Music in Brazil

From the Lonely Planet guidebook Brazil, 5th edition, 2002.

 Brazilians are among the most musical people on the planet, and music is undoubtedly the most highly developed art form here. Wherever you go, you’ll find people playing, singing and dancing. Perhaps because of its African roots, Brazilian music is a collective community act, a celebration, a festa, and is virtually inseparable from dancing.  Genres like pagode, samba, frevo, forro and lambada all have their dances.

Shaped by the mixing of varied influences from three continents, Brazilian popular music has always been characterized by great diversity. The samba canção (samba song), for example, is a mixture of Spanish bolero with the cadences and rhythms of African music. Bossa nova was influenced by samba and North American music, particularly jazz. Tropicalismo, in the l960s and 1970s, mixed influences ranging from bossa nova and Italian ballads to blues and North American rock. Brazil is still creating new and original musical forms today.

If you want to dig into some Brazilian music two good places to start are the Web sites and  The latter reviews many recordings available outside Brazil.

Samba & Pagode

Tudo samba: every thing makes for a samba. Audio Clips.  This most popular Brazilian rhythm originated among black Bahians in Rio de Janeiro and is generally considered to have been first performed at the Rio Carnaval in 1917, though its roots go back much further.    It’s intimately linked with African rhythms, notably the Angolan tam-tam, which provided the basis for samba’s music and distinctive dance steps. Samba caught on quickly after the advent of radio and records, and has since become a national symbol. It is the music of the masses.

The 1930s are known as the Golden Age of Samba. By then, samba canção had also evolved, performed by small groups with European melodies laid over the African percussion — as had choro, a romantic, improvised, samba- related music with a ukulele or guitar playing off against a recorder or flute.

The most famous ‘Brazilian singer of this period, perhaps of all time, was the Portuguese-born Carmen MirandaSample audio.  Star of many musicals of the period, she was known for her fiery Latin temperament and her ‘fruity’ costumes.

Samba was pushed out of favor by other styles in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.  Then pagode   — informal, backyard-party samba, the kind of music that can be made by a small four-string cavaquinho guitar along with a few beer cans and tables to bang on— emerged in Rio. It’s relaxed, rhythmic and melodic and, throughout the country possibly now the most popular musical genre of all Pioneers were singers Beth Carvalho (alsol the queen of samba canão), Jorge Aragão and Zeca Pagodinho, and the group Fundo de Quintal, who introduced the banjo, and replaced the heavy floor tom-tom (druin) with the repinique, a tiny tambourine played with plastic drumsticks. Bezerra da

Silva invented the sambandido (gangsta samba) style, long before American gangsta rap.

By the 1990s the name pagode was being applied to more commercial, pop and rock-influenced samba.  But ‘pure pagode’ pioneers such as Carvalho (who launched the 21st century on Copacabana) are still going very strong.

Bossa Nova

When bossa nova was invented in the 1950s, the democratic nature of Brazilian music was challenged. Bossa Nova was modern and intellectual and became internationally popular.The middle class stopped listening to the old interpretations of samba and other regional music like the forró of the Northeast.

Bossa nova initiated a new style of playing and singing. The more operatic, florid style of singing was replaced by a quieter, more relaxed sound; remember the soft, smooth The Girl from Ipanema, composed by the late Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes. Audio Clips.    Guitarist João Gilberto, Audio Clips  bossa nova’s super-cool founding father, is still playing, although other leading figures such as guitarist and composer Baden Powell and singers Nara Leão and Elis Regina, are no longer with us.  João Gilberto’s daughter, Bebel, has sparked a new wave of popularity for bossa nova rhythms with her crossover lounger/world music albums. 

Bossa nova was associated with Brazil’s rising urban, university-educated middle class.  It was a musical response to other modernist movements of the 1950s and 1960s such as Cinema Novo and the Brazilian modern architecture of Oscar Niemeyer et al.


At the end of the 1960s the movement known as tropicalismo burst onto the scene. Tropicalismo Audio Clips  provoked a kind of general amnesty for all the forgotten musical traditions of the past. The leading figures — Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Rita Lee, Maria Betania an Gal Costa (all of whom are still around, with Veloso the most consistently innovative) — believed that all musical styles were important and relevant. All the styles and traditions in Brazilian music, plus North American rock and pop, could be freely mixed. This led to innovations like the introduction of the electric guitar and the sound of electric samba. Tropicalismo had its political dimension, and figures such as Veloso and Gil spent time in jail and exile during the military dictatorship.

