Music is one of the most important aspects of Brazilian culture. Its unique identity comes from the special fusion of European and African elements brought over by the Portuguese colonizers and their slaves, as well as a considerable heritage from the indigenous tribes and their regionally varied folklore.

Up until sometime in the 19th century, Portugal had a strong hold on what came in and out of Brazil, and consequently was responsible for introducing many musical features, both sophisticated and for the masses, to society. This influence extended from the specific instruments brought over, to the types of harmonies employed and to the development of musical literature, over the first few centuries of the colony’s rise. Of course, the majority of these features were not uniquely Portuguese in origin, stemming in fact from all over Europe, but it so happened that the Lusophones were the ones who introduced them to Brazil.

African culture had a huge influence on the diversity of Brazilian rhythms, dances and instruments we see today, especially regarding folk and popular Brazilian music, this influence coming into its prime from the 20th century onwards.

Cultural interchange with countries apart from Portugal started to grow from roughly the middle of the 18th century, stimulating interest in Italian and French operas, and diverse dances, such as the Spanish Zarzuela, Bolero and Habanera; German Polkas and Waltzes, as well as countless African rhythms.

From the end of the 18th century, Brazilian popular music started to gain its distinctive tones, really coming into its own from the 1900s onwards, thanks to the widespread propagation of the Lundu, the Choro and Samba.

The Brazilian music scene really started to blossom during the 20th century, thanks to ever increasing globalisation and a shift in attitudes towards a society more open minded with regards to the arts. It was also during this period that Brazilian music became truly its own entity and was able to fully distinguish itself, whilst still remaining true to its origins as a mix of different styles. Villa Lobos was the first Brazilian musician whose work combined the more refined aspects of classical music with distinctive Brazilian hints and flavours, paving the way for future ‘Brazilianism’ composers.

Over the course of the same century, popular music started to gain fans from the higher rungs of society, turning one or two rhythms into veritable Brazilian trademarks, in particular the Samba, Bossa Nova, Tropicalism and the Jovem Guarda (Young Guard). At the same time, Jazz and Rock from the USA were conquering the world, and in Brazil it was no different, although they couldn’t help but be influenced by local sounds once over here. Traditional, regional folk music, such as Sertaneja, Baião and Forró, as well as the famous Rio Funk are just some of the musical styles to have grown ever more successful throughout the whole of Brazil as time has gone by.

Thanks to the appearance of innumerable music schools, recording studios, instrument manufacturers, orchestras and music groups, radio and TV broadcasters and festivals; amongst other elements, the quality and quantity of Brazilian music has grown exponentially, so that it is now a source of pride for Brazilians and global admiration and study.


Bossa Nova was one of the most popular and characteristic musical movements of the twentieth century, which saw thousands of artists, mostly composers and poets, record and perform beautiful songs throughout the 1960s

Bossa Nova to this day remains one of the most distinctive and definitive sounds of Brazil’s twentieth century popular culture. It was a musical movement that was started, initially, by composers (and poets), but evolved to become so much more, paving the way for numerous musicians over the last 60 years. In fact some say it isn’t even a genre, but more a style of performance.

Whilst relatively simple in its formation, it is a wonderfully sophisticated and creative style of music; the depth and meaning of its lyrics alone serve as motivation for foreigners to learn Portuguese.

The golden years of Bossa Nova were from 1958 to 1964. The 1950s was a decade of rapid industrialisation in Brazil, one that brought with it a wave of modernity in terms of architecture, design, cinema and music. This was a period of transformation and social change in Brazil, a time of boom that saw plans to build a new capital, Brasilia, in the heart of the country.

Bossa Nova’s rightful birthplace was Rio de Janeiro, in the neighbourhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. University students, poets, and musicians alike, from a raft of different backgrounds, would come together and host jamming sessions in their apartments. Naturally, so as not to disrupt the neighbours, their style and composition gave way to a “softer” type of music than previously popularised, uniting a myriad of influences. With time they realised that they were beginning to define a new sound, of interweaved harmonies and melodies, all set to a soft vocal style and gentle rhythmical percussion.

