Brazilian Music Essentials – Bossa Nova and Beyond
Brazil has an extremely rich culture, with roots in its indigenous peoples, a large African diaspora, and several European nations. Nowhere is this mix of cultures as evident as in its music.
Music feels like the soul of Brazil—It is everywhere.
You could be at a chic São Paulo bar, waiting for your martini to arrive, and hear a Bossa Nova classic in the background. At a nightclub on Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro, you’ll almost certainly find modern funk that makes you want to rebolar (“roll” or “dance”). You’re almost certainly going to hear the sweet melancholic melodies of sertanejo in your Uber.
Music is essential for parties and festivals, and it’s often even built into Brazil’s political movements.
Brazilians, of course, enjoy and produce incredible music in all of the genres you know and love: pop, rock, blues, soul, electronic, and more.
But this article is about those genres that you likely don’t know as well: those that Brazil has pioneered, and that you can really only find in this country. This is your guide to the best of Brazilian music.
The 6 Musical Genres You Won’t Find Outside of Brazil – Funk, Samba, Bossa Nova, Axé, Forró, and Sertanejo
Okay, so this is probably the Brazilian musical genre you might be most familiar with. You can’t talk about Brazil without talking about samba.
Samba was born in the 19th century in Bahia, a state in the Northeast of Brazil. It originated in prayer music from Candomblé, a religion that grew and developed in Brazil within the African diaspora. The term samba actually meant “to pray” and the music genre grew out of religious choral music and traditional dances.
At one time, samba was even censured. During the 1920s, for example, anyone caught dancing or singing samba was at risk of being put behind bars. This was because samba was linked to black culture, and it was seen as dangerous to the upper class. Only later did it come to be seen as a national cultural symbol.
Brazilian samba usually explores themes of love and disappointments, but also life, death, friendship, and loneliness.
In this typical Brazilian music, stringed instruments, such as the cavaquinho and the traditional guitar, provide the melodies, while the very specific rhythms are given by musicians playing the surdo and the pandeiro.
Every year in the month of February, samba spreads through the streets of Brazil during Carnival, the month-long festival leading up to Lent. You’ll see parades of samba schools and other groups dancing and singing in the streets with people in wild, colorful costumes.
Classic Brazilian Samba Artists
2. Bossa Nova
Without samba, there would be no bossa nova. The genre was born from a desire of several musicians to renew samba in Rio de Janeiro and bring a bossa nova—a different and “new beat”—during the 1950s.
Perhaps the real beginning of Bossa Nova was in 1959 when Bahian guitarist João Gilberto released his first LP, “Chega de Saudade“. This marked the beginning of this musical style and is still considered one of the classics bossa nova albums.
Most of the songs on the LP were written and composed together with Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, two classic bossa nova artists. The duo composed Garota de Ipanema (“Girl from Ipanema”) which is undoubtedly one of the most important songs in the history of Brazilian music. Some have estimated that it is the second-most recorded pop song in history (after Yesterday by the Beatles). It was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
Brazilian Bossa Nova – Artists You Need to Know
3. Axé Music
Emerging in Bahia in the 1980s, axé is directly linked to the carnival of Salvador and the joy that comes with this popular festival. The term “axé” originally came from the Yoruba word àṣẹ which means “positive energy”. Like samba, it has roots in Candomblé and Umbanda—another Afro-Brazilian religion.
Axé feels like a combination of reggae and calypso. It mixes the African-inspired drum rhythms with positive, high-energy melodies. It often explores themes of love affairs, especially with respect to Carnival and related festivities. It’s often performed on the top of vehicles along a carnival parade route
Here are some of the axé artists you need to know before you attend your first Brazilian Carnival. If you really want to fit in, learn the axé dances as well.
4. Sertanejo Music
Ask any Brazilian and they will tell you that sertanejo is the saddest of all musical genres in the country. In Brazil, it is common to call sertanejo “sofrência” (“suffering”), because the lyrics almost always talk about disillusion in love, homesickness, heartache, and betrayal.
Although it originated from the country music of rural Brazil in the 1920s, sertanejo music became increasingly popular and urbanized, gaining more characteristics of pop as it reached the cities. Still, it’s often described as “Brazilian Country” although it is quite different from North American country music.
Sertenejo music is driven by nostalgic guitar melodies, almost always accompanied by an accordion, that build up to a powerful chorus. You’ll almost always hear sertanejo sung ao vivo (“live”) with a crowd singing backup for the main artist.
Since the 1990s, sertanejo has become probably the most popular musical genre in Brazil, constantly maintaining top spots on Brazilian music charts. In 2009, sertanejo even received its own category at the Latin Grammy Awards. It’s among the—if not the—most consumed genre of music in Brazil.
Top Sertenejo Artists to Discover the Brazilian “Sofrência”
5. Forró Music
Forró was born in the northeast of Brazil in the 19th century. It is thought to have originated on plantations in Ceará, a state in the Northeast of Brazil, as workers would sing while they worked.
As well as being a genre of music, forró is also a style of dance. Because the dance floors were made of beaten clay at the time, people danced dragging their feet to keep the dust from rising. Today, this is one of the main characteristics of this sensual dance. (Try this tutorial with your significant other, if you’re interested!)
Accordion, guitar, and high-energy drum rhythms are some of the elements of this danceable and joyful genre. You’re especially likely to hear it in the Northeast of Brazil and during the June Festival.
How to Dance Forró
Check Out Some of the Top Artists to Discover Brazilian Forró.
6. Brazilian Funk Music
Brazilian funk (pronounced “fun-kee”) is unmistakable. It’s young, irreverent, and sexy, mixing Miami freestyle bass with rap, a very specific tamborzão beat, and raw—sometimes vulgar—lyrics. It’s kind of Brazilian’s answer to hip hop.
Funk developed in the 1980s in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the 1990s, funk became a true phenomenon and spread throughout Brazil.
To really get funk, you need to dance it. Sensuality is one of the primary characteristics of the genre. The MCs—the singers and composers of Brazilian funk—speak openly about sex in their lyrics, and twerking is its unofficial dance.
But despite its sensuality, funk often also explores a number of serious themes like poverty, racial pride, violence, and social injustice.
The Best Brazilian Funk Artists
There is no better way to learn a language than by knowing the culture of a people. And some countries, like Brazil, have particularly rich musical traditions.
If you are learning Portuguese, this can be a great way to learn more about Brazilian culture and improve your learning.
Update your playlists and start speaking Portuguese today!