Brazil is a country overflowing with music from every corner, and there is a deep connection between Brazilians and their music. A tricultural mix of indigenous groups, Portuguese colonizers and African slaves makes for an immensely diverse population. (It has the largest number of African descendants outside of Africa.) And while the indigenous music retained much of its traditional context throughout the colonial period (and even to today), it never played as central a role in the development of Brazil's popular music as did the music of the Africans and Portuguese.
As a vast country of many states, Brazil's music is regional, with each section (sometimes specific cities) contributing distinct musical genres. Portuguese influences abound in the country's rich and lyrical poetry, the exquisite melody, and the instrumentation including the accordion, guitar and violin families. Roman Catholic festivals and pageants remain as seasonal events in various regions in Brazil, and the Portuguese sentimental song forms such as the moda and the fado became staple genres. The European influences are not exclusively Portuguese, of course, as Brazil witnessed the arrival of settlers from Germany, Italy, Lebanon and even Japan.
The African elements are both obvious and subtle, and primarily include drumming and dancing forms expressed largely through communal and spiritual tradition as well as martial art forms such as capoeira. African slaves were brought to Brazil for nearly 300 years, with the racial predominance of Sudanese and Bantu groups (Yoruban, Dahomean, Congolese and Angolan), among others. The Afro-Brazilian religion known as candomblé is one of the largest manifestations of syncretic religion in the Americas, combining Yoruban and Catholic symbolism, and thrives primarily in the northeastern state of Bahia. As in Cuba and Haiti, Brazilian Africans were able to retain a great majority of their music, dance and spiritual traditions, primarily along the coastal areas, resulting in some of the richest and most popular forms known around the world. Among Brazil's most celebrated colonial-era forms were the lundu and the maxixe, both steeped in African tradition with dance elements viewed as erotic and indecent, but which (of course) became increasingly popular as they climbed the social ladder to acceptance by the middle class. Centuries later, Brazil would again "shock" the world with forms such as the samba and the lambada, producing some of the most exciting and vibrant music and dance anywhere.
Considered one of the most popular forms ever to emerge from the country, specifically from Rio de Janeiro, samba is another distinct music and dance genre that dates back to the colonial period. Coalescing in the early 20th century, samba's roots lie in the circle dances of Congolese and Angolan tradition. Around the turn of the century it became associated with carnival, where large groups of Brazilians of largely lower class status joined together in celebration. As it evolved over the decades to come, samba became the distinct sound of Rio's carnaval, with large contingents known as escolas (schools) beating on multiple percussion instruments as they paraded through the city streets. Samba would also spawn several sub-styles and fusions in the eastern state of Bahia, leading to one of the country's most popular genres to date: samba-reggae. And by the 21st century, televised broadcasts of Rio's carnaval share the unbridled energy of samba with the world.
One of Brazil's samba relatives emerged during the late 1950s as a softer, more refined form primarily for singing. Connected to a previous offshoot known as samba-canção, bossa nova was a slower vocal form with lyrics reflecting the romantic and nostalgic side of Brazilian life, and one of its pioneers was composer Antônio Carlos Jobim (19271994). Along with lyricist Vinícius de Morães, Jobim's rich and unconventional bossa nova explored the influences of American jazz music through its more sophisticated harmony, while the vocal style was less dramatic, more nasal and subtle. When artists such as João Gilberto first recorded bossa novas in the late '50s, music critics panned it as "music for out-of-tune singers," yet the genre would go on to become one of the most celebrated Brazilian styles on an international level.
The 1960s were tumultuous political times in Brazil, and the musical landscape was transformed by the experimental tropicália movement. Artists who spoke out against the government repression of the decade found themselves in prison or in exile, such as Gilberto Gil (Brazil's current minister of culture) and poet/activist/musician Chico Buarque, but as tensions relaxed in the '70s, Brazilian music began its most prolific and prosperous era of the 20th century. Dubbed as MPB or música popular Brasileira, this musical melting pot of artists and genres embraced virtually anything and everything from Brazil and beyond, and paved the way for numerous collaborative opportunities between Brazilian artists and their international peers. Seminal artists such as Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Ivan Lins, Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso, João Bosco, Djavan, Gal Costa and many others explored the richness and variety of regional music, and melded it with jazz, rock, folk and classical forms. Samba found a new forum outside of the carnaval, with modern harmony and electric instruments that brought it into the nightclubs 24/7, and Afro-Brazilian roots music began its journey toward the spotlight as MPB artists shared the wealth of Brazil's African heritage within the vehicle of popular music (now largely referred to as axê music).
In Brazil's northeastern state of Ceará there is an entirely different lifestyle and climate, with a vast arid desert known as the sertão, and a distinct musical and dance style commonly known as forró. This accordion-driven music is part of the region's popular dance forms dating back to the late 19th century, when cowboys would celebrate the end of the dry season. Over time, the specific rhythm attached to the style, called the baião, would inspire a couples dance accompanied by accordion, zabumba (bass drum) and triangle. The leading pioneer of the style, Luiz Gonzaga, made the first recordings of the style in the mid-1940s. While the style lost momentum during the bossa nova fever of the '60s, forró would gain a new generation of fans in the '80s when MPB artists Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso recorded modern versions of Gonzaga's tunes.
While native tribes in the Amazon retain their ancient musical traditions dating back centuries (or millennia), Brazilian regional music continues its extraordinary journey from tradition to modernization, and keeps the world moving to an infectious beat. Rebeca Mauleon