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Why Bossa Nova Still Matters
The Music That Enchanted America
Why Bossa Nova Still Matters
Concerts - Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11

Antônio Carlos Jobim

By Fredric Dannen

“That sweet, soft sound,” Julian Dibbell’s memorable description of bossa nova, was the music that enchanted America in early 1964. Every baby boomer remembers the advent of the Beatles, but many of the boomers’ parents possessed that black and orange-covered LP called Getz/Gilberto. One of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, the record introduced a large segment of the American public to the songs of Antônio Carlos Jobim, including, ubiquitous ever after, “Corcovado” and “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Bossa nova, Brazilian Portuguese for “new trend,” was conceived in the 1950s as a melding of samba and jazz. Americans who were paying attention may have discovered the genre five years before the Stan Getz and João Gilberto collaborative album, from the bossa-suffused soundtrack of the 1959 Franco-Brazilian film Black Orpheus. But for American audiences, bossa nova’s heyday was a brief one. Though “The Girl from Ipanema” remains one of the most frequently recorded songs in history, the genre was soon elbowed off the pop charts by rock and roll and the British invasion.

And yet, the urbane sophistication of bossa nova still seduces us, and conjures images of the jet-setting 60s, cocktail shakers, Aston Martins, and shag carpets. Until about a dozen years ago, like the majority of North Americans, my knowledge of the genre was limited to the standards – a handful of Jobim, Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnaval,” Jorge Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada,” and others of that ilk. But in the mid-2000s, I met and for a time was engaged to an Afro-Brazilian woman, a native of Salvador de Bahia, and she threw open the magic casement, and introduced me to hundreds of indispensable songs I might otherwise never have heard.

In particular, she acquainted me with her Bahian countryman Dorival Caymmi, whose lovely, lilting songs about pretty women, fishermen and the sea, heartbreak and romance, are probably my favorite works in the bossa nova canon. “I have written 400 songs, and Caymmi 70,” says Caetano Veloso, another masterly Brazilian composer. “But Caymmi has 70 perfect songs, and I do not.”


Dorival Caymmi

My Brazilian ex-fiancée explained why Caymmi’s songs were not as well known outside Brazil as Jobim’s. Tom Jobim was a Carioca – a native of Rio de Janeiro – and Rio made it a practice to export its culture. Salvador, eastern seacoast city and capital of Bahia, did not. She opened my eyes to something else. To me, bossa nova was a sweet aperitif, a charming cocktail, and not a profound or particularly significant musical movement. It did not, so I believed, define a generation culturally and politically, as rock did. It turns out I was wrong. Bossa nova was created in Brazil in the late 1950s, just as the country was emerging from a protracted history of civil wars and bloody dictatorships, and entering the modern age. As Brazil’s national self-identity was changing, bossa nova provided the urbane, angular soundtrack.

The historical importance of bossa nova in Brazil is the subject of Ruy Castro’s well-researched and highly recommended book, Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World (Chicago: A Capella Books, 2000). For the rest of us, it is a jazz genre that remains fresh with every passing year. It has, and will continue to, endure. As Castro puts it, “Turn on the radio in New York, Montreal, Paris, Tokyo, or Sydney, and you’ll hear bossa nova.”

*****

Concert Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11

Caymmi (pronounced ky-EE-me) will be represented prominently in the next concert I am producing, Portrait of Brasil, on Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11, at the Bellas Artes, both evenings at 7pm. The concert headliners are the brilliant Curtin/Muro bossa nova jazz duo formed in 2000 in Portland, Oregon, consisting of Peruvian-born guitarist Alfredo Muro, and American-born jazz vocalist Nancy Curtin. Alfredo Muro, a personal friend, and a Brazilian music specialist – his fans include Carlos Lyra, one of the creators of bossa nova – suggested the concert. I jumped at the suggestion, and proposed including several Caymmi songs. Alfredo and Nancy settled on three. One of them, an evocative ballad entitled “Você Não Sabe Amar” (You Don’t Know How to Love), will be sung by Nancy to my own piano accompaniment. Tickets for this event are on sale at La Conexión on Aldama, Solutions on Recreo, and online at www.steinwayseries.com


Nancy Curtin and Alfredo Muro

**************

Fredric Dan­nen is a jour­nal­ist and author with a spe­cial­ty in crim­i­nal jus­tice. He has been a staff writer for the New York­er and Van­i­ty Fair.

In 1990, Hit Men, his book about the Amer­i­can music indus­try and the influ­ence of orga­nized crime, spent a mon­th on the New York Times best­seller list. The book is #2 on Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. One of his Van­i­ty Fair arti­cles prompt­ed the Six­th Cir­cuit Court of Appeals to rebuke the U.S. Jus­tice Dept. for fraud­u­lent­ly with­hold­ing excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence in the case of Cleve­land auto work­er John Dem­jan­juk, who was extra­dit­ed, wrong­ly con­vict­ed, and sen­tenced to hang in Israel as the Nazi war-criminal “Ivan the Ter­ri­ble.” He secured the only inter­view given by Los Ange­les police chief Daryl Gates on the heels of the infa­mous Rod­ney King beat­ing, and the only inter­view ever given by crime boss Loren­zo Nichols, the crack king­pin of New York City.

While con­duct­ing research for a forth­com­ing book, Dan­nen uncov­ered lost evi­dence in the case of Calv­in Wash­ing­ton, a Tex­an wrong­ly con­vict­ed of homi­cide. As the direct result of Dannen’s efforts, Calv­in Wash­ing­ton won a full par­don for inno­cence, the first ever grant­ed by Tex­as gov­er­nor Rick Per­ry under the state’s DNA statute.

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