, no job, and almost no friends. His pride, bombarded from all sides, made his self-esteem plummet. But he tried to resist: he refused to sing in clubs where the customers prattled inanely, or humiliated him with tips—which was tantamount to charity, in his opinion. He would not seek work with vocal ensembles, he wouldn't sing dressed up like a marine anymore, and he wouldn't record idiotic jingles. It wasn't as if he was being fought over so much, in fact, no one seemed particularly anxious for his services. He wandered around the Copacabana nightclubs at night, but never went into any of them. Neither was he invited to come in by the doormen who knew him, and certainly not by those who didn't know who he was. He stayed outside on the sidewalk in silence, but his almost miserable appearance didn't help much: hair that fell to his shoulders—at a time when men who wore this hair style were considered half-insane—several days' growth of beard, and clothes wrinkled as if he had been sleeping in them for a week, which, in fact, he had. On more than one occasion, he was seen talking to himself while sitting on the benches in the square in front of the National Library, in the city center, or on Avenida Atlântica.

His family in Bahia had cut off their financial support years ago, and he did not consider the option of getting a normal job, one outside the music industry. With no money for the streetcar, he had to walk everywhere, and it's said he often went hungry. None of this prevented him from occasionally spending his last coins on a fino reefer in Lapa. He needed some form of escape from the intolerable feeling of frustration he suffered as a result of the world not behaving according to his plans. Rio de Janeiro, with its successful mediocrities, had not yet discerned his talent, and there wasn't anyone who thought he was the best singer in Brazil.

We don't know if João Gilberto ever thought about throwing himself off the Arcos da Carioca aqueduct or under a streetcar. But he came to a decision that, for him, must have been a form of death: admit defeat, leave Rio, and start again somewhere else. But where? He couldn't return to Bahia, because his family would make a martyr of him. He didn't know anyone in places like São Paulo or Belo Horizonte. There was only one choice: to accept the invitation issued by the gaucho Luís Telles, his protector in the Quitandinha Serenaders, to spend some time “resting” in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil. Telles was the only friend he had left. When everyone else turned their backs on him, fed up with his abuse, his idiosyncrasies, and being used by him, there was always a safety net to catch Joãozinho in the form of Luís's small dwelling in the Praça do Lido in Copacabana.

Lately, Luís had become concerned by the boy's physical and psychological deterioration, which he attributed largely to the “hallucinogen.” He believed he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and tried to think of a way to get him out of Rio. He would take João to Porto Alegre, where the nightlife wasn't exactly Las Vegas, but at least it would be a change of scene and would help him recover his spirit. (Of course, before they left, Joãozinho—as he still called him—would have to cut his hair.) But the main thing was that in Porto Alegre, he would be far away from the marijuana, a terrible drug that drove people crazy and made them sad and lose their desire to sing. That interesting concept of the effects of marijuana was not exclusively held by Luís—many in his circle of friends (and Joãozinho's) felt the same way.

Luís Telles may not have had a good understanding of what reduced Joãozinho to that state, but his good intentions of getting him out of Rio would certainly be worth an extra pair of wings in heaven, where he arrived in 1987 at the age of 72. That trip to the South signified, for João Gilberto, the start of a painful self-examination process that would take the next two years—perhaps the most important of his life. From the solitary descent into his own personal hell, which began in Porto Alegre and continued through cities like Diamantina, in Minas Gerais, and Salvador and Juazeiro, in Bahia, until his return to Rio in 1957, João Gilberto emerged not only strengthened and resolved as to what he needed to do, but also—finally—with the answers that he had been searching for regarding his career.

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Table of Contents

Introduction and Acknowledgments viii
Foreword x
Prologue: Juazeiro, 1948 xv
Part I: The Great Dream 1
1. The Sounds That Came out of the Basement 3
2. Hot Times at the Lojas Murray 15
3. Battle of the Vocal Ensembles 31
4. The Mountains, the Sun, and the Sea 51
5. Torchy Copacabana 65
6. The Gang 83
7. In Search of the Lost Self 95
8. The Arrival of the Beat 107
9 One Minute and Fifty-Nine Seconds That Changed
Everything 125
10. "Desafinado" (Off-Key) 145
Part II: The Long Holiday 159
11. Bossa Nova Goes to School 161
12. Colorful Harmonies 175
13. Love, a Smile, and a Flower 193
14. It's Salt, It's Sun, It's South 207
15. Bossa Nova for Sale 213
16. "Garota de Ipanema" (The Girl from Ipanema) 229
17. A Bite of theApple 243
18. The Armed Flower 259
19. Shuttle Service 275
20. The Diaspora 297
21. The World as an Exit 317
Epilogue: What Happened to Them 333
A Select Bossa Nova Discography 337
Glossary 347
Index 350
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