First of all I would like to say that the popular Brazilian music has so many different styles that is impossible to talk about all of them in this website, even because my main goal is to teach Brazilian guitar. So, I intend to provide an overview on the best known styles of Brazilian music around the world such as Samba, Choro, Bossa Nova and MPB.

The texts shown here were produced by music journalist and author Philip Jandovsky. Throughout the text I’ll put links to websites, YouTube videos, texts and to any kind of resource that can help you to read, listen to and know some types of music that are unknown to most of non-Brazilians.



Iluchar Desmons (França, c. 1803 — ??)

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the people of the northeast region of Brazil, together with those who lived in Rio de Janeiro, have been contributing greatly to the development of the Brazilian music. Actually, as capital of the country, the city of Rio de Janeiro was the meeting point of the most important artists at the time. If the artist wanted to be famous, Rio was the right place to do this. Styles often found in current Brazilian music (i.e., Baião, Xaxado, Xote, Choro, and Samba) emerged from these places through of the mixture of regional cultures and customs. So to speak, the Samba gave rise to the Bossa Nova, while the other rhythms listed above had influenced a rich musical manifestation known as Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), which emerged in the late 1960s.

To know more about Brazil and Brazilian music

Roda de Samba - Heitor dos Prazeres

Sambistas – Heitor dos Prazeres

Documentary about the history of Capoeira (English subtitles)

BBC Documentary – Brasil, Brasil – Samba to Bossa

BBC Documentary – The Girl from Ipanema: Brazil, Bossa Nova and the Beach

Bossa Nova, The Sound That Seduced The World by ABC


The birth of Samba

Of all Brazilian music styles, samba is undoubtedly the best known. Both abroad and in Brazil, samba has become a symbol of the Brazilian nation and its people. Samba, as we know it today, is an urban music style that arose in the early 1900’s in the slums (favelas) of Rio de Janeiro. However, an older, more stripped down and more African form of samba, which today is called “samba de roda”, has existed in the state of Bahia for several hundred years.

The samba of Rio de Janeiro has its roots in old popular music styles called lundu and jongo and Afro-Brazilian music and dance (“batuque” and “rodas de capoeira”) from Bahia. The word “samba” derives from the sensuous Afro-Brazilian dance called “semb” or “umbigada”. The heart of Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century and early 20th century lay in the extremely run-down neighborhoods around Cidade Nova, Praça XI and Central do Brasil, mostly populated by descendants of black slaves, many of whom were “immigrants” from Bahia. Because of the very high proportion of Afro-Brazilian residents in these neighborhoods, the area was soon nicknamed “Pequena Africa”, (“Little Africa”).

Praça XI - late 19th century (by Augusto Malta)

Praça XI – late 19th century (by Augusto Malta)

A focal point for the earliest samba gatherings in Rio de Janeiro was the house of a group of black women from Bahia, popularly known as “Tias Baianas” (“The Aunts from Bahia”) at Praça XI. As a tribute to the Tias Baianas and the Bahian roots of the samba music, it is still mandatory for all samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, during their carnival performances, to have a section that consists of older, black women dressed in the white, lace-fitted folk costumes of Bahia. That is the only constant and never changing section of the modern samba schools (or “blocos” as they are called), which parade during the carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Apart from that, the imaginative and colorful costumes and themes of the carnival samba parades vary widely from bloco to bloco and change from year to year. Today’s world-famous samba stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the Sambódromo Darcy Ribeiro, is fittingly situated in the middle of what once was “Pequena África”.

The original Rio de Janeiro samba form, which first appeared in the city during the early 1900’s, today is known as samba de morro, or samba de raiz. “Morro” means “hill” and is an allusion to Rio de Janeiro’s slums, which are typically located on the hill sides. “Samba de raiz” means “root samba”. In its basic form, samba de morro consists of one, often improvised, verse sung by a solo singer, which is followed by a chorus sung by a choir.

Though samba started as an all Afro-Brazilian affair among the poor, the white and more affluent middle class in Rio de Janeiro soon also became fascinated by the exciting rhythms and samba dancing. It didn’t take all that long before the Afro-Brazilian carnival and samba traditions were incorporated into the middle-class carnival, although some of the African and sensual elements were toned down, to better fit the ideals and values of the middle class.

The early samba composers and singers remained anonymous outside the slums and their work was seldom even written down. But when the middle class had embraced the samba music, the names of the most important carnival samba composers became known among a wide middle class audience. The first samba ever to be recorded was Donga’s big carnival success Pelo Telephone, from 1917. During the 1920’s, largely as an adaptation to the then new radio media, samba music continued to evolve in an increasingly Europeanized and “tidy” direction. The songs were becoming ever more radio-friendly, clearly emphasizing melody and song over percussion and rhythm. The most common format for a samba song became a brief instrumental intro, followed by a verse and a chorus, accompanied by a choro band. This resulted in the surge of an entirely new kind of samba, the samba-canção, much slower and more melodic in nature, than the original samba de morro. The theme of a samba-canção is virtually always romantic boy meets girl story and the tone is often somewhat melodramatic. Samba-canção became very popular among radio listeners, and went on to dominate the repertoire of Brazilian radio during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. This period in Brazilian music history is now widely known as the Era do Rádio (the Radio Era).

