Ever since Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim penned the bossa nova hit "The Girl from Ipanema," Brazil has been a player on the international music scene. The outside world, however, seems only able to absorb one Brazilian musical style at a time. Bossa nova and samba were hot in the '50s and '60s; Tropicalismo -- spearheaded by Brazil's megastars Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil -- was popular in the '70s. This movement paved the way for some of Brazil's most loved MPB (musica popular brasileira) stars to break through on the international stage: Gal Costa, Milton Nascimento, Djavan, Maria Bethania. Other such as Jorge Ben, João Bosco, Chico Buarque, and Elis Regina were huge in Brazil but never quite made the crossover. One style that did make it out of Brazil (and maybe shouldn't have) to briefly dominate the dance floors of the late '80s was the Lambada. In the '90s, a crop of new artists such as Marisa Monte, Daniela Mercury, and Olodum managed to get airtime outside of Brazil, while the "golden oldies" such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento continue to tour the global stages. In the past 10 years, samba has also made a strong comeback, with dozens of clubs opening up in Rio and São Paulo, and pagode (a type of samba) bands like Revelação selling double-platinum albums and touring to packed houses.
But if the outside world sees only a few artists at a time, inside Brazil the music scene is a whirlwind of activity with trends coming and going all the time. In the '80s, Brazil had its own share of local pop bands that were enormously popular, selling millions of albums. Among those who survived that decade and matured into excellent performers are Legião Urbana, Os Titãs, and Lulu Santos. Another Brazilian icon is Cazuza. Originally the lead singer of the immensely popular Barão Vermelho, Cazuza had a successful solo career before dying of AIDS at a young age in 1990; he left a legacy of beautifully crafted songs and an increased AIDS awareness among the general public.
Then there are the regional trends that almost never make it to the rest of the world, among them the uniquely Brazilian country sound known as Sertanejo. In smaller towns and rural communities, this style -- which like its American counterpart is big on broken hearts and horses -- is incredibly popular. Artists such as Chitãozinho e Xororó have sold over 30 million albums. In Bahia, beginning in the '90s and continuing until today there's been a huge revival of reggae and Afro-rhythms. The Bahian group Olodum performs original tunes and old Bob Marley classics using massed percussion (15-30 people wielding six-seven kinds of drum). Also from Bahia but lighter and more pop-y is axé, a mélange of African, Caribbean, and Brazilian infused pop.
Likely the most unlooked-for trend is the mania for forró that has recently swept the country. A happy, upbeat, accordion-infused brand of country, forró began in Brazil's poorer northeastern regions, and came to the big cities as poor Nordestino migrants made their way south (in Portuguese it is often referred to as musica nordestina). Originally looked down upon by southern Brazilians, forró was confined to Nordestino dance halls where crowds of transplanted peasants would dance the night away doing a simple two-step. There was something about this infectious rhythm that would not be denied, however (for one thing it's incredibly danceable, and Brazilians love to dance), and forró grew and grew to the point where it has now taken over many of Rio and São Paulo's most sophisticated nightclubs. The grandfather of all forró is Luiz Gonzaga, a man who was never seen without his accordion.
And then there's brega, a kind of glam version of forró, with over-the-top costumes and shamelessly sentimental lyrics -- the very word brega in Portuguese means "tacky," and brega is. It's also infectiously fun and danceable. Hailing from Belém and the northern Amazon, where Brazil edges close to the Caribbean, brega combines forró with a kind of reggaeton beat and the salsa band fixation with the horn section. The biggest Brazilian brega bands are Calypso and Calcinha Preta.
In the first decade of the millennium, the new music phenomenon has been Funk, a mix of funk and rap and hip-hop with a driving (and monotonous!) dance beat. Funk originated in the favelas and the other poor neighborhoods but has slowly made its way down from the hills and begun infiltrating the rest of the city. Performers, mostly male, surround themselves with scantily clad women who bump and grind to misogynist and sexually explicit lyrics. Usually performers play at large dance events called bailes funk, held in large warehouses or empty lots. Cities have tried to prohibit some of these events but, not surprisingly, the resulting controversy has only made both the events and the performers more popular, particularly among teenagers.
Brazil Unplugged -- MTV in Brazil has lately recorded a number of acoustic sessions with some of Brazil's best artists, and the results have been phenomenal. Many of Brazil's major artists or bands have gone into the studio to record an unplugged version of their biggest hits; check out those by Marcelo D2, Kid Abelha, Capital Inicial, Cassia Eller, O Rappa, Jorge Ben Jor, Zeca Pagodinha, or any other one you can lay your hands on.
