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Bossa nova is a genre of Brazilian music, which developed and was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s and is today one of the best-known Brazilian music genres abroad. The phrase bossa nova means literally "new trend" (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈbɔsɐ ˈnɔvɐ]).[2] A lyrical fusion of samba and jazz, bossa nova acquired a large following in the 1960s, initially among young musicians and college students.[3]

Bossa nova rhythm[1]



In Brazil, the word "bossa" is an old-fashioned slang for something that is done 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." ("Samba, readiness and other bossas are our things, are things from us.")

The exact origin of the term "bossa nova" remained unclear for many decades, according to some authors. Within the artistic beach culture of the late 1950s in 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.[4] Castro claims that the term "bossa nova" might have first been used in public for a concert given in 1957 by the Grupo Universitário Hebraico do Brasil (Hebrew University Group of Brazil). The authorship of the term "bossa nova" is attributed to the then-young journalist Moyses Fuks, who was promoting the event.[5] That group consisted of Sylvia Telles, Carlos Lyra, Nara Leão, Luizinho Eça, Roberto Menescal, and others. Mr. Fuks's description, fully supported by most of the bossa nova members, simply read "HOJE. SYLVIA TELLES E UM GRUPO BOSSA NOVA" ("Today. Sylvia Telles and a 'Bossa Nova' group"), since Sylvia Telles was the most famous musician in the group at that time. In 1959, Nara Leão also participated in more than one embryonic display of bossa nova. These include the 1st Festival de Samba Session, conducted by the student union of Pontifícia Universidade Católica. This session was chaired by Carlos Diegues, latter a prominent Cinema Novo film director, a law student whom Leão ultimately married.[6]


Classical guitarEdit

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 created, pioneered, and 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. According to Brazilian musician Paulo Bitencourt, João Gilberto, known for his eccentricity and obsessed by the idea of finding a new way of playing the guitar, often locked himself in the bathroom, where he played one and the same chord for many hours in a row.[7]

Drums and percussionEdit

As in samba, the surdo plays an ostinato figure on the downbeat of beat one, the "ah" of beat one, the downbeat of beat two and the "ah" of beat two. The clave pattern sounds very similar to the two-three or three-two son clave of Cuban styles such as mambo but is dissimilar in that the "two" side of the clave is pushed by an eighth note. Also important in the percussion section for bossa nova is the cabasa, which plays a steady sixteenth-note pattern. These parts are easily adaptable to the drum set, which makes bossa nova a rather popular Brazilian style for drummers.


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

Bossa nova and sambaEdit

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.[8] 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.[9]


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 folk tradition of northeastern Brazil.[10][11]

Themes and lyricsEdit

The lyrical themes found in bossa nova include women, love, longing, homesickness, nature. Bossa Nova was often apolitical. 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 military coup d'état), the popularity of bossa nova was eclipsed by Música popular brasileira, a musical genre that appeared around the mid-1960s, featuring lyrics that were more politically charged, referring explicitly to working class struggle.

Notable bossa nova artistsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Blatter, Alfred (2007). Revisiting music theory: a guide to the practice, p.28. ISBN 0-415-97440-2.
  2. ^ "Definition of Bossa Nova". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved June 19, 2017. Origin and Etymology: Portuguese, literally, 'new trend'. First Known Use: 1962 
  3. ^ Mariana Garcia (10 July 2006). "A estética da bossa nova (The aesthetics of Bossa Nova)" (in Portuguese). Com Ciência. Archived from the original on 19 February 2014. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ "Moyses Fuks"
  6. ^ "Nara Leão"
  7. ^ Béthencourt, Paul de. "What is Bossa Nova?". Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  8. ^ "Step one, pour yourself a drink", Mark Collin, The Guardian, 27 June 2008
  9. ^ "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)
  10. ^ "Caboclos 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)
  11. ^ Oxford Music Online article (subscription only)

Further readingEdit

  • 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.
  • De Stefano, Gildo, Il popolo del samba, La vicenda e i protagonisti della storia della musica popolare brasiliana, Preface by Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Introduction by Gianni Minà, RAI-ERI, Rome 2005, ISBN 8839713484
  • De Stefano, Gildo, Saudade Bossa Nova: musiche, contaminazioni e ritmi del Brasile, Preface by Chico Buarque, Introduction by Gianni Minà, Logisma Editore, Firenze 2017, ISBN 978-88-97530-88-6
  • 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)

External linksEdit