Casual and seductive on the surface, ingenious and multilayered within – that’s the music of Brazil, which is getting a new burst of global exposure as the Olympics continue in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a great moment to discover how much wider and deeper Brazilian music goes, beyond the stereotypes of gaudy carnival parades and suave bossa novas by the beach. It’s an ever-evolving mix of indigenous, European and African elements. Even as they prize their roots, Brazilian musicians have assimilated jazz, rock, reggae, metal, hip-hop, electronic music and more. Here’s a starter kit of 15 key Brazilian songs, historic and recent:
Pixinguinha, “Carinhoso” (1928): The lithesome, elegant musical style known as choro originated in Rio during the 19th century. It features flute, cavaquinho (a stringed instrument), guitar and hand percussion, in intricate counterpoint. The music can also feel analogous to New Orleans ragtime, in which case Pixinguinha could be considered the Scott Joplin of Brazil.
Carmen Miranda, “O Que É Que a Baiana Tem” (1939): She was a white singer, dancer and film star, born in Portugal, raised in Rio, who co-opted the dress and movements of Bahian street-vendors. At first she did it stylishly and then, for American film directors, with wild exaggeration, as the “lady in the tutti-frutti hat,” in “The Gang’s All Here” and other films. This was one of her earliest hits.
Luiz Gonzaga, “Asa Branca” (1947): The peppy beat, nonstop accordion and busy triangle of “Asa Branca” mark it as a baião, a dance that Gonzaga distilled from traditions of Northeastern Brazil; it might remind American listeners of Cajun music.
João Gilberto, “Chega de Saudade” (1958): Bossa nova started in the late 1950s and became an international preoccupation briefly in the early 1960s. Gilberto was (and still is) understood to be the mysterious figure at the core of the style. putting his soft, vibratoless purr against changing guitar patterns; in “Chega de Saudade” he basically set bossa nova’s dimensions.
Antônio Carlos Jobim, “A Felicidade” (1959): Bossa nova’s gentleness can be deceptive. The beat is a subtle microcosm of samba’s percussion batteries, while the melodies conceal sophisticated jazz harmonies. Its lyrics are full of the particularly Brazilian quality summed up by the Portuguese word “saudade,” which mingles yearning, sadness and memory. This song opens with one of the most perfect poetic couplets in any language: “Tristeza não tem fim/ Felicidade sim,” or “Sadness has no end/ Happiness does.”
Moacir Santos, “Coisa No. 5 (Nanã)” (1965): Santos, a multi-instrumentalist and composer who died in 2006 at the age of 80, wasn’t known for his own virtuosity so much as for his original brilliance in composition and arrangement. You could call him Ellingtonian in that respect, but in most others he was entirely Brazilian.
Caetano Veloso, “Tropicália” (1968): Veloso and Gilberto Gil are heroes of Tropicália, a musical upheaval that pushed Brazilian pop into the psychedelic era, infusing the music with fuzz-toned rock and bringing literary modernism into the lyrics.
Gilberto Gil, “Expresso 2222” (1972): The breakneck speed of Gil’s guitar syncopations is just right for a surreal train song that he wrote while in exile in London and released in 1972, the year he returned to Brazil.
Jorge Ben, “Xica da Silva” (1976): Jorge Ben has worked all the stops of the postsamba continuum, ecstatically chanting and strumming into the vanishing point and building a long list of great songs; this is near the top. It’s about a real-life folk hero: an 18th-century African slave who becomes the lover of a Portuguese mine contractor in Brazil and attains her dominion.
Maria Bethânia, “Mel” (1979): Bethânia, a singer, perfected an imperious and highly emotional kind of cabaret-pop in the late ‘60s; this track, with easy rhythm and steel guitar, comes from her album of the same name. It was written by her brother Caetano Veloso and the poet Waly Salomão.
Chico Science, “Maracatu Atômico” (1994): In the 1990s this singer, rapper and songwriter and his band, Nacão Zumbi, called their music “mangue bit”: “mangrove bit” (as in bits of data) or “mangrove beat,” after the mangrove swamps of their poverty-stricken home city, Recife. It fused traditional rhythms with funk, hard-rock, hip-hop, with urgent social concerns and with a determination to merge past and future.
Deize Tigrona, “Injeção” (2004): A pleasantly bawdy song by one of the strongest female performers in baile funk – the hypersexual machine-gun-intense soundtrack of late night parties in Brazil’s favelas – this has the rapid flamboyance of the scene’s early Miami-influenced sound but also just a hint of the country’s traditional loose drums.
Carlinhos Brown, “Magalenha” (2012): Since the 1980s Brown has been a mighty force in Brazilian music: singer, songwriter, producer, community organizer. In 2012 he revisited this, a hit he wrote for Sérgio Mendes in the early ‘90s; this time he sang it through a vocoder over a few traditional instruments (berimbau, agogô), as well as what sounds like a warehouse full of carnival drummers and backup singers, and treated the whole thing with dub-reggae echo. It’s commanding and extravagant.
Elza Soares, “A Mulher do Fim do Mundo” (2015): She started in the late ‘50s as a samba singer with a klaxon voice. Since then she’s made funk, rock and hip-hop records, and now, a devastating, late-career, vanguard-pop masterpiece about the parts of Brazilian life its popular music has tended to obscure.
Trio da Paz, “Sampa 67” (2016): Brazilian jazz has diversified and evolved since the popular heyday of “Getz/Gilberto” in 1964. One of the leading ensembles in our era is this collective, made up of three virtuosos: guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca. This track tells you most of what you need to know about the trio: Composed by Matta in honor of São Paolo, his hometown, it’s a quick, kinetic ride full of harmonic intricacies. Each player has a chance to shine.