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Rough Guide to Brazil

Suzie Beckley

I found my way to Brazilian music through hip hop samples and Spotify's algorithm. Brazil is the home of samba, bossa nova, Tropicália, Música Popular Brasileira, its own unique brand of funk and soul, not to mention a wealth of other genres and sub-genres. As a “rough” guide it would be impossible to cover every juicy aspect of Brazilian music culture, so I've chosen to focus on music predominantly from the 1960s and 1970s. The music I am most familiar with comes from this period, and the two decades also bore witness to huge changes in Brazil and its musical culture. A military coup in 1964 led to

a 21-year dictatorship, with many artists fleeing into exile to escape decades of political and cultural oppression. This by no means constitutes an accurate or exhaustive representation of Brazilian music. I've never been to Brazil, and more importantly don't speak Portuguese so don't actually understand any of the lyrics. Nevertheless, for me Brazilian music is an enormous treasure trove; a sonic gift that keeps on giving.

Paulinho da Viola - Roendo As Unhas

Da Viola was born in Rio de Janeiro and is one of the biggest names of samba music. His songs have been selected multiple times by Rio’s samba schools (musical communities who function as neighbourhood nuclei) for performance at the annual Rio carnival. This is considered to be highly prestigious for samba composers, known as sambistas.

Stan Getz, Luiz Bonfá, Maria Toledo - Saudade Vem Correndo

My mum romantically refers to bossa nova as having a "faraway feel". This is to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt as she also says the same thing about Van Halen’s “Jump”. Nonetheless, her description does sum up the relaxed strums and ethereal vocals of the genre. Bossa nova emerged in early 1960s Rio, capturing the spirit of the liberated middle-class beach-goers, in contrast to samba which comes from the city’s streets. 

I first heard a sample of a sax riff from this song in The Pharcyde's "Runnin'". Taken from Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá’s 1963 bossa nova album “Jazz Samba Encore!”, its title, Saudade is an untranslatable concept whose meaning lies somewhere in between nostalgia, melancholy and loss and perfectly encompasses that “faraway feel”.

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Astrud Gilberto - Agua de Beber

I have controversially foregone bossa nova's two best-known tunes (“Mas, que Nada!” and “The Girl from Ipanema”) as well as any music from the undisputed King of Bossa, João Gilberto (sorry João!), in favour of the bossa nova jazz standard “Agua de Beber” sung by his (ex-)wife Astrud – another gentle introduction to this movement. I remember hearing somewhere that musicians living in apartment blocks used to get so many complaints from their neighbours that they had to sing in low voices, resulting in the hushed tones that make bossa so distinctive. 

Caetano Veloso - Irene 

This is the sound of Tropicália – a seditious countermovement which emerged during the Brazilian dictatorship of 1964-85 and encompassed music, poetry, and film. Blending Brazilian pop with rock and roll, this was the country’s version of the Swinging Sixties. Marked by a rejection of nationalism,

the movement was ideologically divisive as many leftist students saw it as a commercialisation of Brazilian music. In what could be seen as an explosive culmination of the movement, the tropicalista psychedelic band Os Mutantes had eggs thrown at them while performing at Rio’s International Song Festival in 1969. As for Veloso, who founded the movement with fellow musician Gilberto Gil, he was eventually arrested and imprisoned before going into exile in 1969.

Milton Nascimento - Tudo O Que Você Podia Ser

I’ve chosen two tracks from the next album, “Clube da Esquina”. This is partly just personal preference, but also because this album was a collaboration between two artists who deserve equal recognition. Nascimento is the mastermind behind this work but it was a collective effort, named after the art collective of the same name. Recorded in 1972, this track represents a “watershed moment for Brazilian pop music”; they cite The Beatles and Stevie Wonder as influences behind it. If this album really tickles your fancy, I recommend this Pitchfork article, which gives an interesting rundown of its history. 

Lô Borges - Um Girassol Da Cor Do Seu Cabelo

A 20-year-old Lô Borges also featured on “Clube da Esquina”. More of a cinematic ballad, this song starts as a mournful and melancholic ode, building into a whirling chorus of voices, piano, and guitar riffs. 

Os Tincoãs - Cordeira de Naña

"Musicians living in apartment blocks used to get so many complaints from their neighbours that they had to sing in low voices, resulting in the hushed tones that make bossa so distinctive"

You might recognise the chorus from French electronic producers Polo & Pan’s “Naña”.

Blending the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé music with samba rhythms and catholic chants, Os Tincoãs embody an eclectic mix of Brazilian influences.

Di Melo - Kilario

According to a certain Reddit thread the lyrics of this funk number recount a farmer celebrating the rain that’s saved his dying crops, and the name Kilario can be read as “que hilario” meaning “how hilarious”. As for Di Melo, he was long rumoured to be dead after a motorcycling accident in the 1980s. He made an infamous comeback in The Black Eyed Peas’ “Don’t Stop the Party” video. Okay that’s not entirely true, but he does appear in the video. 

Marcos Valle - Estrelar

If Tropicália is the sound of dissidence during a dictatorship, then this workout-themed boogie is the sound of Brazil post-dictatorship. Marcos Valle blends the “faraway feel” of bossa nova with a funky bass line and toots of an 80s brass-filled banger – all accompanied by a suitably gaudy album cover. Urging us to correr (run), suar (sweat), and malhar (work out) with the help of some (probably neon-clad) backing singers, consider this for your next home workout. 

Ana Frango Eléctrico - Promessas e Previsões 

Promessas e Previsões (Promises and Predictions) is taken from Frango Eléctrico’s 2019 “Little Electric Chicken Heart”. It is a far cry from Marcos Valle’s sweaty encouragements but certainly carries the influence of bossa nova and “Clube da Esquina”. Frango Eléctrico (meaning “Electric Chicken”) describes her music as “decadent bossa-pop rock played in a punk way”, again revealing the broad influences that fleck Brazilian musical culture from the 20th century right up to the present day. 

If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: helicon.magazine@gmail.com. The collection will be put together and published as a print zine by the end of the academic year.