Bossa nova, which translates loosely into “new wave”, developed as a paired down version of the traditional beat of samba, another (more upbeat) Brazilian style that the country is famous for. Beyond bossa nova and samba, Brazil has a varied music culture that continues to innovate and influence artists around the world.
Brazilian music for me, is a passport. I was born in Rio de Janeiro, but by the time I was able to speak in full sentences my parents had already relocated to New York. Their knowledge of American music was limited to The Beatles but their Brazilian discography ran deep. Sunday afternoons were spent at home with my mother, as she played her favorite songs for us to sing-along to. It was in the lyrics of these songs that I learned my literal and emotional Portuguese vocabulary. I learned about heartbreak long before I experienced any romance myself. And there were also history lessons to be had––the Brazilian dictatorship of the 1960-70-80’s was, ironically, a super fruitful time for artistic expression. Artists who stayed in Brazil sang in metaphor while artists in exile started singing in English. If you want to dive into Brazilian music, Caetano Veloso’s English singles, which he recorded in London, are a great place to start. His 1971 album is descriptively titled, London London. Below I’ll list some of my favorites artists that are lesser-known outside of Brazil and my go-to tracks of theirs. Start here and let the music take you elsewhere!
Known as "the muse of bossa nova", Nara Leão is not a household name anywhere outside of Brazil. She lent her sweet voice to the works of Sérgio Mendes, who would tour the United States and Europe, bringing bossa nova to a global audience. To hear her espousing a modern feminist mantra, listen to her 1964 song, Maria Moita. The lyrics go, “God made man first, and woman second––and that’s why women are always working for them both”.
The deep voice of Sandra de Sá really makes an impression. The singer-songwriter came onto the scene in the 1980’s embodying a funky end-of-disco sound that seems like a precursor to the likes of Erykah Badu. For a superfly tune to get your spirits up, listen to her 1982 track, Negra Flor. Soul isn’t soul without some harsh truths; for a spoonful of realities listen to Ohlos Coloridos, which translates to Colored Eyes.
Geraldo Vandré’s So you won’t say I didn’t speak of flowers is a song dripping in melancholy. “And in the streets––streams of doubtful people––who still take a flower––as the strongest symbol of their convictions––People who still believe that––flowers can put down the rage of guns.” Need I say more? He was overshadowed by contemporaries like Chico Buarque but his lyrics hold up just as well as the masters.
Rita Lee is an absolute shape-shifter who continues to be relevant into her 70’s. She may be Brazil’s Madonna. Her half-century of a career has proven she simply cannot be categorized. In Brazil, it’s not whether you like Rita Lee or not but rather what era of Rita Lee speaks to you. The song that does it for me is Doce Vampiro. With lines like “we make love through telepathy” it’s easy to see why women love her lyrics.
Cássia Eller is such a Rio de Janeiro icon that there was even a theatrical musical about her life. She was only 39 years old when she died of a heart attack but she had already brought some real Janis Joplin-esque energy to the MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) scene. For all the astrology lovers out there, listen to her hit, O Segundo Sol. The song title translates to The Second Sun and she makes an unforgettable pun about your phone ringing in your astrological “house”––let’s be honest, when you ask someone what their sign is, what you really want is their phone number.
Ok, Arto Lindsay is American; but his parents were religious missionaries and raised him in the Northeast of Brazil, so he gets plenty of authenticity points. He also gets a total pass for his impeccable Portuguese accent. He is, at least partially, responsible for keeping aspects of Brazilian music at the forefront of the avant-garde music scene in New York; thank you Arto! Start with one of his songs in Portuguese, Seu Pai; it only gets stranger from there.
Building off some of the transgressions of Arto Lindsay is Lucas Santtana. Santtana is bringing all the thoughtfulness of bossa nova and influencing it with electronic music. In this spirit of this sensitivity, he even works with field recordings that transport you right to the crowds of the Brazilian streets. Amor Meu Grande Amor is the perfect example of this virtuosic musical transfusion, taking a Barão Vermelho song from 1996 and making it worthy of playing in a nightclub.
Dona Onete is from the lesser-known, but enormous state of Para and even served as the secretary of culture for the state. There is nothing I love more than a politician who is also an artist. Although she only released her official first solo album at the “ripe” age of 73, she’s been singing professionally since she was a teenager and even formally studied the musical culture of the Amazon region. Her sounds are a good allegory for the indigenous and multiple diasporas that make up Brazil’s rich sounds. You hear her infectious laugh from the first seconds of her track Jamburana; I dare you not to dance.