The fisrt Samba star


LP Cover

The first real samba star, that is the first samba artist who thanks to radio became a national celebrity in Brazil, was Sinhô José Barbosa Silva. Sinhô was born into a quite artistic family in Rio de Janeiro in 1888 and at an early age he learned to play guitar, cavaquinho, piano and flute. Sinhô’s family was not from the slums, but the young Sinhô was fascinated by the Afro-Brazilian music in these districts and was a constant guest at Tias Baianas’ musical parties in Pequena África. Sinhô began writing his own songs and soon became known as a very talented samba composer. As such, he was one of the musicians who contributed the most to the popularization of samba outside of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Sinhô was nicknamed “O Rei do Samba” (“the King of Samba”), partly because of his popularity as a singer, but also as an ironic allusion to his arrogant, diva like and vain personality. The lyrics in Sinhô’s sambas revolve around everyday life in the big city of Rio de Janeiro.

The Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro


Portela – Samba School

The first samba schools in Rio de Janeiro (and thus Brazil) was founded in the 1920’s, with the goal of creating a new kind of carnival groups, focused entirely on samba as their music and dance expression. The three oldest samba schools are Portela (founded in 1923 in the district of Madureira), Estação Primeira de Mangueira (formed in 1928 in the district of Mangueira) and Deixa Falar (formed in 1928 in the district of Estácio). The first two of these are active still today. The early samba schools recruited the most talented samba composers and artists during the 1920’s and 30’s and more or less fixed the rhythm and style of what today is considered the typical Rio de Janeiro samba. Some of the most praised and famous sambistas (samba musicians) who served in the samba schools during the 1920’s and 1930’s were Ismael Silva, Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho and Paulo da Portela, who were all poor black men who grew up in the slums. While many artists in the samba-canção genre strived to adapt their samba to the radio medium, by toning down rhythm and percussion and instead focusing on melody and song, the samba schools worked in the opposite direction. They embraced the more traditional samba de morro tradition, albeit in a more organized and “refined” manner, where the verse improvisations of the old times became much less frequent. The typical instruments were surdo, tamborim, cuica, pandeiro, chocalho, cavaquinho and guitar.


Estação Primeira de Mangueira

For the samba schools, the carnival turned into a kind of annual contest in which the schools tried to outdo each other, both in terms of extravagant costumes, dance, coreography and music. The thematic nature of the carnival samba parades also led to the invention of yet another type of samba: samba-enredo. A samba-enredo is basically a song written specifically to be played in a samba school parade during carnival. The melodic framework for how a samba-enredo is supposed to sound is quite limited and the important thing is presentation and choreography, both in musical and visual terms. The samba-enredo always tells a story to convey the message that the samba school has chosen as their theme. The number of samba schools grew over the years, as did the friendly rivalry and competition between them. By the 1930’s, they had already become the dominating feature of the Rio de Janeiro carnival. The 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s saw the foundation of the now famous samba schools of Império, Salgueiro, Mocidade Independente, Beija Flor and Imperatriz Leopoldiense. And during those decades the Rio carnival developed into a full-fledged showbiz, closely associated with the tourism industry. In 1984, the so-called sambodrome (sambódromo) in Rio de Janeiro was inaugurated, as an arena built specifically to serve as stage for the samba schools during the annual carnival processions.

Noel Rosa – the Samba poet of Vila Isabel


Noel Rosa

One of the most important and influential figures in the first generation of nationally recognized samba musicians was Noel Rosa. Noel was born under dramatic circumstances on December 11th, 1910. Complications during the actual moment of birth serioysly injured Noel’s lower jaw and parts of the right side of his face were permanently paralyzed. Noel, whose family belonged to Rio’s middle class, went through a total of twelve cirguries as a child, with the goal of restoring his face, but the askew jaw and the paralysis persisted. Noel Rosa was born, lived and died at the same address in the district of Vila Isabel in Rio de Janeiro. At 13 years of age, he began playing the bandolim and soon after, the guitar. As a teenager, in the late 1920’s, Noel began to write his own songs. Just as Sinhô, he wrote songs about everyday life in Rio de Janeiro. Noel’s poetry had a quality far above the ordinary and won the adminiration of his surroundings. His lyrics were marked by a minimalist simplicity and elegance, which was also was reflected in his music, bringing a whole new dimension to the samba genre.

On a personal level, Noel Rosa was an incurable romantic, with a highly bohemian lifestyle, in which he regularly spent the nights in bars and nightclubs, consuming massive amounts of alcohol and countless cigarettes. So it may not come as a surprise that Noel had soon ruined his lungs and severely weakened his already frail health and he died in 1937, at the tender age of 26. Despite his very short life, Noel Rosa left a legacy of a large number of much beloved compositions, which greatly contributed to the development of samba and forever enriched Brazilian music.

Samba, from the 1930’s until today


Paulinho da Viola

After having been adopted by the middle and even the upper classes of Rio de Janeiro, the samba music developed into a variety of directions and subgenres. As mentioned above, the samba-canção style enjoyed huge commercial successful during the 1930’s and 40’s. Another important samba subgenre, which became popular during the first half of the 20th century was partido-alto, which mixed traditional samba de roda of Bahia with new urban Rio de Janeiro samba. Just like the samba de morro, partido-alto often consits of improvised verses and short choruses. Partido-alto experienced something of a revival during the 1960’s and 70’s, when the popular sambista Martinho da Vila reintroduced and modernized the style.Other influential 20th century sambistas are Ataulfo Alves, Cartola, Elton Medeiros, Antônio Candeia, Zé Keti, Dona Ivone Lara, Paulinho da Viola, Clara Nunes, Beth Carvalho and Alcione.

Rio de Janeiro has always been the epicenter of samba music and the vast majority of sambistas has lived and worked in the city. In Bahia, home of the original form of samba, also saw the development of a new type of samba, more melancholic and “raw” in in its expression, called samba duro (hard samba). The uncrowned king of samba duro was Batatinha, who during his career wrote some of the most beautiful samba melodies and lyrics in history. Another prominent figure of Bahia styled samba was the mischievous Riachão.



