The Girl from Ipanema

Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Imagine a song so innovative that it rivaled one of The Beatles’ most popular song of their career “Yesterday.” In an era dominated by rock and roll, with hits by bands like the Beach Boys and The Beatles controlling the charts, the genre of bossa nova made its impact in 1964 when the international sensation “The Girl from Ipanema” found itself being played all over America. The song had been originally performed in Portuguese in 1962, and has since had more than 500 different recordings from around the world. It currently remains one of the world’s most widely aired songs.1

Tom Jobim | March 1965 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim is credited with creating many jazz standards through his creative contributions to the genre. Tom Jobim had a well-rounded education in music. He began piano lessons at the age of fourteen from a local musical scholar in Rio de Janeiro. He later gained more experience and strengthened his musical talent by playing in nightclubs and studying jazz bands and orchestras. In 1956, Jobim met Vinicius de Moraes who gave Jobim the opportunity to achieve his first big hit.2 Jobim kicked off a new musical craze by composing music for the play Orfeu da Conceição (Orpheus of the Conception). Though Jobim’s score for the play was based on samba rhythms, like much of his other works, it included harmonic shadings from jazz as well. This combination resulted in the new genre bossa nova, meaning “new wave.” After the play had its one month run, the two got together to create the song “Chega de Saudade,” which translates to “No More Blues.” Jobim claimed that the song had samba-canção style. Samba-canção was a refined style of samba that emphasized the melody rather than rhythm. João Gilberto, a talented singer who would later be widely known for his own bossa nova works, joined Jobim and de Moraes to create one of the genre’s first recordings.3 The song “Chega de Saudade” became the first hit of this new genre in 1958, sang by João Gilberto and written by Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim.4 

Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz in New York | 1972 | Fundo Correio da Manhã | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Samba is the music that started it all. Samba is based on rhythms brought to Brazil in the sixteenth century by African slaves. The genre is packed with syncopation, which means that the regular flow of the rhythm does not occur, due to the interruptions of rhythmic stresses and accents.5 João Gilberto is credited as a primary catalyst in the genre of bossa nova, as he took his samba rhythms and played them in a softer style on a guitar, which resulted in the bossa nova beat. Bossa nova served to contrast its predecessor samba-canção. It did this through its lyrics, which revolved around women, love, and loss, unlike samba-canção that projected feelings of sadness and longing through its rhythms and lyrics.6 The term “bossa nova” made its first appearance in the lyrics by Jobim and Gilberto from the song “Desafinado,” which translates to “off key.” The two had no idea that this song would be the beginning of a new musical style. The term “bossa” is slang for something that stands out due to its distinctiveness. This perfectly suits the new genre, since many of the singers of bossa nova do not necessarily require special vocal talent. Some describe the singing of the singers in the genre as normal speech or whispering.7 As months went by and the youth of Brazil were exposed to this new sound, the term “bossa nova” began making its way onto posters and into the stories of journalists using it to describe this distinct musical style.8

Not too long after the success of songs composed in Orfeu da Conceição, in 1962 de Moraes and Jobim found inspiration for their next successful song while at their favorite bar in Rio that overlooks Ipanema Beach. A beautiful woman caught both of the men’s attention, and they were motivated to write a song about her. The song was written for a musical that de Moraes was working on called Dirigível, which translates to “Blimp.” Although the musical about a Martian making its way around Rio did not capture the attention of many, the iconic song composed for the musical, “Garota de Ipanema,” or “The Girl from Ipanema,” certainly found itself climbing charts around the world.

1962 was a year packed with successes for the genre of bossa nova. The one and only original “The Girl from Ipanema” was written, and would soon be an instant success. All while another artist by the name of Stan Getz would begin to dabble in the genre as he released albums like Focus and Jazz Samba.9 Stan Getz, an American jazz saxophonist, was first introduced to bossa nova through a friend and fellow jazz artist Charlie Byrd. In 1961, Byrd had just returned from a program that the United States State Department hosted that sponsored American artists to tour around the world in hopes of allowing the spread of cultures and music.10 Byrd and Getz combined in 1962 to produce an album based on the sounds Byrd had heard on his State Department trip to Brazil. The resulting album, Jazz Samba, was instrumental in making bossa nova popular with American audiences in 1963. It also featured some of Gilberto’s songs.

