When you think of Brazil, the cornerstones of its culture are carnival – and music. It’s a country with many unique music genres, including samba, bossa nova and sertanejo – plus a knack of taking other genres such as pop, funk and rap and giving them a Brazilian makeover.
The richness of Brazilian music comes from mixing tradition and modernity and tapping into both national and regional traditions – it’s constantly evolving. Samba in particular is a huge part of Brazil’s cultural identity, both in terms of music and dance, and is considered ‘the heartbeat’ of Rio’s annual Carnival – the biggest, boldest and brightest event in the Brazilian calendar.
Música popular brasileira, habitually shortened to MPB, is the catch-all term Brazilians use for Brazilian music in general. You can trace its history to the 1930s, when the national radio network made it possible for musicians to capture a national audience.
However, Brazil is home to many regional musical centres, including the city of Salvador de Baha, with its unique blend of African and Brazilian influences; Recife (home to música nordestina or northeastern music) and eastern Amazonia – home to lambada, while Sao Paulo has a thriving rock and punk scene.
The Traditional Brazilian Music Styles You Need to Know
Samba actually originated in Africa as the music of former slaves and African religions, but has become an icon of Brazilian national identity. Much like the blues in America, samba was originally a product of the sorrow of slaves who came to Bahia, a region in northeastern Brazil – ‘samba is the father of pleasure and the son of pain’ according to composer Caetano Veloso.
But its combination of music and passion transform sorrow into joy. It developed in Brazil in the early 1900s, in Rio’s favelas, with the first recorded version in 1917 ('Pelo Telefone' – ‘By Telephone’).
The original form of samba is samba de morro (morro meaning hill – it alludes to the slums located on Rio’s hillsides.) Here, the earliest samba style incorporated other music genres in the city, such as the polka, the maxixe, the lundu and the xote, creating a completely unique character.
There are various sub-genres of samba, which include samba-enredo, which is what the ‘samba schools’ perform at the Rio Carnival. ‘Enredo’ is Portuguese for ‘plot’ – this style is about singing stories.
Samba-choro is a mix of the two genres, while samba-exaltação is the most relaxed type of samba – check out 'Aquarela do Brasil' by Francisco Alves. Partido Alto has the most pronounced African influence.
As festive dance music, samba plays a huge role in Brazil’s Carnival celebrations – Carnival is a huge party that takes over the streets in the week leading up to Lent. A samba band consists mainly of percussion instruments playing syncopated rhythms and the music features call-and-response and imitation.
The band leader uses an Apito (a whistle) to signal breaks and calls, with metal drums - Repinique (or the Reps) – leading introductions, played with a wooden stick and one hand; Surdo – the large bass drums which old the beat, snare drums, shakers and agogô (double metal cow bells).
Choro pre-exists samba and literally means ‘crying, sobbing’, despite the music most often being joyous and celebratory. Its roots are in European salon music and Portuguese fado and it’s mainly instrumental, played with a flute a guitar, a clarinet and a cavaquinho – a miniature guitar introduced by the Portuguese. It’s known by some as ‘the New Orleans jazz of Brazil’ and, like much jazz, is based on improvisation and also for its dizzying speeds, and surprising changes of harmony.
One of choro’s most important composers was Pixinguinha who, in 1922, was part of the first Brazilian group contracted to play abroad when they travelled to Paris. Choro began to fall out of fashion in the mid-1950s, but underwent a revival in the 1970s and is still being played today.
Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso said in an interview with the Guardian that, ‘Bossa nova is a sacred music for many Brazilians. It’s political and nationalistic and poetic. It’s a form of high modernist art that somehow became one of the most popular musics on earth’.
Veloso also revealed that it’s a rare example of music becoming popular by being more sophisticated (rather than, like rock ‘n’ roll, stripping out the complexity), as ‘it took the samba and added harmonic sophistication – extended chords and so on – and added a degree of lyrical complexity.’
One of its key architects was Antônio Carlos Jobim, a classically-trained pianist who helped to fuse elements of jazz with samba to create the bossa nova sound.
The music emerged at a very specific point in Brazilian cultural history – in a brief period of democracy between the early 1950s and the mid-60s, between two spells of military dictatorship, when industry, education, health and labour rights were all flourishing, as the society left behind its colonial past and looked out at the world.
The phrase bossa nova literally means ‘new trend’ or ‘new wave’, and it became the music of choice for the emerging smart, young, urban Brazilian middle class.