Only on a few rare occasions, the above mentioned great samba composers of Bahia were presented the chance of actually recording their work. Although the samba was both accepted and adopted by the middle class in the 1920’s and was hailed as a national symbol by Brazil’s cultural elite, it took a very long time before the black and poor samba composers received the recognition that they deserved. Until the 1960’s, there was absolutely no prestige in being called “sambista” and most samba performers were born poor and also died poor. Their talent and the music they produced were not enough to overcome the deep-rooted prejudices that existed against the poor classes and people of color. This only changed in Rio de Janeiro during the mid 1960’s, when samba experienced a general upheaval, when many of that decade’s most popular artists, not least several of the bossa nova protagonists such as Vinicius de Morães, Carlos Lyra and João Gilberto, acknowledged and celebrated the Brazilian samba heritage.

The 1960’s also saw the beginning and rise of the career of Paulinho da Viola, one of the most famous and prominent samba songwriters and performers of all time. Paulinho da Viola’s samba is faithful to the genre’s roots, while the quality and elegance of his work surpasses most. His songs have been recorded and rerecorded for decades by hundreds of Brazilian artists.

One of the newest and most successful subgenres of samba is pagode. Since the mid 1980’s, “pagode” has been the generally used term for a kind of upbeat, festive samba, which is discintivly different from the traditional Rio samba. In pagode, the banjo, with its sharper sound, has replaced the traditional cavaquinho. The heavy surdo drum, with its powerful percussion beat, which is one of the main characteristics of traditional samba, is also replaced with the light repique drum. A pagode song also needs to constitute a very straightforward and easy listening, in order for even the most inebriated party guests to be able to embrace it and sing along. Through artists like Zeca Pagodinho, Jorge Aragão and Almir Guineto the pagode music reached enormous commercial success during the late 1980’s. A second pagode wave swept over Brazil during the 1990’s. It was characterized by an ever more commercial direction, with simple melodies and lyrics, often written and produced by the record companies’ professional hit makers. A plethora of new artists such as Exalta Samba and Art Popular, appeared on the samba scene, enjoying huge but short lived commercial success. In many cases, they mixed samba with contemporary pop music. Within a decade, the overwhelming wave of pagode music foisted on the public through Brazilian media, effectively resulted in a pagode “overdose” for Brazilians in general and the subsequent decline of the genre. Today, the word “pagode” has come to represent a loose genre of commercial, light weight party samba, of dubious artistic quality.


Chiquinha Gonzaga

Chiquinha Gonzaga

Choro is generally considered as the first urban music genre of Brazil and emerged as a mixture of elements from European dance music (primarily the polka, but also waltz and schottische) and strong influences from Afro-Brazilian music. It is said that the earliest roots of choro music can be traced back as far as the mid 18th century in Rio de Janeiro and the city’s so-called barber music. At the time, it was mostly black slaves who worked as barbers and they had often learned to play various instruments, as Brazilian barbers were expected to perform musical numbers and entertain the customers, as well as cut their hair. The music they played was originally called simply “música de barbeiros” – barber music.



Choro music adopted its definitive form during the second half of the 1800’s, when it also gained its current name (which probably derives from the word “choromeleiro”, which was a synonym for “musician” in colonial Brazil). The Brazilian middle class grew substantially during the second half of the 1800’s, not least among the country’s Afro-Brazilian population. It was also among the growing middle class and newly freed Afro-Brazilians of Rio de Janeiro where choro music was developed and became popular.

Choro is a lively and buoyant kind of music, and the songs are often based on quite intricate melodies, key changes and musical structures, which require great technical skill and talent from the choro musicians. Flute, cavaquinho and the guitar have always been the most important instruments in choro. Towards the end of the 19th century, the pianist Ernesto Nazareth, who had Frederic Chopin as his primary role model, and the legendary female composer Chiquinha Conzaga translated choro music to the piano, which helped to consolidate the already sophisticated tone and address of choro music.

Composer, orchestral arranger, flutist and saxophonist Pixinguinha was the great star of choro music during the first half of the 20th century. During the 1950’s and 60’s it was Jacob do Bandolim who was the most famous musician of the genre and since the 1970’s, Conjunto Época de Ouro has been the most celebrated performers of choro music.

Bossa Nova

The birth of Bossa Nova

LP cover - 1967

LP cover – 1967

With his soft, quiet and almost whispering vocal style and his revolutionary way of playing the guitar, João Gilberto appeared in the late 1950’s, to charm and conquer first Brazil and soon after the entire world. From the city of Juazeiro in Bahia, João Gilberto was the natural front man and the quintessential central figure for a brand new style of Brazilian music: bossa nova.

In the beginning, the term “bossa nova”, simply referred to a new way of playing and singing samba, incorporating some elements from jazz music and with a pronounced softness, both in terms of musical and poetic presentation. The North American influences, in the form of dissonant chords, typical of jazz, was criticized very heavily by some influential Brazilian critics and cultural figures at the time. It may be hard to imagine today, but João Gilberto’s low-key and whispering vocal style, full of small details and nuances, was perceived as highly provocative, as it broke completely with the previously existing singing tradition, with its loud voices and flamboyant presentations. Of course many other contemporary critics praised the innovative bossa nova music and hailed it as the single most important event in Brazilian music history. Apart from the music itself, the lyrics of the early bossa nova compositions, with their highly poetical content, also stood apart from the typical Brazilian popular music of the 50’s.