The emergence of Bossa Nova brought together an unlikely group of performers: Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Candinho, João Gilberto, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Nara Leão, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Baden Powell, Luizinho Eça, the Castro Neves brothers, Newton Mendonça, Chico Feitosa, Lula Freire, Durval Ferreira, Sylvia Telles, Normando Santos and Luís Carlos Vinhas. These musicians, composers and artists, tired of both the overplayed operatic vocals of radio and the rather staid samba scene, were in search of something new, a sound that truly represented the people of Rio and defined the revived spirit of a nation.

Artists such as João Donato and Billy Blanco were already influenced by international superstars like Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker, but Bossa Nova also had something to say, through its lyrics. Rio now had a platform to tell its story, about the lives of the music’s protagonists, a new carefree, urban lifestyle (sun, sea and girls).

There were three architectural elements to Bossa Nova, as we know it today; firstly the vocals and guitar playing of João Gilberto, secondly the composition of Antônio Carlos Jobim and, finally, the lyrics of Vinicius de Moraes.

João Gilberto, having left Bahia in 1950, spent several years looking for work, whilst diligently developing his own unique style of guitar playing. Legend has it that he spent eight months perfecting his trade in his sister’s bathroom. His impact was immediate.

Antonio Carlos Jobim brought to the scene a whole host of musical influences from Europe (Debussy, Ravel), America (Nelson Riddle) and of course Brazil (Pixinguinha, Custódio Mesquita and Radamés Gnatalli). During the day he worked for a record company, whilst performing by night at venues throughout Rio’s southern districts.

Vinicius de Moraes was already a respected poet, playwright and journalist as well as a civil servant with the Brazilian consular services. He met Jobim in 1956, and a successful song-writing partnership soon flourished.

Also of importance was André Midani, the head of an international record label, who was instrumental in the signing of these pioneering artists. Other independent labels – RGE, Elenco and Forma – in addition to releasing Bossa Nova albums, also helped establish a visual identity to the genre; album covers became almost as important as the music.

Although Elizete Cardoso’s 1958 album Canção do Amor Demais featured songs by Jobim and Gilberto, it was João Gilberto’s 1959 album Chega de Saudade, which showcased songs by Jobim and Vinicius, that is generally considered to be the first authentic Bossa Nova album. Brazilian music would never be the same, and its instant novelty meant that anything vaguely modern or alternative was labelled as being “Bossa Nova”. You could have Bossa Nova fridges, glasses, shoes, pretty much anything.

There were three important factors that helped launch the movement internationally.

The first was the French film production, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). Filmed in Rio in 1959, the score was written by Jobim, Vinicius and guitarist Luiz Bonfá. It went on to be crowned Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival, followed by an Oscar and a BAFTA in the Best Foreign Film category. Bossa Nova was a winner.

The second helped export the genre to American shores. As part of the US government’s “good neighbour” initiative, artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Byrd, Herbie Mann and Coleman Hawkins were touring Brazil, and soon began spreading the word back in the US about this new sound. The first Bossa Nova album released in the US was in 1962, Jazz Samba (Bossa Nova as a name had not caught on yet), by jazz artists Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd. The album featured both original compositions and instrumental interpretations of the style. It was a huge success, winning Getz a Grammy. The two-minute version of Desafinado spent ten weeks in the US Billboard Top 40.

The third decisive element was a one-off concert in Carnegie Hall in November 1962, which united an A-list line up of Jobim, Gilberto, Carlos Lyra, Sergio Mendes, Roberto Menescal, amongst others. The concert was a launch pad for several stars in the US.

The infamous ballad, “The Girl from Ipanema” (Garota de Ipanema), was released in 1964, on the Getz/Gilberto album. It remained in the Billboard pop charts for almost two years, won four Grammy Awards, and helped promote Bossa Nova to a global audience. In the same month as its release, however, Brazil was subject to a military coup that would ultimately signal the end of an era for Bossa Nova, and all it stood for.

Whilst the movement itself was relatively short-lived, the music lives on.

With its mythical and religious undertones, it is the music that defines and energises an entire country

Samba is a river that flows through Brazilian music, bringing with it the fresh African sounds that migrated to Brazil during the slave movement. On its journey it has mixed with many other influences but today still remains an authentic expression of Afro-Brazilian identity.

From Samba-canção (a slow, melodic strand of Samba from 1920s Rio de Janeiro) to carnival samba (an upbeat fusion of Bossa-nova, electronic, hip hop and funk carioca that characterises Brazil’s modern day Carnival celebrations), Samba is as rich in its harmony as it is in its lyrics.

