Book Talk: Bossa Nova

“(We think it comes from) that imaginary world of jet-setting, highball-drinking ease that went up in a Chesterfield haze when the sixties caught fire…but Ruy Castro has rendered a rich and engaging portrait of the world that invented bossa nova, and no one who reads this book can fail to come away with a deepened sense of what – and how much – that invention has meant to Brazil.”

“Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World” by Ruy Castro (1990)

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My regular readers have heard me talk about how I fell in love with bossa nova through Frank Sinatra. Long story short, what the Beach Boys and surf music gave me in my teenage years, Antônio Carlos Jobim and bossa nova gives me as an adult. One year as I revelled in the glory that is this most wonderful of all Brazilian exports, I went out in search of a book on bossa nova. The one I kept running across and eventually bought is the one we’re looking at today.

Ruy Castro is a Brazilian author and journalist who, in addition to his award-winning works on bossa nova, has written many biographies including one on Brazilian entertainer Carmen Miranda. Something to be aware of when reading Bossa Nova is that it was translated from the original Portugese; you may be able to detect this in certain word usage and sentence structure.

What you get from Castro’s book is a detailed account of the origins of bossa nova. The political climate of Brazil at the time, the attitudes of the young men and women involved and what lead them to stage this gentle revolution and you get biographical information on the major players in this emerging genre.

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Dick Farney

Ruy starts his tale in the 1940’s with pre-bossa orchestras and vocalists. One crooning pianist that Castro highlights is Dick Farney, a singer in the mold of Sinatra, who recorded the very first version of the jazz standard “Tenderly”. In a similar vein was the singing group Os Cariocas, who had huge hits in Brazil in the late ’40’s. Fascinating to hear four-part harmony voices from this era singing Portugese.

Castro tracks the arrival in Brazil of jazz records featuring guitarists such as Barney Kessel. It was the work of Barney and others that prompted young Brazilian men to abandon the old ways – and the accordion – and pick up the guitar. Castro’s book gives excellent information on the early career of João Gilberto who would initially take the music of Antônio Carlos Jobim to US audiences. Castro takes time to look behind the scenes as well, giving pertinent data on Odeon Records, the German record company that employed many bossa nova pioneers and released scores of seminal records of the genre. He also details the clubs and concert halls of Brazil, the poets and the politics and the camaraderie of the early players.

Castro spends an appropriate amount of time on Gilberto and Jobim and on the early bossa records of Stan Getz but he also takes the time to highlight some names that may not be as familiar to us in North America. You’ll learn about Johnny Alf, a pianist popular in the Copacabana neighbourhood of Rio who’s early records were studied by bossa pioneers. Guitarist Roberto Menescal who studied the work of Barney Kessel on the albums of Julie London and started one of the earliest bossa nova bands around 1957. Menescal is still making records today with his son’s excellent group Bossacucanova. A particularly satisfying discovery for me came from Ruy’s reporting on the singer Sylvia (Sylvinha) Telles.

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Telles flanked by Jobim and Marcos Valle.

As a teenager, she had dated João Gilberto and the two would have married but Sylvia’s father wasn’t having it. In 1956, when she was 22, she recorded an early Jobim composition and scored her first hit. She would soon become the preeminent female star of the pre-bossa nova days. One of the first uses of the term “bossa nova” occurred when it was used to promote one of her concerts and she made the significant leap to recording in America with Barney Kessel – which young Brazilians considered the prime gig. She was a staunch promoter of the music of Antônio Carlos Jobim and recorded two full albums of his music, the first coming as early as 1959. In fact, Jobim had a nickname for Telles and he wrote a song using this nickname as a title; “Dindi”. Telles had already been in car accidents that had left her hospitalized when, in 1966, she was a passenger in a car that hit a truck. Her and the driver were killed. Sylvia Telles was 32.

The Jobim song Sylvia had had a hit with in 1956 is the other significant discovery for me from Ruy’s book. “Foi a noite (It Was the Night)” was one of the first notable compositions from Jobim, the “Brazilian Gershwin”, and was an early inspiration to many young Rio musicians. Once Telles’ landmark version was set for release, the record company, Odeon, realized the song was impossible to categorize and they agonized over what classification to put on the record label. In an historic move, they opted for none. In ’56, the song – issued on 78 RPM – became a hit for Telles, making her a star. The song is breathtaking, filled with emotion and drama. Despite not knowing what the Portugese lyrics are, I’m always drawn to the tale. You don’t need to know what Sylvia is singing about to be captivated; knowing “it was the night” seems enough.