With his trade mark vocal style and his innovative guitar playing, João Gilberto is rightlfully and widely regarded as the most vital link in the birth of bossa nova, but he was certainly not alone in the process. In fact, bossa nova, as a musical genre, came about gradually during the late 1950’s. The fundamental ideas and concept of what would become the bossa nova movement, was hatched by a group of young musicians and cultural enthusiasts from Rio de Janeiro’s middle class. They would regularly meet up to talk about, listen to and play music. One of the most enthusiastic participants in these meetings was the then only 15-year-old girl Nara Leão. Her (or rather her parents’) apartment on the fashionable Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana district also became an unofficial “headquarter” for the early bossa nova movement, in 1957. Besides Nara Leão the nucleus of the group first consisted of the young musicians Billy Blanco, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal and Sérgio Rica, but soon grew to include, among others, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Chico Feitosa, Luiz Carlos Vinhas – and of course also João Gilberto himself.

LP cover - 1958

LP cover – 1958

In early 1958 João Gilberto was invited to take part in the recording of singer Elizeth Cardoso’s new album Canção do Amor Demais. All the songs on the album were written by the newly formed and highly acclaimed song writing duo of Antônico Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morães. João Gilberto’s contribution to the disc was as a guitar player on the tracks Chega de Saudade and Outra Vez. In his guitar play, João Gilberto strived to imitate the percussion section of a samba band, though of course all in his own, very elegant and unobtrusive way. Gilberto’s guitar playing style (which soon became the hallmark of bossa nova), was therefore dubbed “batida de violão”, which could be translated as “drum rhythm on guitar.”

The Canção do Amor Demais album also became the public breakthrough for composer Antônico Carlos (also called Tom) Jobim and poet Vinicius de Morães, who both went on tio become two of the strongest protagonists of the new bossa nova movement. A couple of months later in 1958, João Gilberto chose Tom Jobim’s and Vinicius de Morães beautiful Chega de Saudade, as his first solo recording – the first bossa nova song ever recorded.

The bossa nova music and movement emerged at a time of profound change and modernization of the Brazilian society, under the popular president Juscelino Kubitschek, or JK, as he is called in Brazil. Kubitschek promised 50 years of progress in five years and one of his first major projects was to begin the construction of a new, ultra-modern capital in the heart of the country: Brasília. The city was designed and planned by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa and was inaugurated in 1961. The Kubitschek presidency also saw huge investments in the country’s industries and also in infrastructure and highways. Culturally, Brazil during the late 50’s and early 60’s also saw the rise of several talented authors, like the now world famous Jorge Amado, and Brazilian film makers in the so called Cinema Novo movement presenting themselves. As perhaps the icing on the cake, Brazil

LP cover

LP cover

won the soccer world cup two times in a row, 1958 and 1962, driving the national mood up to almost euphoric heights. There was a profound sense of optimism among people in Brazil during these years – and Brazilians started to have faith and confidence in their own future. The bossa nova was the perfect soundtrack for these times.

A few months after the release of the single Chega de Saudade, João Gilberto released his first LP, also named Chega de Saudade. The album was produced by Aloysio de Oliveira and had musical arrangements by Tom Jobim. In addition to songs by Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Morães, Gilberto also interpreted several older songs, by composers such as Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi. There was also the song Lobo Bobo, by the young song writing duo of Carlos Lyra and Ronaldo Bôscoli, straight from the original core group of the bossa nova movement. The whole album was performed in typical bossa nova style, with Gilberto’s “batida de violão” and soft, leisurely voice in the foreground. The album was a huge success in every sense – and bossa nova had come to stay.

In 1961 João Gilberto moved to the United States, where bossa nova had become particularly popular among jazz musicians and fans of jazz music. Interesting to note in this context, is that João Gilberto himself never was much of a jazz fan. Gilberto stayed in the US for 19 years, before moving back to Rio de Janeiro. While in the US, his wife Astrud, launched a succesful international career as an artist of her own, taking advantage of the fact that she, contrary to her husband in the early 60’s, was both able and willing to sing songs in English. Her recording of the song The Girl from Ipanema (originally A Garota de Ipanema), has become one of the most famous Brazilian songs of all time.

Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim

Tom and Vinicius

Tom and Vinicius

João Gilberto gave origin to the bossa nova guitar rhythm and its low-key approach to singing and thus played a fundamental role in the creation of the genre. But when talking about the origins of bossa nova, it would be wrong to ignore the people who actually wrote the first famous bossa nova-tunes, namely Vinicius de Morães and Tom Jobim. The poet Vinicius de Morães (1913 – 1980), was quintessential for the down-to-earh and romantic poetry, which became characteristic of bossa nova lyrics. De Morães, who drew much inspiration from the Portuguese 16th century poet Luís Vaz de Camões, earned a reputation as one of greatest Brazilian poets of all time. The tributes to Vinícius de Morães have been many through the years. For example, the street in the Ipanema district of Rio de Janeiro, where Vinicius de Morães and Tom Jobim sat in a bar watching the young woman who inspired them to write the song Garota de Ipanema, is now named after Vinicius de Morães. . Despite his high-profile and solemn profession as a diplomat, Vinícius de Morães was always an archetypical Rio bohemian. His unfettered passion for life and love (he married no less than nine times) shone through in his poetry and left its mark on the bossa nova legacy. His laid-back personal style was obvious not the least duting his live performances, where he usually appeared comfortably reclined in an armchair with a glass of whiskey at his side.

