Brazil’s Signature Song Hits Milestone
(& the Girl From Ipanema Is Fine Too)
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Garota de Ipanema, the Brazilian song that Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes wrote with a certain beachgoer in mind, for a musical that was never staged. In 1964, its English version, The Girl From Ipanema, introduced the world to Bossa Nova, a jazzy musical style, and to a fresh culture from south of the Equator.
The song went on to become Brazil’s most recognizable art expression, and along with The Beatles’ Yesterday, one of the most recorded in history, its breezy rhythm now an integral part of the vocabulary of popular music. Just like the song, Helô Pinheiro, the young muse who inspired Tom and Vinicius, and had her 69th birthday a month ago today, has hardly aged at all.
Although the song was recorded first by Pery Ribeiro, himself the son of two members of Brazil’s popular music royalty, singer Dalva de Oliveira and songwriter Herivelto Martins, it was the recording of its English adaptation what marks a turning point for the musicians involved, the Bossa Nova beat in particular, and the world of popular music in general.
When Jobim, his frequent interpreter João Gilberto and wife Astrud, plus the Ukrainian-American Stan Getz gathered to record The Girl From Ipanema, Bossa Nova was still a fresh and relatively obscure combo of lilting samba inflections and harmonies borrowed from the jazz. Its official intro also happened 50 years ago next November, with a historic Carnegie Hall concert.
What the appearance at the Ed Sullivan show did for The Beatles and to a generation of rock musicians, that 1962 concert, and the Getz/Gilberto album with the song released in 1964, did to Jobim and to a legion of Brazilian singer songwriters: they both opened the floodgates to two new and incredibly rich cultural traditions that came to dominate the century.
THE FAB FIVE WHO DID IT
It’s possible that the first ideas for the lyrics of Garota de Ipanema were conceived by the currently most obscure member of the cast of characters behind it: Vinicius de Moraes. Before becoming Jobim’s lyricist in this and many other songs and plays, Moraes was already a published author and member of Brazil’s diplomatic corps, a job that led him to spend many years abroad.
Perhaps next year, when he’d be 100, Vinicius, who died in 1980, and his legacy will be revived.
Such revival should also be in the works for Stan Getz, who died in 1991, and whose interest in Bossa Nova, and stellar performance in Girl From Ipanema, helped established jazz musicians and their audiences to get acquainted with its fluidity. It may have also served to galvanize his own career, by then starting to suffer the consequences of his disruptive personal habits.
The still very much alive artistic career of Astrud Gilberto, who became 70 last March, was launched with that remarkable recording, which she may have attended as João Gilberto’s wife, and sang on it as the only one then fluent in English. Her unvarnished interpretation was hailed as the perfect adornment to the simplicity of lyrics and melody.
Along the years, Joâo Gilberto has become, arguably, the main architect of the Bossa Nova style, a singer capable at being highly eloquent musically even when he’s not singing. His syncopated playing style has been considered an art form and, at 81, he’s mastered to perfection more or less the same group of songs. Some say, Brazilian music wouldn’t be possible without him.
TOM, NAME THAT TUNE
If that’s too much of a hyperbole to you, don’t read what’s been written lately about Antonio Carlos Jobim, ‘o Tom,’ as he was known in Brazil. Let’s have just one of those: he passed away in New York City 14 years to the day that John Lennon died, if you needed another link between his music and The Beatles. There’s no exaggeration to say that he defined Brazilian music as we know it, though.
And if he’ll be mostly known for having composed Garota de Ipanema, so be it. Even though we’re not that much into the ‘most recorded,’ or the ‘best selling album,’ and other expressions of commercial success, many a talented composer may have dreamed once or twice of composing something that would endear them to generations to come. But if were Jobim, or Paul McCartney, for that matter, you wouldn’t be concerned about that either.
In fact, many a talented composer never cared as much about actually pursuing such a lofty goal, though, and that may show the true character of their talent. But even for those who feign not being able to distinguish Bossa Nova from Muzak or elevator music, have been caught discretely swaying their hips to the sound of it.
Mischaracterizations aside, though, when Frank Sinatra called Jobim to help him record the song, three years later, it was a nod from a certified member of the American Standards generation to an understated but highly original composer. Unlike most of what Sinatra recorded, the song, and the album, remain a collaborative effort, unconceivable without one of the two.
THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY
Helô Pinheiro, the young Carioca girl who inspired Tom and Vinicius to write their classic, may have landed unwillingly on the history books, on the account of her looks and Jobim’s attempts to lure her. Her relationship with him, Vinicius and other members of the Bossa Nova movement, as well as with fame itself, has been bumpy and at times sour.
Somehow along the way, she’s managed a personal trajectory more or less apart from what the same history usually has in store for muses portrayed in song and dance. She may have been helped by her background as a member of the rising Rio de Janeiro middle class of the early 1960s, an educated and savvy demographics that formed the core of the new music’s audience.
She surely showed a shrewd sense of self-value, even when a dispute over intellectual property threatened to place her at odds with the two beloved composers, via the recording company that owned the rights to the song. All have settled their claims, even though Helô, as she’s known in Brazil, apparently has limited clearance to use her notoriety and no financial gain.
She still cuts a striking, attractive figure, and at her birthday last month, she was back on the cover of Brazilian magazines and tabloids. She’s had bit parts in movies and soap operas, and owns a long-running small business, but overall, she’s graciously receded to the background of the stories surrounding ‘her’ song.
In the end, she may have been better memorialized on the Vinicius’s lyrics of Garota de Ipanema, than in the way blander Norman Gimbel’s English version. We’re not fools in engaging into a comparison between them both, but it’s a fact that the Brazilian original accentuates the writer’s naive voyeurism and his poignant sense of dread, as she’s so blatantly is oblivious to him.
Through its gentle beat, it’s melodic sway, and implicit romanticism, Girl From Ipanema was a perfect soundtrack for Rio de Janeiro, circa 1962. One can almost see the waves crashing on the beach, hear the light breezy, and feel the warm sun of that summer 50 years ago. Most of all, anyone can empathize with the singer when he signs in awe of that girl and her beauty.