Finding Forró -- Wandering one night in the old Pelourinho section of Salvador, we came across the faint sound of an accordion. At first, we couldn't make out where it was coming from; our ears seemed to lead us into the lobby of an office building, but once out the back exit we found a passage that lead to a courtyard where an accordion player was squeezing out a light and almost indecently happy brand of forró. The beat was fast, and the dance floor was packed. There were teenagers, awkwardly trying to figure out how to move with a partner in their arms, as well as older, more confident dancers. But what really caught our eye was this couple in their '60s or '70s. They skipped across the dance floor like they owned it, dancing each new tune as if it was their special song. Likely, they'd been dancing together that way for 50 years.
Who is Brazil's Best-Selling Recording Artist? -- Answer: Roberto Carlos. Alas. With all the great music is Brazil, it's just a little disappointing to discover that the country's most popular singer is this curly-headed crooner -- the Brazilian answer to Paul Anka. However, you do have to respect the work that's gone into his success. Carlos started his singing career as a 9-year-old, becoming Brazil's first teen pop idol just a few years later. And for the ensuing half-century, Carlos produced an average of one original album every year, selling over 70 million copies in all. Now over 60, Carlos recently reached out to a younger audience, producing an all-acoustic recording with MTV.
Fiction -- Brazilians aren't great book lovers. Their great popular figures are singers, not writers. The most popular narrative form is not the novel but the novela, the nightly prime-time television soap opera. Despite this unpromising soil, Brazil has still managed to produce a substantial crop of important writers. Most popular among them is the Bahian novelist Jorge Amado who, until he passed away in 2001, was considered a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. His greatest novels came in the 1950s after he set aside leftist polemics and got back to what he knew best, the colorful characters of his beloved Bahia. His best known works include Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Tieta (the story of a successful whore returning to the conservative town of her birth), and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (the title works better in Portuguese: Gabriela, cravo e canela). In a previous generation, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis wrote closely observed and fiercely ironic novels and short stories, many set in Rio toward the end of the 19th century. In recent years there's been renewed critical interest in Machado de Assis, including a new translation of his work by the renowned American literary translator Gregory Rabasa. Look for Rabasa's version of Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas and Quincas Borba. Also available in English is the short-story collection The Devil's Church and Other Stories. Brazil's greatest social realist is Graciliano Ramos. His masterpiece Barren Lives is considered to be one of Brazil's finest novels. From the postwar generation, Clarice Lispector is another Brazilian author to be gaining renewed respect in the English-speaking world, including a new 2009 biography, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser. Lispector's most ambitious novel, The Apple in the Dark, has been translated into English by Gregory Rabasa. The success of the film Cidade de Deus (City of God) has spawned a whole subgenre of favela literature. Look for the original novel City of God by Paulo Lins.
Further Reading -- There is no single good general history covering Brazil from 1500 to the present. Colonial Brazil, by Leslie Bethel, is a scholarly but readable account of Brazil under the Portuguese, while Peter Flynn's Brazil: a Political Analysis covers political history from the birth of the first republic to the close of the second dictatorship.
For a fascinating introduction to a whole range of topics in Brazil, pick up the truly excellent anthology Travellers' Tales: Brazil. Less varied but equally interesting is Tristes Tropiques, by the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss got his start teaching at the university of São Paulo in the '30s. His description of that town before the monster boom of the '40s and '50s is fascinating. Even better, Levi-Strauss exhibits a wry sense of humor, the rarest of qualities for a French academic. Those who would like to learn more about Brazil's fascinating and convoluted race relations may want to pick up a copy of The Masters and the Slaves (Casa Grande e Senzala), by Gilberto Freyre. Even though it was written almost 80 years ago, it's still one of the more comprehensive efforts to explain Brazilian society.
Brazil has a long and impressive history of filmmaking, including a number of films by directors who have moved back and forth between Brazil and Hollywood. Hector Babenco is best known in Brazil for Carandiru (2003), his excellent film about life in a São Paulo maximum security prison. North American audiences are more likely to have seen his work in At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). Hector Babenco directed the hard-hitting political thriller Four Days in September (1997) about the kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil in the 1970s, then followed it up with the fun and fluffy Bossa Nova (2000), a romantic comedy filmed in English and set in Rio, starring Amy Irving (Bebenco's wife) and many of the stars of Brazil's novela soap operas. Babenco's latest film is Last Stop 174 (2008), a true story about the hijacking of a city bus in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Many of these films don't make it to North American screens. One that did was Central Station (1998), which was nominated for best foreign film Oscar in 1998.
Five years later, the extraordinary City of God (2003) exploded across screens in North America and around the world, with its powerful story of a young man growing up in one of Rio's ultraviolent favelas. Director Fernando Meirelles followed up that film with The Constant Gardener (2005) and Blindness (2008). The granddaddy of Brazilian crossover hits has to be Black Orpheus, a 1959 retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, set in a poor neighborhood in Rio during the glorious nights of Carnaval. (Worth it for the music alone; most songs were composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim.)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.