Vicius de Morães stared working together with the then young composer Antônio Carlos Jobim (or Tom Jobim), in 1956, as Jobim was asked to compose the music for Morães theater peace Orfeu da Conceição. During the subsequent years, Morães and Jobim formed what would be one of the most famous song writing duos of Brazilian music. Tom Jobim (1927 – 1994), accounted for the sophisticated and timeless melodies in many of the bossa nova movement’s first, best and most famous work. After his success with the early bossa nova recordings in Brazil, Jobim propelled on to a highly acclaimed international career, while living in the United States. When Tom Jobim died, 67 years old, in December 1994 after having suffered a stroke, Rio de Janeiro’s international airport was renamed in his honor.

Other bossa-novistas

Nara Leão

Nara Leão

After João Gilberto’s success in the late 1950’s, a long row of artists soon followed in his footsteps and became knows as bossa-novistas. One of the most influential of these musicians was the composer, guitarist and singer Carlos Lyra, who subsequentally became Vinícius de Morães new song writing partner, after Tom Jobim had left for North America. Nara Leão, grew up and became one of the bossa nova genre’s most celebrated personalities. She was even dubbed “a Musa da Bossa Nova” (which loosely translated means “the Queen of Bossa Nova”). The young, blond, surfer brothers Marcos and Sérgio Valle, from Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy upper middle class, also emerged as two of the brightest shinging starts in the bossa nova sky. In 1964 Marcos Valle recorded the elegant and catchy bossa nova gem Samba de Verão, which became a big hit not only in Brazil but also in the US, where it has been rerecorded by a wide range of American musicians. Other leading artists during the golden age of bossa nova, which turned out to be the first half of the 1960’s, include Os Cariocas, Johnny Alf, Doris Monteiro, Tamba Trio, João Donato, Bola Sete, Laurindo de Almeida, Luís Bonfá, Milton Banana Trio, Dick Farney and Sylvinha.

Bossa nova today

During the second half of the 1960’s, the bossa nova music became overshadowed by other music styles in Brazil, mainly the emerging pop and rock scene of the Jovem Guarda and the creative revolution of the tropicalists. However, bossa nova as a genre did not in anyway disappear or die. On the contrary, it is still live and well, both through the recordings of its original representatives (several of whom are still active in their careers) and a never ending stream of new, young Brazilian artists who compose, perform and record bossa nova music. A particularly interesting trend during the last two decades has been the fusion of bossa nova and electronic music, perfected by artists like Fernanda Porto.


Gilberto Gil - 1967 MPB Festival

Gilberto Gil – 1967 MPB Festival

MPB is a short for “Música Popular Brasileira” (translated: “Brazilian Popular Music”). And as the name suggests, it is a very varied and multifaceted genre and it is also by far the biggest genre within Brazilian music. In practice, MPB is any kind of Brazilian music, that is neither traditional folk music, nor fits into any other clearly defined genre, like for example bossa nova, rock, manguebeat or soul. Generally MPB brings together elements of various Brazilian musical styles, often mixed with different kinds of international music genres.

MPB, as it is defined today, basically began during the 1960’s, with artists like Edu Lobo, Maria Bethânia, Elis Regina, Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento. The real explosion of creativity within Brazilian music, however, occurred during the 1970’s, when all sorts of music styles were mixed, completely new styles were invented and uninhibited creativity was allowed to blossom. Among the most taletend, most successful and most exciting MPB artists during the 1970’s were, apart from the above mentioned, also Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Novos Baianos, Tom Zé and Gal Costa. Ever since the 1970’s, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil have steadily reinvented themselves as artists and they both remain as two of Brazil’s most beloved and admired figures in Brazilian music.

Edu Lobo and Marilia Medalha (1967)

Edu Lobo and Marilia Medalha (1967)

Although already a huge star in the 1960’s, Chico Buarque gained depth both musically and lyrically during the 1970’s, when he produced some of his most brilliant albums. Gal Costa gradually moved away from the radical experimentalism of her tropicalismo years, turning into a more conventional (but no less exciting) MPB singer. Novos Baianos splendidly mixed rock, samba, choro and Brazilian hippie culture, while Djavan’s unique mix of samba and MPB earned him a position as one of Brazil’s leading artists for three decades.

With the dramatic rise of the Brazilian rock and pop during the 1980’s, the MPB scene saw few new rising starts during that decade. But the genre again experienced a surge of new blood during the 1990’s, not the least through the appearance of Marisa Monte, who has since become arguably the most popular female artist ever in Brazilian music. In the new millennium, artists like Céu has continued to develop the genre and also further blurred the lines between MPB and other genres, both modern ones like electronica, and traditional ones like samba.

Clube da Esquina

Clube da esquina - LP cover

Clube da esquina – LP cover

Milton Nascimento, Lô Borges and Márcio Borges were three young musicians in the early 1970’s, who formed the core of one the most important currents in Brazilian musical history: Clube da Esquina. Milton Nascimento (born 1942) amazed music lovers in the late 1960’s with his extraordinary and unmistakable falsetto voice and unique song writing skills. Long, complex and beautiful melodies, stylishly delivered through his often simply magical voice, was Milton Nascimento hallmark.

For his fourth album, Milton in 1970, Milton Nascimento had acquired two new song writing partners: the only fifteen year old musical prodigy Lô Borges and his poetry writing older brother Márcio. Milton was the first of what would amount to a series of collaborations from the trio and also the first time that the dreamy “Clube da Esquina” sound was presented to the world.

