Naeem's Reviews > Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World

Bossa Nova by Ruy Castro
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Sep 14, 2010

it was amazing
Recommended to Naeem by: Aloja
Recommended for: joel dinerstein, paulo chamon, claudio tellez
Read in September, 2010

First and foremost, I thoroughly enjoyed this fine book. Ruy Castro has a sly and subtle sense of humor that had me laughing along. He also has the pacing of a master story teller. Mostly he allows the reader to follow him as he traces the movement major players in Bossa Nova -- Joao Gilberto, Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Sylvia Telles, Nara Leao, and a large cast of middle and minor players as well. Sometimes he follows in great detail the emergence of specific songs -- chega de saudade, desafinado, garota de Ipanema, and he tells the story of how important albums are put together song by song. If there is an interesting story to be told or refuted, he can follow the smallest of players, even if they take up only two pages in the story.

I never got lost in the sea of details because Castro's deft ability to keep everything within the larger frame and his ability to keep the reader's needs in mind. Of course it helps to have artists whose actual lives are more fascinating than those of any fictional characters. Joao Gilbero, especially, is like no one one might meet.

Castro also gives away a 9 page discography that will have my ears busy for months. What a gift!

Two themes emerge from the fine, fine details. First, is the influence of the US. The book starts with the Dick Farney-Sinatra fan club in Rio. Farney, like other Brazilians, emulated the crooners of the US, going as far as to change his name. Some of these singers were skilled enough and fortunate enough to do tours with big bands in the US. But, while it seems as if the direction of influence is decidedly from North to South, the picture is more complex, more interesting. Obviously, Bossa Nova became a huge craze in the early and mid 60s within the US -- with Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan leading a wave of Bossa Nova albums. And this was just the start -- what I did not know was that in the early 60s anyone of any fame in the US jazz world produced a "Brazilian" album. Indeed, the emotional apex of the book is when Sinatra -- The Voice -- himself calls Jobim to suggest a collaboration and Castro tries to describe how that call is bossa nova's ultimate victory. The book starts and ends with Sinatra. Or so it seems.

But Castro does not forget to present the details in which Brazilian artists actually change the face of jazz in a subtle but substantive manner. Here the stories of Joao Donato, Eumir Deodato, and Sergio Mendes are paradigmatic. Their compositional abilities, their arranging savior-faire, and their ability to translate between US jazz and jazz's (in my view stronger) latin variations, allowed them a huge role -- especially at labels such as Verve and CTI.

Thus, the fuller story is neither of a North to South or South to North influence but the simultaneity of the two. (Think of Eric Wolf's Europe and People without History as the antidote to both modernization theory and dependency theory.) Standard ideas of state boundaries, while not absent in the real flows of people, money, and sound, become much, much more complex as Castro follow these stories.

Second, as was the case in Nigeria with Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade, while musicians are solving musical problems with the invention of "afro-beat" (Fela) and "juju" (Ade), they are also negotiating global social problems. Namely: how do you create a "modern" sound that is NOT just a European/western sound? How do you create a universally acknowledged sound that remains true to its emergence in a particular soil? Joao Gilberto and Jobim (among others) were, it seems, reacting to the thickness, africaness, and trandition-ness of samba. They minimalized samba rhythms, whitened the sound by emphasizing the harmonic and melodic elements over the rhythms, and modernized it by allowing the influence of US (white, cool, west coast) Jazz. In part, bossa nova was not-samba. And equally it was not-Jazz. But of course it was both samba and Jazz.

The time periods in Nigeria and Brazil are slightly different -- mid and late 60s in West Africa and 50s in Brazil. But the pattern is similar. How to respond to the demands of modernity, how to overcome the backwardness of tradition, while also creating a sound that is universal and global in its appeal and which has a sense of west-Afrianness or Brazilianess. This was the problem, let me hypothesize, that generates afro-beat and juju in Nigeria and bossa nova in Brazil.

Can two cases make a pattern? May be they can.

The take away from all this is that we can allow ourselves to think that musicians (artists in general) can find "solutions" to social problems that we theorists still have not managed to grasp. Not that artists know that they are doing this (unless it is Caetano Veloso -- quite the theorist is he).

Not that you have to think of all this to enjoy the book. On the contrary, it is a great read without this heavier interpretive ballast.
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message 1: by Joel (new)

Joel Dinerstein Can't wait to read this. Naeem, this is the opening foray for the music book you could / should write. The simultaneity of N/S, the modernity of Afro-Western groove forms, the Latin jazz link that goes back to African diaspora, the melding of tradition with modernity. You said you didn't yet have a third book in you: this is the one. - Joel

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