Bossa nova songs differ from samba songs in that their focus is more on the individual and the personal – love, longing and nature – whereas samba usually refers to the public sphere, with themes around carnival and politics. There’s also a difference in that there are no dance steps to accompany it, as there are with samba.
One of the most famous bossa nova tracks is 'Garota de Ipanema' – aka 'Girl from Ipanema'. The lyrics were written by a famous poet, lyricist, linguist and diplomat, Vinicius de Moraes.
The Portuguese lyrics are, however, very different from their English translation – the rhythm is displaced and the lyrics become languid, mimicking the movement of the girl passing by. Whereas in English, everything is on the beat. You can hear the difference when you listen to João Gilberto’s version.
The song, which reached No. 5 in the US pop singles chart in the summer of 1964, sung by João’s wife, Astrud, became a global hit, and bossa nova fever gripped the US, helped by its popularity amongst jazz musicians such as Charlie Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz and their fans.
The Beach Boys, with 'Busy Doin’ Nothin’ 'and The Beatles’ 'And I Love Her' brought in a bossa nova flavour, while Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald devoted whole albums to covers of bossa nova classics.
Musician Sérgio Mendes thinks the continuing appeal of bossa nova music is because, ‘it’s very sensual, it’s very romantic, and you can also dance to it. Those three components make it very, very beautiful. And it has great melodies – melodies that you can remember.’
In 1964, just as bossa nova was hitting big globally, Brazil’s left-wing government was deposed – replaced by a military regime which resulted in open repression by 1968. Bossa nova’s serenity and sun suddenly seemed out of touch in these darker times and a sound influenced by rock and electric guitars – Tropicália – emerged instead, as part of a wider cultural movement.
Led by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the anarchistic, anti-authoritarian music and oblique lyrics of the Tropicalistas made them a target of censorship and repression by the military junta. The pair were eventually arrested and imprisoned and subsequently sought exile in London, where they resumed their musical careers.
The 1999 compilation, Tropicália Essentials, is a good introduction to the style, featuring songs by Gil, Veloso, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes.
Originating in Salvador in the 1980s, Axé fuses Afro-Caribbean genres including marcha, reggae and calypso with Brazilian influences from frevo, forro and carixada. The name comes from a Yoruba term, meaning ‘soul, light, spirit or good vibrations’.
Axé entered the mainstream in 1992, when Daniela Mercury released 'O Canto Da Cidade' – it remained at No. 1 for months and became an anthem for the Brazilian people. Axé’s current biggest star is Ivete Sangalo – check out 'À Vontade' for a flavour of Axé rhythms and style.
Brazilian Pop Music
The biggest genre in modern Brazilian music is sertanejo. Originating from the Brazilian countryside, it’s played across the country. Although there are some solo singers, many sertanejo artists are duos, often siblings, or duos of two men, such as Henrique and Juliano.
Lifestyle site Highsnobiety claims that, ‘Brazilian rap has always felt caught between two worlds, unsure of whether to experiment with music indigenous to the country or follow the trusted pattern of American boom-bap.’ At the moment, trap is a big influence, but there’s still plenty of traditional Brazilian flavour to its rap scene.
The Best Brazilian Music Artists and the Top 25 Brazilian Tracks You Need on Your Spotify List:
1. Eu Incomodo - Sarah Roston
2. ‘Garota de Ipanema’ – Vinicius de Morae and Tom Jobim
This is the track that many would think of as the essence of Brazilian music – it’s certainly the epitome of bossa nova. Plus, it’s the second most recorded popular song in history after The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’.
3. 'Life on Mars' - Seu Jorge
Legendary samba star Seu Jorge performed the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, composed entirely of acoustic David Bowie covers sung in Portuguese – he also appeared in the film, as well as in City of God and Netflix crime drama Brotherhood. His other collaborations include the Mario C. remix of ‘Tropicália’ with Beck, and a fashion collaboration with designer Rachel Roy.
4. ‘Aquarela do Brasil’ – Gal Costa
Gal is one of Brazil’s most well-known singers and this is one of her most famous samba tracks.
5. ‘Baby’ – Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes were one of the key Tropicália movement bands, whose avant-garde music blended traditional and foreign influences.
6. ‘Wave’- João Gilberto
Gilberto is credited as changing the course of Brazilian music, as he brought bossa nova to a global audience. He died last year at the age of 88, leaving a huge and much-loved body of work behind. This track was later covered by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Ahmad Jamal.