Apart from Milton Nascimento, Lô Borges and Márcio Borges, other prominent members in the Clube da Esquina movement were musicians and poets Tavinho Moura, Wagner Tiso, Beto Guedes, Flávio Venturini, Toninho Horta, Ronaldo Bastos and Fernando Brant – all from the state of Minas Gerais. The name “Clube da Esquina” means “The Corner Club” and derived from the fact its participants would meet in the street corner formed by Rua Divinópolis and Rua Paraisópolis, in Belo Horizonte (state capital of Minas Gerais). The characteristic Clube da Esquina sound is based on the somewhat sad, wistful folk music from Minas Gerais, merged with music bossa nova, Beatlesque pop, choro, jazz and rock.


Caetano Veloso (1967)

Caetano Veloso (1967)

In 1967, the young singer and composer Caetano Veloso felt that Brazilian popular music, since the appearance bossa nova 8 years earlier, had stagnated almost completely and had seemed to have run out of both energy and ideas. And since no one else seemed to be doing anything about the situation, he felt compelled to take action himself. Caetano first entered in contact with some of the biggest names of Brazilian music at the time and tried to convince them that Brazilian popular music was in desperate need of new ideas and renovation, but got little or no support. Instead, Caetano assembled a small group of young musicians, which included Bahian artists Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Tom Zé, the psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes, poets Torquato Neto and Capinam, and the conductor and orchestral arranger Rogério Duprat, who together would form the nucleus of a new “rebel” movement in Brazilian music.

At this time, the Brazilian music scene was divided in two halves. On one side stood the traditionalists, supported both by the conservative establishment (which completely controlled Brazilian society after the military coup of 1964), as well as the leftist opposition, led primarily by intellectuals, the cultural elite and students. The traditionalist, both of the leftist and right wing varieties, vehemently opposed all foreign influences on Brazilian music, coming from contemporary western pop and rock. Instruments like electric guitars were seen as aberrations. A large majority of all Brazilian artists at the time either actively supported or at least followed the “rules” set by the traditionalists.

On the other side of the divide were the fans of modern English and American popular music, primarily represented of the artists and band of the Jovem Guarda movement, who were very popular among the young, urban middle class generation . Against this background, Caetano’s small movement set the bold goal to force a paradigm shift within Brazilian popular music. Contrary to the traditionalists who dominated the Brazilian music scene, Caetano and his friends wanted to “universalize” and modernize the Brazilian music, by opening it up to foreign influences. Not by trying to imitate the English and American rock and pop, like for example the Jovem Guarda, but by incorporating foreign music into the Brazilian music tradition, and thereby creating something completely new. After all, argued Caetano, what was the Brazilian nation itself, if not a country which was built up as a mixture of people and cultures from virtually all corners of the world?

In light of these ideas, Caetano proposed the new movement to be called “Som Livre” or “Som Universal”, meaning “Free Sound” or “Universal Sound”. However, before any of these proposed names became known to the public, the media had coined the term tropicalismo, to describe the musical activities of Caetano and his friends, who soon became known all over Brazil as the tropicalistas.

Bethania, Caetano, Gal and Gil.

Bethania, Caetano, Gal and Gil.

The tropicalists wanted to describe the Brazilian society as they saw it and their aesthetics drew much inspiration on the enormous contrasts of Brazilian culture and the inherent contradictions of Brazilian society. Brazil was (and is) a country where enormous wealth exist side by side with abysmal poverty, where the ancient coexist with the latest technology, conservative traditions exist side by side with extremely liberal values, the native with the foreign, elite culture and mass culture, extreme beauty with grotesque ugliness, and so on. In an effort to weave all these elements together and thus musically reflect the Brazilian society, the tropicalists adopted diverse musical genres such as samba, frevo, Jovem Guarda, choro, bolero, Anglo-American pop and rock, and avant-garde art music, molding them all together to a single unit. The tropicalists also put much thought into their lyrics, to create a sort of musical allegory of the Brazilian society of the late 60’s. The creative process of the tropicalists has been called “cultural cannibalism”.

The venue chosen by tropicalists to launch their new style of music was through a series of televised music festivals, which at this particular time were very popular in Brazil. During these festivals, the participating artists were allowed to perform one song each and Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil both brought newly written tropicalismo compositions. Caetano Veloso went with Alegria, alegria, which was basically a sweet marchinha mixed with international pop and electric guitars. Gilberto Gil presented Domingo no Parque, which brought together the characteristic berimbau rhythm (typical of the capoeira music of Bahia) with beatlesque arrangements (complete with orchestra and electric guitar). Both songs divided the festival audience. While some people loved the new sound, others booed, jeered and whistled to express their discontent. Both songs were soon after released as singles, and as the first recorded tropicalismo songs,Alegria, alegria and Domingo no Parque represent a pivotal watersheds in Brazilian music history. On balance, the songs proved to be a success among the public and propelled both Caetano and Gil into instant fame and stardom, especially among music loving teenagers and students.

Os mutantes

Os Mutantes

However, the success of Gil and Caetano was not at all welcomed by the hard core traditionalists. Other famous musicians, such as Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, Dori Caymmi and Elis Regina were very bitter, feeling that Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had betrayed their ideals and were wasting their great talent by writing and recording weak music, inspired by what they viewed as international junk culture. Even angrier were the proponents of political music – the so called protest singers – of which, Geraldo Vandré was the most popular and perhaps also the most annoyed one. The famous talk show host Flávio Cavalcanti, during one of his programs, launched into a violent and melodramatic tirade against Caetano and literally broke a copy of the vinyl single Alegria, alegria in pieces, on live TV. Among other things, Cavalcanti argued (for unclear reasons) that Alegria, Alegria was in fact a covert and immoral tribute to LSD. But all this was just the beginning of the wrath and protests that would face the tropicalist movement.

