Brazilian music, and MPB specifically, is and always has been an expression of Brazilian spirit: “I believe that Música Popular Brasileira is the greatest symbol of our national identity,” asserted the singer Joyce, a native of Rio de Janeiro.
The death of João Gilberto on July 6, 2019, closed the most illustrious chapter in the history of Brazilian music. “He was a mystical light,” Caetano Veloso commented when describing the man who invented bossa nova at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. This refinement of the samba, enlivened by sophisticated melodies, rhythms, and harmonies under the influence of jazz, constituted the breeding ground (itself nourished by a centuries-old interplay) in which the MPB’s lush tree was rooted.
While MPB was formalized in the wake of bossa nova, its origins are much older, finding their source in the intermingling sparked by the triangular trade that began in the 16th century. The combination of indigenous peoples, European settlers, and African slaves on a vast territory enabled a variety of expression like nowhere else. This blend of genres (like Pixiguinha’s choro, Luis Gonzaga’s baião, and Noel Rosa’s samba) is synthesized in MPB, which also integrates Anglo-Saxon influences, as if all that weren’t already enough. While the military junta blocked the country following the 1964 coup d’état, the pioneers of the movement hammered out the richness of the national heritage, the sophistication inherited from the bossa nova and a generous openness to the surrounding world, whether the military wanted it or not.
Brazilian Music, MPB, festivals
From 1965 to 1969, the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira was an event that had the public glued to the small screen every year. “Arrastão,” a song by Edu Lobo and Vinicius de Moraes and performed by Elis Regina, marked the birth of MPB by winning the first edition of the competition. From then on, festivals embraced the first generation of the genre, while propelling the national recording industry. The participants included Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Nara Leão, Geraldo Vandré, Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Jair Rodrigues, Nana Caymmi, Marcos Valle, Milton Nascimento, Tom Zé, and Gal Costa. Imagination took over during prime time. In the last edition, in 1969, electric guitars were banned in order to avoid throwing oil on a flaming country. Too late: already on its way, MPB chose the path of progressivism and embodied (more or less, depending on its performers) a form of political and social protest.
Brazilian Music, tropicalism
At the 1967 Festival de MPB, Caetano Veloso sang “Alegria, alegria,” while Gilberto Gil performed “Domingo no Parque,” thus propelling Tropicalism, a musical revolution rooted in the visual arts and literature that struck the Brazilian psyche (especially the Northeast rhythms) and English-speaking pop culture, marked by the psychedelic and hippy movements. The two Bahianese were not alone in this kind of thing, which broke with MPB in spite of being composed of it. Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Maria Bethânia and Chico Buarque also exploded conventions and advocated the liberation of minds by playing electric guitars in beatniks’ outfits. For the dictatorship, it was too much; Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were censored, thrown into prison, and then forced into exile, from which they continued their protest work.
Brazilian Music, the rock wave
In the 1970s, a new generation were hungrily consuming rock and African-American music, with examples being Jorge Ben and his samba-rock perpetuated by Seu Jorge, and Tim Maia, whose own tastes leaned towards soul and disco. Introduced in the 1950s, propagated in the 1960s by the Jovem Guarda movement (Roberto Carlos, Erasmo Carlos, and Wanderléa), rock blossomed from Minas Gerais (Milton Nascimento’s Clube da Esquina and Lô Borges influenced by the Beatles) to the Nordeste region (Invasão Nordestina by Fagner, Alceu Valença, and Zé Ramalho). However, apart from the tutelary figure of Raul Seixas, the scene really took shape after the dictatorship. In the 1980s, Brazilian rock even became a massive phenomenon thanks to groups such as Paralamas do Sucesso, Legião Urbana, and Titãs. Behind this series of names lies the same producer, hidden from view: André Midani.
Brazilian Music, The Story Continues
MPB is not a genre in itself, but the conglomeration of artists whose heterogeneous aesthetics are drawn towards modernity through the absorption of outside influences. Roberto Carlos’ romantic pop music, Djavan’s finely crafted songs, Ney Matogrosso’s theatrical rock, Chico Science’s Mangue Beat, and Marisa Monte’s sophisticated pop all belong to the same corpus. MPB is popular with the middle class, as opposed to the genres more associated with people living in outlying neighborhoods or rural areas, like brega, sertanejo, axé, funk, and hip-hop. One thing is certain, whether it is in the studios of São Paulo or the discos of Belém, Brazilian music continues to reflect the vitality, diversity, and tensions of the society in which it flourishes.