It’s also surprisingly diverse when it comes to regional and cultural variations. Whilst samba’s rhythmic composition reflects a myriad of cultures stretching back over 500 years, echoing the historic cooperation between Indians, Europeans and Africans, it has always been a local expression. Throughout Brazil each region lays claim to their own form of samba. Samba can be as simple as a one man acoustic melody or as complex as a samba school parade with full bateria (full percussion band, with an emphasis on drums). It is all samba of one form or another, and from the rural countryside to the urban capitals, the music is a celebration of life and community.

The most public display of samba is the two-day Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, which usually pits 14 samba schools against each other in the hunt to be crowned carnival champion. Other cities, such as São Paulo, host similar events during the same period, but the scale of the Rio de Janeiro event is unparalleled.

Almost 11 months of hard work goes into the production. Each samba school performs an 80-minute samba “enredo” (a themed, samba-fuelled parade), which usually pays homage to some significant aspect of Brazilian history or culture. Sung by the whole school and accompanied by numerous drums (the bateria), the objective is to captivate the spectators who flank the Sambadrome (purpose built stadium for such parades) and convince a professional jury, who judge on a number of criteria (song, dancing, costumes, floats) that their school is the worthy winner.

Samba’s deepest roots lie in the city of Salvador, Brazil’s colonial capital and first urban settlement. In the mid-1800s the province of Rio de Janeiro already had a population of over 300,000 slaves, but with the abolition of slavery in 1888, thousands more newly freed slaves migrated south from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro in the search of employment, subsequently populating the hillside neighbourhoods of the city. The shanty towns built on these hillsides became known as favelas when soldiers who had fought in the War of Canudos in Bahia (1897) settled in the region. (Favela is the name of a prickly plant that grows in the arid interior of Bahia).

In these newfound dwellings informal get-togethers were common, often hosted by tias baianas. The most famous of hosts was known as Tia Ciata, who would host Candomblé (a form of African religion practiced in Brazil) gatherings, followed by a recital of samba music. It was an open invitation for people to party and socialise.

It was at such meetings that the mixture of musical influences such as marcha, lundu, polka, habanera, maxixe and the tango began to resemble what we recognise today as a samba rhythm.

The most prominent musical talents of the time would congregate, hoping to get a chance to play. Accompanied by percussion instruments, West Africans drums mingled with Portuguese guitars and cavaquinhos (a type of ukulele), the musicians improvised the lyrics and created easy to repeat verses for a chorus of participants to sing.

The first samba school, Deixa Falar, was created in 1928 and adopted the witty motto “we also teach, but here we learn the samba”, with reference to an old teachers club located next door. The samba movement grew and soon there were two other schools that opened their doors: Mangueira and Portela.

During the ‘30s, the white population of Brazil began to identify with the sound that was descending from the hillsides and this kick-started what is generally considered the golden era of samba. The shift from mechanical to electrical recording helped define this era, offering artists greater range, tone and means of expression.

The dawn and rapid expansion of the radio gave Samba further opportunity to grow. In 1939, a new musical genre was born, samba-exaltação (Samba Exaltation). This new wave was inaugurated with a song that soon became the most listened to and performed Brazilian song overseas, Ary Barroso’s Aquarela do Brasil, (only trumped by the arrival of The Girl from Ipanema in the ‘60s, 25 years later).

Samba de Gafieira rose to prominence in the ‘40’s and ‘50s, much influenced by the radio orchestras of the USA. In the ‘60s, Bossa-Nova and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira – Brazilian Pop Music) artists embraced the Velha Guarda, rediscovering veteran singer-songwriters such as Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho. They were soon followed by a new generation: Paulinho da Viola, Elton Medeiros and not long after, Martinho da Vila, along with Clementina de Jesus, who made her debut in 1964, when she was 63 years old.

In the ‘70s, new songwriters emerged: João Nogueira, Paulo César Pinheiro, Candeia, Nelson Sargento and Monarco, penning songs for upcoming samba singers, including Beth Carvalho, Alcione, Roberto Ribeiro and Clara Nunes.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the emergence of a popular samba off-shoot, Pagode. Groups such as Fundo de Quintal and Raça Negra sold hundreds of thousands of albums, whilst inspiring a renaissance movement towards a more traditional, roots-based samba.