The record company Philips nevertheless saw the commercial potential of the new music and speeded up the process of recording the first full length tropicalismo albums, which were released in 1968. Caetano and Gil again set very ambitious goals for their respective albums, as they wanted to create something with the same musical firepower as João Gilberto’s classic Chega de Saudade and the same advanced production as Sgt Peppers’ of the Beatles. The music should have an international appeal and atmosphere, while still being unmistakably Brazilian. The actual end result of both albums were brilliant, yet neither Caetano nor Gil felt completely satisfied, as the recording studios available in Brazil at the time, were simply not as advanced as the best British and American ones, a fact that obviously left its mark on the sound quality.

Shortly following Caetano Veloso’s and Gilberto Gil’s album releases, Gal Costa and the young psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes (the three band members Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias were all teenagers at the time) released their own tropicalismo styled LPs. For the next set of televised festivals, the tropicalists prepared a couple of more daring and challenging songs, shifting the tone towards the more rebellious and rock’n’roll. At the same time, the hard core traditionalists prepared themselves to show up in numbers and give the tropicalists the reception they felt they deserved. Consequently, Caetano, Gil and os Mutantes all faced a massive barrage of boos and whistles, while performing their songs. As his performance was completely drowned in the noise of the upset crowd, Caetano Veloso interrupted his singing and instead gave an improvised speech, blasting the intolerant and retrograde audience. He also invited Gil up on the stage with him, while the crowd threw old eggs, old fruits and even pieces of furniture on them. Gil was slightly wounded by a hard projectile that hit him. The disgraceful behavior of the traditionalists in the crowd, clear for the entire Brazilian nation to see, worked as an eye-opener for many people in the music business as well as for the Brazilian public in general. And indeed, only a few months later, most Brazilians had embraced the tropicalist movement and their habit of mixing different music styles, both national and international.

Album cover

Album cover

Many artists also tried to imitate the music of the tropicalists. For a short while, Caetano and Gil even got their own tropicalist television show, where they regularly performed together with invited artists like Gal Costa, Tom Zé, os Mutantes, Jorge Ben, Paulinho da Viola and Jards Macalé. The program was namedDivino Maravilhoso, which was also the name of a song that Caetano and Gil had written for Gal Costa. The TV program Divino Maravilhoso came to an abrupt end in December 1968, when the military regime implemented a set of repressive laws called AI-5 (Ato Institucional 5), which strongly limited the freedom of speech. The military, governed by right wing conservative nationalists, had seized power in Brazil in 1964, through a coup against the democratically elected president João Goulart. Until the early 1970’s the military regime steadily imposed harsher laws on the Brazilian people, in order to clamp down on opponents of the regime and any one who was perceived as threatening to the status quo. The single biggest step towards oppression of the Brazilian people was the implementation of the above mentioned AI-5.

Because of their huge popularity and their influence on Brazilian popular culture and especially the Brazilian youth and the intellectuals, Caetano and Gil were perceived as a threat by the authorities. On December 27th 1968, they were both arrested in their homes by the police. They were held in house arrest for 6 months, forbidden to speak to any media outlet, until they were deported in July 1969. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso thus were forced to live in exile, in London, for two years. During that time, they kept recording and also wrote songs recorded by other artists, back in Brazil. Popular pressure mounted for the exile to end, and in January 1972, Caetano and Gil were finally allowed back to Brazil, where they were hailed as national heroes. The return of the two artists also marks the end of the tropicalismo movement, as its members all went on to work on different projects.

Other regional musical styles

Forró, baião, xote, xaxado and xamego

Ceramic doll - Mestre Vitalino

Ceramic dolls – Mestre Vitalino

Forró, baião, xote, xaxado and xamego are five closely related music styles which, perhaps more than any other music, have come to be associated with the Nordeste region (North Eastern Brazil) and its culture, people and history. Nowadays it’s very hard to actually distinguish one style from the other, as the boundaries between them are very fluid. This can sometimes result in confusion. Forró often works as an umbrella term, which can include all five music styles. However, “forró” may also have a much narrower meaning and refer to a comparatively modern, poppy version of the genre. In its broader sense, forró today is the second most popular traditional music style and dance in Brazil.

A very widespread myth is that the word “forró” would be a brazilianized version of the English expression “for all”. Supposedly, this would have been a reference to the forró music’s popularity, as in “music for all”, which would have morphed into the term “forró”. This is, however, not correct. The word “forró” in fact comes from the expression “forrobodó”, which was simply the name of a popular festivity in the Nordeste region, where different types of regional music and dances, such as baião, coco, rojão, quadrilha, xaxado and xote, were played, often with the region’s typical accordion – the sanfona – in the foreground. Over time, forró became the generic term for music played at these dance parties.

Today, xote is probably the most popular of the musical styles included under the generic term forró. Xote is, linguistically as well as musically, a Brazilian version of the European schottische, which became popular in Brazil during the mid 1800’s. In Brazil, the European form of schottische was soon mixed with Afro-Brazilian dancing and music. During the ensuing decades xote, to some extent, was also influenced by other Latin American dance music genres, such as mambo and salsa.