Jobim made his way to New York City just as the bossa nova craze in Brazil was beginning to die down. Gilberto then joined Jobim in New York in early 1963. Getz sought out Gilberto and Jobim to collaborate in recording some songs together in the bossa nova style. That March, they went into a studio with music producer Creed Taylor to record eight songs.11

These eight songs became part of one of the most famous jazz albums of all time: Getz/Gilberto. On this album was the most famous rendition of the song “Garota de Ipanema,” this time featuring the wife of Gilberto, Astrud, as the vocalist. As the group recorded the song, Taylor suggested adding an English verse to the song, in addition to the Portuguese verse sung by Gilberto. Since Astrud knew English better than her husband, they decided that she should sing it, although she had never had any professional experience singing or recording.12

The album that resulted from their recording sessions that March was a fusion of the bossa nova style with Getz’s jazz saxophone. The album, when released in March 1964, was a huge success and was subsequently awarded three Grammy Awards. In fact, the album Getz/Gilberto became the best selling jazz LP in history, up to that time. “The Girl from Ipanema,” however, was released later that year of its recording, in 1963, as a single with João’s verse cut out, featuring only Astrud’s English contribution to the song. The original version of the recording, with both English and Portuguese verses, was retained for the album, but because it was over five minutes in length, Taylor felt that it was too long for radio stations to play it. So American listeners first heard the English-only version by Astrud, which went on to win a Grammy for Best Song in 1964.13 Despite the international successes of the genre and its songs, bossa nova’s popularity in Brazil was short-lived, due to Brazil’s dramatically changing political climate.

Album cover of Getz/Gilberto | 1964 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Music in Brazil is closely associated with its national identity as well as with its social classes. There is this idea of “dual citizenship” in Brazil. Citizens of Brazil believe they live two lives, one in which they must endure their struggles and injustices, and another in which their music allows them to express their independence. Those who tried to change Brazil with their words suffered political exile, such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who were exiled to London due to their activism in the Tropicália Movement. Music in Brazil can either offer an escape and allow people to cope with their misfortunes, or the music can be used to spark more radical change in society, which is what many activist such as Veloso and Gil did.14 For many, the sounds of bossa nova were reflective of the lives of the easy-going, young, and in love middle class. The genre was a symbol of hope for a better future, as Brazil strove towards modernism. This changed as Brazil entered an era of military dictatorship during the year 1964, marking the end of the successful sounds of bossa nova.15 The genre would quickly be abandoned completely by the Brazilian public in the late 1960s, as some Brazilians argued that the genre no longer reflected the political climate in Brazil and had become too Americanized due to its international success. Many felt that the genre had become inauthentic to Brazil, and no longer sensed that its optimistic lyrics were suitable for the new era of fear and instability that Brazil was facing.16  This military dictatorship marked the downfall of popular music that brought feelings of joy and the rise of music that spoke up for the injustices the public felt. This was particularly true of the music of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), which spoke out against the wrongs in Brazil’s politics.17

The real life girl from Ipanema | 27 July 2006 | Sergio Savarese | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The success of bossa nova made its resurgence in the 1970s as the climate in Brazil improved, and with this bossa nova would live on internationally and locally where it started in none other than Brazil.18 “The Girl from Ipanema” all began because Tom Jobim spotted a beautiful woman by the name of Helô Pinheiro stroll past the bar where he and de Moraes were drinking a beer, near Ipanema Beach. Tom Jobim was so enamored of this woman that he told de Moraes that they had to write a song about her. Although not an instant hit in Brazil, the mixture of samba rhythms and jazz ended up captivating the hearts of Brazilians just as the popularity of bossa nova was beginning to fade.19 The English version of the song by Astrud is what really allowed the song its astonishing success. The song was so influential that Frank Sinatra worked on a bossa nova album with Tom Jobim, and since then, the song has been recorded by famous artists everywhere. Having written more than 250 songs in his lifetime, Jobim will always be credited as a founder of the iconic musical genre that depicts Brazil at one of its moments in history.20

The song that began on a Brazilian jazz album being sung in Portuguese by a man, and ended as a pop single around the world being sung in English by a woman changed the world of jazz and music. Although the rise of military dictatorship in Brazil caused bossa nova’s romantic and optimistic lyrics quickly lose their relevance, “The Girl from Ipanema” remains an international sensation.21

