Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Blame it on the Bossa Nova


Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the birth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of the Brazilian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Antônio Carlos Jobim. That’s all the excuse we require for today’s foray into the music of Brazil, samba, and bossa nova!

The name “Brazil” comes from the Portuguese word pau–brasil, meaning “brazilwood”: an East Indian tree from which a bright red dye is extracted. Sixteenth century Portuguese explorers found the coastal areas of what today is Brazil filled with these commercially valuable trees, which gave the territory – and eventually the country – its name.

If Brazil wasn’t locked into South America, it could be a continent on its own. In terms of sheer landmass, Brazil – at 3,287,956 square miles – is the fifth largest country in the world, behind Russia (the largest), Canada, the United States, and China.

(For our information, the landmass of the 28 nations of the former European Union – yes, including the United Kingdom, Brexit be damned – totals 1,669,808 square miles: half the size of Brazil.)

The relative size of today’s five largest countries – of which Brazil is the fifth – is, in fact, misleading. Unlike Russia, Canada, and the United States, all of which have substantial amounts of uninhabitable territory near and above the Arctic Circle, things live and grow everywhere in Brazil’s primarily tropical climate. Thanks to the Amazon rainforest, Brazil is the most biodiverse country on the planet.

Brazil’s culture is equally diverse. Its indigenous population numbered in the many millions before the arrival of Portuguese explorers in April 1500. There remains, today, well over 200 indigenous tribes, speaking 188 living indigenous languages.

Modern Brazil’s primary language and religion (Roman Catholicism) come from Portugal. But Italian, German, Jewish, Arab, and Japanese immigrants arrived in large numbers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Of equal import to the sum of these cultural influences is Brazil’s African heritage. (A surprising factoid. There are more people of African descent living in Brazil today than any other country in the world except Nigeria!)

Between 1525 and 1866, an estimated 4.9 million slaves were brought from Africa to Brazil. (By comparison, the number of slaves shipped directly from Africa to North America was approximately 388,000.) Most of these unfortunate souls were put to work on the huge sugar cane plantations that were Brazil’s economic lifeblood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Due to the sheer size of these plantations, Brazil’s slaves were generally left alone by their overseers to practice their native cultures. As a result, the African influence in Brazilian culture is much purer than in North America, where predominately protestant slave owners felt compelled to “civilize” their human chattel with their European ways.

As we would expect from such a large and diverse cultural environment, the music of Brazil encompasses an extraordinary variety of regional styles, most of them created through the synthesis and interaction of various types of African, Amerindian, and European music. Some of these “styles” – like Samba – are still ethnically quite pure: the drumming of Carnival sambas is almost as African as the Angolans who brought it to Brazil 400 years ago.…

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