Apart from xote, the other main ingredient in modern forró music is baião. The baião sound is quite similar to xote, but has a softer, more Afro-Brazilian rhythm and a more clearly defined backbeat. Baião is believed to have developed in the early 19th century, out of the lundu music of northeastern Brazil. It is quite possible that the word “baião” is simply a short for “lundu baiano” (Bahian lundu). According to the famous anthropologist Câmara Cascudo, the baião quickly became very popular and was played and danced extensively in the northeastern region all through the 19th century. As is the case with several other Afro-Brazilian dance music styles, baião compositions often have a somewhat sad or melancholic undertone, both in terms of lyrics and melody, which probably reflects the often very difficult living conditions among the people who created and cultivated this style of music. Accordion, guitar and rabeca-fiddle soon became the most important instruments in baião. Though baião is basically dance music, it can be played both slowly and to an extremely fast rythm. While a slow baião is better suited to listen to than to dance to, the fast danceable baião could be described as mix of polka and ska in overdrive. Ever since the 1970’s, the backbeat element of baião has compelled many musicians to mix baião with reggae.

Luiz Gonzaga

Luiz Gonzaga

Until the early 1950’s, forró was hardly even known outside the Nordeste region. Then along came the charismatic singer and accordion musician Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989), from Pernambuco, and introduced the music to metropolitan Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (and thus the music spread to all other parts of Brazil). Just like so many other people from the arid and poor inland areas of northeastern Brazil’s, commonly known as the “sertão”, Luiz Gonzaga in 1939 moved to the comparatively wealthy Rio de Janeiro, where he supported himself as a musician, in the city’s many bars and brothels. After two years of anonymity, Gonzaga started to include forró music in his repertoire. Much to his initial surprise, this move turned out to be a huge success. The rumor of Luiz Gonzaga’s “new” dance music spread quickly in Rio de Janeiro and it was not long before Gonzaga was invited to record her first album.

To further popularize baião and other forró music styles and make them more easily digestible to the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo crowds, Gonzaga and his song writing partner Humberto Teixeira decided it was best to “streamline” and adapt the music, to some extent. The duo chose to largely drop the pandeiro and rabeca-violin from their music, even though they had both been very common and basic instruments in baião music until then. Instead, Gonzaga and Teixeira opted to build their music solely on the accordion, triângulo and zabumba, to create a more direct way of emphasizing the dance friendly rhythm of forró music. The format was an immediate success with the public and those three instruments have ever since then been regarded as the core of forró music.

In 1947 Teixeira and Gonzaga wrote one of the most beloved and famous forró songs in history: Asa Branca. The song’s cheerful, fast and catchy baião music contrasts with the heartbreaking content of its lyrics. The song speaks about the extreme poverty and the difficult living conditions for people in dry north-eastern inlands and the homesickness of a nordestino, forced to move far away from home to find work to be able to support his family in the Northeast. Forró certainly is a music genre with roots which go way back in history, but it remains extremely popular among Brazilians, both young and old, all over the country.


Frevo dancers

Frevo dancers

Frevo, along with maracatu, is the most famous and popular folk music style associated with the state of Pernambuco – the second largest state in the Nordeste region. Frevo can be described as a speeded up, playful Pernambucan version of the marchinha. The frevo also has its own characteristic rhythm and melody formula, which includes influences from maxixe, capoeira and polka. The frevo is believed to have appeared sometime between 1909 and 1911 and is typically accompanied by a very complex and acrobatic dance, which includes around 120 different dance moves. The frevo dancers are dressed in colorful clothing, inspired by the folk costumes of Pernambuco and also use yellow, blue, green and red umbrellas, while performing their neck breaking dance steps at stunning pace.

The word “frevo”is believed to come from the Portuguese verb “ferver” (to boil), which reflects the boiling atmosphere of the frevo dance and music. The frevo is usually divided into three different kind: frevo de rua, frevo the bloco and frevo-canção. Frevo de rua is a purely instrumental dance music form, which usually contains a big segment of wind instruments. Frevo-canção includes an element of song, and is often slower than a frevo de rua. Frevo de bloco is accompanied by a so-called “orquestra de pau e corda,” which includes percussion, banjo, guitar and cavaquinho.

During the 1940’s, two musicians from Bahia, Dodô and Osmar, visited Recife and were fascinated by the energy and intensity of frevo music. The duo had, since the late 1930’s, also experimented with electrifying string instruments and in the late 1940’s, they actually invented an electric guitar. Though, of course, the electric guitar had already been invented in the United States a few years earlier, Dodô and Osmar knew nothing about that.

Dodo and Osmar - Trio elétrico

Dodo and Osmar – Trio elétrico

At the 1950 carnival in Salvador, Dodô and Osmar decided to climb up on an old Ford and play frevo music on their electric guitars. The move proved an instant success among the city’s carnival crowds. Dodô and Osmar returned to perform at the following year’s carnival and were then joined by a third guitarist Temístocles Aragão. For the 1952 carnival, the soft drink company Fratelli Vita donated a truck to the trio, which substituted the old Ford. Dodô, Osmar and Aragão stood upon the platform of the truck and played electric frevo, accompanied by a group of percussionists, while crowds of thousands danced around and after the truck, as it slowly made its way through the streets of Salvador. And with that, a new kind of carnival had been created. The format was copied by many other music groups and became known as a “trio elétrico” – an electric trio.

In the original trio, Osmar played the self-invented electric guitar (later to be called “guitarra baiana”), which has a flatter and more high pitched sound than the common, international electric guitar. Dodô used a special, semi-acoutsic kind of guitar, called “violão-pau-elétrico” and Aragão played on a conventional acoustic tenor guitar. Osmar’s lightning fast finger picking on his guitarra baiana became iconic for the trio elétrico genre and has since been copied by all other trios elétricos, who have marched through the streets of Salvador during the carnivals. Though frevo is not very common outside of the street celebrations during carnival in Pernambuco, the music style has occasionally appeared on the mainstream Brazilian popular music scene. Famous artists like Caetano Veloso, Alceu Valença and Lenine have all written and recorded frevo-inspired songs.