7. ‘Alma Boemia’ – Toninho Geraes
Samba singer and songwriter Geraes has recorded more than 250 tracks. This is one of his most well-known.
8. ‘Malandro’ – Elza Soares
Elza Soares was declared by BBC Radio to be ‘the Brazilian Singer of the Millennium’ in 1999 and is one of samba’s biggest female artists.
9. 'Essa Mina É Louca’ – Anitta
Anitta is one of Brazil’s most popular mainstream artists. The funk pop singer was born in Rio de Janeiro and this is from her award-winning third album – the title translates as ‘This Girl is Crazy’.
10. ‘Você Partiu Meu Coração’ – Nego do Borel
Nego do Borel is a contemporary funk singer – this track features both Anitta and the sertanejo artist Wesley Safadão.
11. ‘Balada’ – Gusttavo Lima
National heartthrob Gusttavo Lima’s songs are mostly about love and relationships. He had a hit in Europe with his single ‘Balada’ (Party).
12. ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’ - Astrud Gilberto
She may be best-known for singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, but Astrud had a long and successful solo career internationally. ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’ was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and showcases Gilberto’s ability to capture emotion.
13. ‘Essa Novinha é Terrorista’ – MC Kevinho
One of the big hits at Carnival, this is a song about a girl and her friends dancing at a baile funk party, which involves a dance similar to twerking, by one of Brazil’s most popular funk artists.
14. ‘Rap da Felicidade’ – Cidinho e Doca
Born and raised in the notorious favela Cidade de Deus, Cidinho e Doca became famous for promoting peace within the unstable community – the song begins, ‘I only want to be happy, to walk calmly in the favela where I was born.’
15. ‘Sorriso Negro’ – Dona Ivone Lara
Samba track ‘Sorriso Negro’, which translates as ‘black smile’ is a popular track played during Rio’s Carnival and is one of Dona’s most popular.
16. ‘Ponta de Lança’ - Rincon Sapiência
Hailed as Brazil’s great crossover rapper, Rincon Sapiência is loved by purists, and casual listeners alike and manages to incorporate both Brazilian funk and trap into his music. However, his popularity doesn’t stop him writing directly about racial injustice in his country.
17. ‘Rosa de Plástico' - Mariana Mello
Mariana started out as a model and fashion icon with a big Instagram following, breaking through with EP Mariana. The production, message and video of ‘Rosa de Plástico’ will be right up your street if you’re a fan of M.I.A.
18. ‘Perdendo o Juízo’- Flora Matos
In a country with high levels of hate crimes against LBTQIA+ and few legal protections, Flora Matos subverts traditional male rap themes, and defiantly sings about a woman who’s in love with her.
19. ‘Detalhes’ – Roberto Carlos
Carlos is knowsn as ‘O Rei’, which is Portuguese for ‘The King’. He was originally part of a famous teenage band, Jovem Guarda, before going solo and becoming famous across all of Latin America. He’s famed for his gut-wrenching love songs.
20. ‘Vamos Fugir’ - Gilberto Gil
Gilberto Gil began as a bossa nova artist, and then began experimenting with reggae, African music and rock. Later in life, from 2003-8, he served as Brazil’s Minister of Culture.
21. ‘Insensato Destino’ – Almir Guineto
Guineto used to be the director of famous samba school Salgueiro before starting on his solo career – this is one of his most famous songs.
22. ‘Ainda é Tempo pra Ser Feliz’ - Beth Carvalho
Beth Carvalho’s career spanned over 40 years, starting with bossa nova and then becoming a huge samba star. Known as ‘madrinha do samba’ (the godmother of samba), she worked with a range of legendary sambistas.
23. ‘Tristeza Pé No Chão’ - Clara Nunes
Nunes was considered one of the greatest samba and MPB singers of her generation, and was the first female singer in Brazil to sell over 100,000 copies of a record with ‘Tristeza Pé No Chão’. Her achievements earned her the title of ‘Queen of Samba’.
24. ‘Playsom’ - BaianaSystem
Hailing from Salvador, and rooted in the Jamaican soundsystem tradition, BaianaSystem are best seen live, where they fuse reggae and dub, Afro-Brazilian pagode and samba with electronic production to produce a blood-pumping live set.
25. ‘Me Deixa Legal’ - Maglore
Tie-dyed pop-rock and singalong hooks have made Maglore popular in their home country since their 2011 debut full-length album Veroz.
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