Música Popular Brasileira (MPB)

Paralleling, overlapping with and at times blending the aforementioned musical movements since the 1970s has been the music known as MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). This nebulous term covers a range of styles from innovative jazz- and bossa nova-influenced stuff to some pretty sickly pop.

Early MPB stars were Chico Buarque de Hollanda mixing traditional samba with a more modern universal flavor, and Jorge Ben, playing an original pop samba without losing the black rhythms of the Rio suburbs he came from.

Milton Nascimento, from Minas Gerais, has long been famous in Brazil for his fine voice, stirring anthems and ballads that reflect the spirituality of the Mineiro (someone from Minas). He’s also jazz-influenced, and has kept his innovative touch longer than most early MPB names. Roberto Carlos, the composer of many early MPB classics and once a fiery rock ‘n-roller, has turned to schmaltzy ballads, sung in Spanish instead of Portuguese, but still somehow manages to occupy more shelf space in Brazilian music shops than anyone else.

Brazilian Rock Derived more from English than American rock, this is the least Brazilian of all Brazilian music. Pronounced, of course, hock,’ it’s very popular. Groups like Kid Abelha, Legião Urbana (who led a wave of punk-driven bands from Brasilia), and the reggae-based Skank and Cidade Negra are worth a listen. The versatile and original Ed Motta, from Rio, injects soul, jazz, traditional Brazilian music and more into rock. He’s well worth seeking out, and his 2000 album, As Segundos Intençoes do Manual Prãtico, is probably his best. Heavy metal band Sepultura, from Minas Gerais, achieved fame among headbangers worldwide in the 1990s.

Racionais MCs, from São Paulo, have led Brazilian rap since the late l960s with their hard-edged lyrics about life in the favelas and jails. Their 1998 album Sobrevivendo no Inferno (Surviving in Hell) sold over a million copies, a record for independent releases in Brazil. Another rap star is Gabriel O Pensador, a white middle-class Carioca [resident of Rio de Janeiro] who directs a biting wit at.. .white middle-class Cariocas. Members of the Rio rock/rap band Planet Hemp campaign actively for marijuana legalization and get into a lot of legal trouble as a result. Some very boring funk, emanating chiefly from Rio, has received huge TV exposure. Hopefully juvenile bands like O Bonde do Tigrão will vanish as fast they appeared.

Regional Music Samba, tropicalismo and bossa nova are all national musical forms, but wherever you go in Brazil you’ll hear regional specialties.

The Northeast has perhaps the most regional musical and dance styles. The most important is forró, a lively syncopated music centered on the accordion and the zaumba (an African drum).  Though a few artists such as Luiz Gorizaga and Jackson do Pandeiro achieved national status forró was long disdained as hick by the urbane inhabitants of Brazil’s more southerly cities — as is neatly encapsulated by the title of one good compilation available internationally, Forró; Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers. Lately, however, forró  has surged in popularity nationwide and at the same tim returned from electrification to its roots — accordion, zabumba, triangle — with a big helping hand from Eu, Tu, Eles (Me, You, Them). The movie features a lot of forró.

The trio electrico, also called frevo baiano began more as a change in technology than in music.  It started as a joke when during Carnaval in Salvador in the 1950s three artists, Dodô, Armandinho and Osmar,  got on top of a truck and played frevo with electric guitar.  It’s still the backbone of Salvador’s Carnival.   It was popularized during the tropi calismo era, when Caetano Veloso began writing songs about the trio eletrico. Another important element of Carnaval on the streets of Salvador is the a bloco, or Afro-Brazilian percussion group, Filhos de Gandhi and Grupo Olodum are the most famous of these — Filhos have deep African roots and are strongly influenced by Candomble (Afro-Brazilian religion).

Axé is a label for the profuse samba/pop/rock/reggae/funk/Caribbean fusion music that emerged from Salvador in the 1990s.  The influence of Brazilian Indian music was absorbed and diluted, as was so much that derived from Brazil’s indigenous cultures.  The carimbó music of the Amazon region (where the majority of Indians live today) I influenced primarily by the blacks of the coastal zones.   


This clip from the Lonely Planet guidebook does not cover Brazilian classical music. There is a Villa Lobos Web Site in English with a pretty good biography.  You can find sound clips from Villa Lobos on the Villa Lobos museum site although the text is in Portuguese.   Bachianas Brasileiras on 


Perhaps the best way to appreciate Brazilian music is through film because you can see it with the dance as well.  The film Black Orpheus or Orfeu Negro introduced bossa nova to the world through the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa.  There is also a more modern version by Caetano Veloso.