Secrets of Bossa Nova

I thought I knew what real Brazilian music was before I got there. It was Bossa Nova, it was Jazz. It’s what you’re listening to now, Antonio Carlos Jobim playing “Brazil”.

Boy, was I wrong. When I told a coworker that Bossa Nova was my favorite Brazilian genre, he didn’t even know what it was.

During my trip to Rio de Janeiro, I signed up for a 3 hour AirBnb experience hosted by Cecelo Frony to “explore the charm of bossa nova with a musician”. As I walked the 10 minutes though Ipanema from my AirBnb Apartment to his studio, I reflected on why I chose to come to Brazil in the first place.

Of course, my number one goal was to work in a Wildlife Conservation and Environmental Sustainability apprenticeship, but another draw was the music and culture I expected to find in Brazil. I even wrote about it in my Fellow Bio:

Elise is passionate about environmental protection, jazz, and drama. Having written and directed a jazz musical one act for school, one of Elise’s goals for the coming year is to immerse herself in Brazilian music and culture to write another show—bossa nova style. She also wants to experience the diversity of life in Brazil, from humans to plants and animals of all types.

I realized that I had not even thought about working on a show. I was always too busy with college applications, my apprenticeship, language learning, and immersing in my community and family that by the end of the day, I just went to bed. I regularly chose to go out instead of staying home to practice flute, and I never set time aside to start writing the musical. Up until then, I never really had the opportunity I imagined I would to experience or learn bossa nova here, or even listen to jazz.

Instead, I prefer to listen to music like this Brazilian Rap. I also enjoyed jamming to Funk with other Fellows, or sitting outside with my grandmother as Sertanejo plays on the radio.

So when the AirBnb experience popped up, I knew I had to take that opportunity, or else I would return to the US having completely failed my goal. I hoped that my time in Rio would stir up something inside me and inspire a musical, just like how listening to my favorite jazz standards inspired my first musical last year.

Cecelo gave me what was essentially a private lesson on the Secrets of Bossa Nova—I was the only person in attendance that rainy Thursday morning, though he has spots for 6. We mixed our Portuguese and English, slipping in and out of the languages depending on which was being sung in the tunes we were listening to.

And what he taught me contradicted everything I knew.

Bossa Nova was not the music of the Brazilian people. No, it was Samba. Bossa Nova was for the white middle class. Yet at the same time, Bossa Nova is Samba.

Just quieter, played on acoustic guitar in apartments in Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro, so the neighbors wouldn’t be disturbed, by white boys who were rich enough to spend their time playing guitar instead of working. Just quieter, played on the subtler chord changes of American jazz and embodying French chic.

Just quieter, played on the lyrics of beauty, the waves, the sun, the girl walking down the beach in Ipanema. Just quieter, played on the soft strings of love and saudade. Just quieter, as if you were biking along the beach, the warm ocean breeze blowing back your hair, the sand sinking softly under the steps of the owner of the enchanting swaying hips.

Bossa Nova was everything from Nara Leão and Bebel Gilberto to even Stevie Wonder, and songs like Walk on By. Cecelo opened my ears to new sounds, different from the Jobim Bossas that I had accustomed myself to in the US. But they were all Bossa Nova too, the new extra, as it is translated.

Tiles on Escadaria Selaron in Rio

I guess I never really had a goal. I filled out my Fellow Bio in the height of my One Acts experience, one of my proudest moments in my high school career. At the time, I was also singing Chega De Saudade in the Jazz Academy Orchestra, but in English. Somehow, I thought that I could take everything that was important to me in the US and translate it into “Brazilian”. But Brazil had much more to offer, to widen my horizons, to open my eyes.

And ears.


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