  1. Suzel Ana Reily, “Tom Jobim and the Bossa Nova Era,” Popular Music 15, no. 1 (1996): 2.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Antonio Carlos Jobim,” by Matthew Nicholl.
  3.  Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, 2013, s.v. “Chega de Saudade (1958)—Joao Gilberto (music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes) Festa 6002,” by Steve Sullivan.
  4. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2007, s.v. “Jobim, Antonio Carlos,” by Tracie Ratiner.
  5.  Latin Music: Musicians, Genres, and Themes, 2014, s.v. “Bossa Nova,” by Robert Willey.
  6. Suzel Ana Reily, “Tom Jobim and the Bossa Nova Era, ”Popular Music 15, no. 1 (1996): 8.
  7.  Brazil Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic, 2012, “Bossa Nova,” by John J. Crocitti and Monique M. Vallance.
  8. Suzel Ana Reily, “Tom Jobim and the Bossa Nova Era, ”Popular Music 15, no. 1 (1996): 8.
  9.  Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 2001, s.v. “Getz, Stan(ley),” by Nicolas Slonimsky and Laura Kuhn.
  10. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Antonio Carlos Jobim,” by Matthew Nicholl.
  11.  Contemporary Musicians, 2004, s.v. “Gilberto, Astrud,” by Carol Brenna.
  12. Bill DeMain, “The Girl From Ipanema,” Performing Songwriter 14 (1998): 88.
  13. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Antonio Carlos Jobim,” by Matthew Nicholl.
  14. Frederick Moehn, “Music, Citizenship, and Violence in Postdictatorship Brazil,” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Musica Latinoamericana, no. 2: 181.
  15.  Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2004, s.v. “Brazil.”
  16.  Latin Music: Musicians, Genres, and Themes, 2014, s.v. “Bossa Nova,” by Robert Willey.
  17. Suzel Ana Reily, “Tom Jobim and the Bossa Nova Era,” Popular Music 15, no. 1 (1996): 4.
  18. Nelson Barros da Costa and Maria das Dores Nogueira Mendes, “A Bossa Nova e a Música Cearense Dos Anos 70 / The Bossa Nova Movement and the Music of Ceará of the 1970s,” Per Musi, no. 29 (2014): 176.
  19. Stephen Buckley, “FOREIGN JOURNAL; Then, Now and Forever, ‘The Girl From Ipanema,” The Washington Post, October 18, 1999. Accessed December 1, 2018. https://advance-lexis-com.blume.stmarytx.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:3XNG-P1D0-00RP-M4TH-00000-00&context=1516831.
  20.  Latin Music: Musicians, Genres, and Themes, 2014, s.v. “Bossa Nova,” by Robert Willey.
  21. David Chater, “Critic’s choice; The Girl from Ipanema Monday 1,” The Times (London). (July 2016).
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38 Comments

  • I had honestly never heard the song nor had I heard about the song as it is. The providing of the video itself really made it easy for me to relate to this song and be able to understand the article more. I appreciate the authors inclusiveness of this factor in the article. I thoroughly enjoyed this article because it taught me more about pop-culture in earlier times. Now knowing the song and knowing the meaning behind it made it even better of an experience for me. This is just another example of how music can reach the hearts of many people in till truly amazing stories in a beautiful manner.

  • Great article! Tom should be super proud to be considered the founder of Samba, and hopefully Joao os just as proud to be the catalyst behind the creation of bossa nova. Personally, I find both of those music genres to be great and important in their own ways. It is great to know that bossa nova was able to be revived as conditions in Brazil improved. Precious cultures die too often, and we need to preserve all of the ones left.

  • Congratulations on the nomination! This article was really eye opening, I never would have thought that there would be so much backstory to a single song. Most hit songs are notorious for lacking dimension and meaning, so reading about a song so popular and influential having been thought out and having an experience linked to it is awesome! I also appreciate that the author took the time to give some history for the music such as it having had African descent.

  • Congratulations on your nomination! As famous as this song may be, I had never heard of it prior to reading this article. The story behind this song is really interesting and I’m glad that you showcased it by writing this article. The descriptiveness of this article really made me feel as though I lived during the time that this song was released. The meaning behind this song makes it all the more meaningful. What a great topic!

  • I love the Brazilian idea that you can be a dual citizen, one of which seeks freedom through music – how poetic. I am glad Brazilians are able to find their escape through the beauty of music in times that were extremely troubling. Prior to this article, I surprisingly had never heard the song. Though after listening to it I decided that I enjoyed it. It actually reminded me of French music that has a similar jazz compilation. Overall wonderful article. Congratulations on your nomination!

  • Congrats on the nomination , well deserved! I was interested in learning about the different genres of music. Learning the backstory to the songs was really interesting. I love the incorporation of the video that shows the music, it really helps put things into perspective. Knowing the meaning behind the song put the whole song into a different perspective for me. I felt different. thank you for a great interactive read.

  • This is a great article!!! When ever I hear a song I always wonder what the background of the story of the song is. I think I might have heard of the bossa nova category when I was in high school but I do not really remember. Unfortunately, I have never heard of this song so I am glad you added the clip because it kind of has me mesmerized now. Congratulations on your nomination!

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