These stories and so much more you get when you read this wonderful, atmospheric book from Ruy Castro. Bossa Nova ends up serving a dual purpose; it transports you to another time AND another place. It starts out in the Rio night clubs of the 1940’s and I hear the orchestras and I see the smoke-filled rooms like a grainy old movie. And then it moves to the early ’60’s and the hip living rooms and hang-outs where a gang of friends meet, smoking and drinking and looking for their own thing and finding it in the advent of bossa nova, probably the coolest music known to man.

The book ends with a discussion of Jobim’s album with Sinatra, a record it considers the pinnacle of the bossa movement and this is followed by a welcomed feature of this book, the inclusion of a select bossa nova discography. And let me suggest a couple of companions to this great book. One is an album or actually a playlist available on iTunes and Spotify. Baiana: The History of Bossa Nova is just what the title indicates. Here you’ll find all the players mentioned in Ruy’s book. And, yes, the glorious “Foi a noite” is there, too. The other companion is the Netflix series Coisa Mais Linda or Girls from Ipanema or Most Beautiful Thing. A bit of a soap opera, the show  features a group of strong women friends operating in a male-dominated Rio in the Fifties and Sixties set against the backdrop of the rise of bossa nova. Beware: Tudo em portugues.

This is a gem of a book and essential reading for a certain type of cat or kitten, one interested in this sublime mid-century sound. I’ve looked recently though and it seems Ruy Castro’s Bossa Nova is now hard to find. I hope, for your sake, I’m wrong.

To hear me review this book on the Cocktail Nation radio show, click here.

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8 comments

  1. Hi Gary: you had me at Jobim! I’m a huge fan of the ‘bosa nova’ sound, and in particular Antonio Carlos Jobim or “Tom”. I will look for the book that you reviewed, not to mention the music that you mentioned. I have been a big fan of the bosa nova sound since I was a teenager. For me that sound/music denotes soft breezes; cool drinks; beautiful and sophisticated people. In other words, the kind of life that I would have loved to have experienced.

    When I was a teenager, I was a huge fan of the tv series “It Takes A Thief” and I always noticed that when “Alexander Mundy” was hanging around a ‘classy’ crowd, whether it was around a beach/party/pool, they always played Jobim’s or Gilberto’s music in the background. It solidified my love for the music, not to mention a young Robert Wagner, and I’ve never lost my love for it.

    I’m so thrilled to see that you love this type of music as much as I do.

    Thank you,

    Betty

      • Hi Gary: yes you should as I think you might like the series. I’m not saying that all the episodes have aged well, but I don’t care. Good old Alexander Mundy is always to be found in the middle of the jet-set in Europe, South America, etc., and therefore, you can bet that they will almost always be playing ‘bossa nova’ music in the background. In fact, if I remember correctly, there is an episode of the series in which Louis Bonfa and Bola Sete make an appearance. The name of the episode is called “Guess Who’s Coming to Rio.” if you have the whole series, check it out as I think it’s in the second season (1969. Bonfa and Sete are musicians playing at a party.

        I’m re-watching It Takes A Thief, and Remington Steele, and these series helping me get through this difficult pandemic. In fact, I decided months ago, that one of the ways to try and deal with what is happening in the ‘real world’ was to go back into our ‘old world’ and get lost in it. God, I miss the crowds, the going to a movie/cafe/restaurant whenever you felt like it, etc. I miss it all and watching old tv series and classic movies are, for me, my “wayback machine.” And at the risk of sounding shallow, watching a younger Robert Wagner and Pierce Brosnan, not to mention Stephanie Zimbalist, is not a bad thing:)

        Betty

      • Good gravy, the episode with Bonfa and Bola Sete sounds incredible! I would die. Alas, I think I only have the first season – this may encourage me to buy the rest of the series. And I am with you on “hiding out” from the state of things today. I’ve been doing it for years so what’s the difference?! But especially the way things are now it feels good to escape into the wonderful world of classic TV and Old Hollywood. I may never go back to the real world!

  2. Such an AMAZING review!!! I actually “listened” to this review just now on Koop’s “Cocktail Nation;” that’s how I found you.Tremendous work!!

    And yes, Bossa Nova IS indeed the coolest music ever made. I actually moved to Brasil at 30 and Bossa Nova was one of the reasons. Bom trabalho, cara!

    • Buddy, I was at work this morning when I responded to your comment. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been checking out your website dedicated to Martin’s Day. Fascinating for me to hear of someone so captivated by my back yard! I’ve got in-laws who live in Stoufville and I have to drive through Bolton every time I go to Toronto! We’d welcome you back here anytime! Of course, we can’t compare with Brasil!

  3. Such an AMAZING review!!! I actually “listened” to this review just now on Koop’s “Cocktail Nation;” that’s how I found you.Tremendous work!!

    And yes, Bossa Nova IS indeed the coolest music ever made. I actually moved to Brasil at 30 and Bossa Nova was one of the reasons. Bom trabalho, cara!

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