History of Brazilian Music

Strong influences on the music of Brazil come from Africa, India, Portugal and the natives of the Amazon rainforest and of other parts of the country. Samba is undoubtedly the most internationally famous form of Brazilian music, though bossa nova and other genres have also received some sporadic attention outside of the country.

Pre-20th century

The earliest known descriptions of music in Brazil date from 1578, when Jean De Léry, a French Calvinist pastor, published Viagem à Terra do Brasil (Journey to the Land of Brazil). He described the dances and transcribed the music of the Tupi people. In 1587, Gabriel Soares de Sousa wrote Tratado Descritivo do Brasil about the music of several native Brazilian ethnic groups, including the Tamoios and Tupinambás.

In 1739, Domingos Caldas Barbosa wrote a series of modinhas that were extremely popular; thus began Brazilian popular music.

Towards the end of the 18th century a form of comedic dance called bumba-meu-boibecame very popular. It was a musical retelling of the story of a resurrected ox. These dances are led by a chamador, who introduces the various characters. Instruments used include the pandeiro, the tamborim, the accordion and the acoustic guitar.

By the mid-1830s a form of dance and music called the lundu had developed among slaves, and it quickly spread to the white middle-class.

20th century

Choro and samba

In Rio de Janeiro in the 1870s a type of reserved and private music called chorodeveloped out of fado and European salon music. Choro was usually instrumental and improvised, frequently including solos by virtuosos. Originally, a choro band used two guitars and cavaquinho, later picking up the bandolim, the clarinet and the flute. Famous choro musicians include Joaquim Antonio da Silva Calado Júnior, Valdir Azevedo, Jacob do Bandolim, Pixinguinha and Chiquinha Gonzaga; Pixinguinha’s “Lamento” is one of the most influential choro recordings. In addition to composing choros another composer, Ernesto Nazareth composed tangos, waltzes and polkas. Nazareth was influenced by Chopin but his music had a distinctly Brazilian flavor. Nazareth has also been compared to his contemporary Scott Jopin. The late 1960s saw a revival of the choro, beginning in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, and culminating with artists like Paulinho da Viola.

By the beginning of the 20th century, samba had begun to evolve out of choro in Rio de Janeiro’s neighborhood, inhabited mostly by poor blacks descended from slaves. Samba’s popularity grew through the 20th century, especially internationally, as awareness of samba de enredo (a type of samba played during Carnival) has grown. Other types of samba include:

  • Samba de breque – reggaeish and choppy
  • Samba-canção – typical variety of nightclubs.
  • Samba pagode – modern popular variety.

Forró and Northeastern music

Northeastern Brazil is known for a distinctive form of literature called literatura de cordel, which are a type of ballads that include elements incorporated into music asrepentismo, an improvised lyrical contest on themes suggested by the audience.

Música nordestina is a generic term for any popular music from the large region of Northeastern Brazil, including both coastal and inland areas. Rhythms are slow and plodding, and are derived from accordions and guitars instead of percussion instruments like in the rest of Brazil. In this region, African rhythms and Portuguese melodies combined to form maracatú and dance music called baião has become popular. Most influentially, however, the area around Recife is the home of forró.

Forró is played by a trio consisting of a drum and a triangle and led by an accordion. Forró is rapid and eminently danceable, and became one of the foundations for lambada in the 1980s. Luiz Gonzaga was the preeminent early forró musician who popularized the genre in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the 1940s with songs like “Asa Branca”.

Some connaisseurs consider a Northeastern from Vitória da Conquista, BA, namedElomar Figueira de Mello, one of the greatest living Classical musician in the world. He is a farmer who studied architecture, but makes Nordestine music in the classical forms. Drawing from themes from the Nordeste and other areas in Brasil, he composes oratorios, cantatas, operas and antiphones. His music has the distinction of being audible and avoiding the Nihilism widespread in Contemporary music.

Eastern Amazônia

Eastern Amazônia has long been dominated by carimbó music, which is centered around Belém. In the 1960s, carimbo was electrified and, in the next decade, DJs added elements from reggae, salsa and merengue. This new form became known as lambadaand soon moved to Bahia, Salvador by the mid-1980s. Bahian lambada was synthesizer-based and light pop music. French record producers discovered the music there, and brought it back with them to France, where a Bolivian group called Los K’jarkas saw their own composition launch an international dance craze. Soon, lambada had spread throughout the world and the term soon became meaninglessly attached to multiple varieties of unrelated Brazilian music, leading to purist scorn from Belém and also Bahia.

Another form of regional folk music, bumba-meu-boi, was popularized by the Carnival celebrations of Parintins and is now a major part of the Brazilian national scene.

Capoeira Music

The Afro-Brazlian sport of Capoeira is never played without its own music, which is usually considered to be a call-and-response type of folk music. The main instruments of capoeira music include the berimbau, the pandeiro and the atabaque. Capoeira songs may be improvised on the spot, or they may be popular songs written by older mestres (teachers), and often include accounts of the history of capoeira, or the doings of great mestres.

Bossa nova and descendants

Antonio Carlos Jobim and other 1950s composershelped develop a jazzy popular sound called bossa nova, which developed at the beach neighborhoods of Ipanema and, later, the Copacabana nightclubs. The first bossa nova records by João Gilberto quickly became huge hits in Brazil. Bossa nova was introduced to the rest of the world by American jazz musicians in the early 1960s, and songs like “The Girl from Ipanema”, which remains the biggest Brazilian international hit, eventually became standards. By the end of the decade, artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (now Ministry of Culture) added politically-charged lyrics amid the social turmoil of the time, thus beginning a genre called Tropicalia, eventually morphing into a more popular form, MPB (música popular Brasileira), which now refers to any Brazilian pop music, especially artists from Salvador and Bahia. Other well-known MPB artists include chanteuse Gal Costa and singer/songwriters Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento.

MPB’s capital remains Salvador, where artists like Virginia Rodrigues and Silvia Torres help keep the region a hotbed of musical innovation. Percussion is an important part of music across Latin America, but in Salvador it has become perhaps the most important aspect of music. In the final three decades of the 20th century, reggae, salsa and samba rhythms mixed to form a type of dance music called fricote. Stars like Abel Duere, Margareth Menezes and Daniela Mercury became international stars, alongside bands like Olodum, who inspired American musician Paul Simon to incorporate Brazilian percussion on his influential The Rhythm of the Saints album.


* Cleary, David. “Meu Brasil Brasileiro”. 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 332-349. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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