Of the various forms of artistic expression, the one that is most particular and reflects the very essence and soul of Brazil  is its music. In terms of sheer genius and variety, it’s hard to overexaggerate the impact of Brazilian music. Between samba, bossa nova, forró, and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), Brazil’s contribution to the world music scene is immeasurable.
Meanwhile, within Brazil itself, music is inseparable from daily life. It plays a starring role in all types of celebrations, both sacred and profane. There is music in the beach vendor’s cries of shrimp for sale as well as in the samba rhythms teenage boys pound against the metal siding of an urban bus. And it is tattooed into the collective consciousness in such a way that you’ll immediately feel as if your education is very lacking. (Brazilians inevitably know all the words to all the songs, and are not at all timid about singing them for you).
Music in Brazil is also inextricably linked to dance. Many music styles—samba, forró, frevo, carimbó, bumba-meu-boi—are accompanied by dance steps, and it’s close to impossible for most Brazilians to stay inert once the music heats up. Needless to say, the effortlessness, grace, flair, and controlled abandon with which the vast majority of Brazilians cut a rug is beyond compare.
The uniqueness and diversity of Brazilian music is yet another consequence of the country’s distinctive mélange of indigenous, African, and European influences. In early colonial days, Jesuit missionaries were already cleverly adapting religious hymns to indigenous tribal music with Tupi lyrics in order to up their chances of converting Brazilian Indians.
With the arrival of slaves came percussion instruments—drums, cuias, rattles, and marimbas—that were played during communal jams. Although the Portuguese elite tried to resist these African rhythms on grounds that they incited libidinous dances that were quite immoral, their objections were in vain. These rhythms made their way out of the slaves’ quarters and into plantation homes and, from there, spread throughout the country, creeping into popular 19th-century musical styles such as maxixe and frevo (both of which also drew heavily on Polish polkas).
However, it was in early-20th-century Rio , amid the working class neighborhoods of liberated black slaves who had migrated to the city from Bahia, that modern samba was born. Officially, samba made its presence known for the first time during Rio’s Carnaval of 1917, which featured a ditty called Pelo Telefone, composed by Donga, a talented young Carioca composer and musician. The rhythm was so contagious that even Rio’s white upper classes were hooked. By the 1930s the launch of Brazil’s phonographic industry combined with the spread of national radio allowed samba hits to be broadcast throughout the country and quickly soak into the collective consciousness.
The 1930s and ’40s were the “Golden Age” of samba, with composers such as Noel Rosa, Ary Barroso, Lamartine Babo, Cartola, and Ismael Silva penning a string of classics that were popularized by the likes of Carmen Miranda (who, pre-Hollywood, was one of Brazil’s preeminent musical stars). There are many different varieties of samba. The classic samba from the ’30s and ’40s is known as samba-canção, in which a slow-tempo samba is belted out by a singer backed by a small band. The more frenetic samba de enredo was custom-made for Rio’s Carnaval . It involves one or two singers accompanied by a deafening chorus of hundreds of drummers and back-up singers (which, together, constitute a samba school).
More recently, in the 1990s, in dance halls and corner bars, swinging samba pagode took the genre back to its roots, led by performers such as the immensely popular and down-to-earth Zeca Pagodinho. Other major samba performers that have marked the genre since the 1970s include Beth Carvalho, Alcione, Clara Nunes, Paulinho da Viola, Martinho da Vila, and Martinho’s daughter, Mart’nália, whose career has taken off in the last few years.
Bahia  is also known for its samba. Samba de roda (in which musicians and dancers form a circle) is prevalent throughout the Bahian interior, while Salvador  is the birthplace of samba-reggae, a Jamaica-tinged form promoted by local groups such as Olodum and Didá. Samba-reggae is only one tangent of the genre known as axé music, a frenetic and infectious dance music that emerged during Salvador’s Carnaval in the 1980s, at the moment when a generation of rising stars were taking to the streets atop massive trio-elétricos (stages on wheels). For years, the biggest axé stars have been Daniela Mercury, Ivete Sangalo, and Margarete Menezes. The trio has served as the genre’s ambassadors, performing these infectious hits throughout Brazil and overseas.
Choro (which means “crying”) is another musical style (little known outside Brazil ) that also developed in Rio at the dawn of the 20th century. Delicate and slightly melancholy, choro music is influenced by Argentinean tangos as well as European polkas, mazurkas, and waltzes. During the 1930s, choro enjoyed great popularity due to the masterful compositions by Pixinguinha, a Carioca. The classic choro trio consists of a flute, cavaquinho (a small four-string guitar that resembles a ukelele), and percussion instrument all played together in a loose manner reminiscent of jazz. After falling out of favor for decades, traditional choro has made a comeback in the bars of Rio  and São Paulo .
The northeastern Sertão gave birth to a wealth of distinctive musical styles that gradually spread throughout Brazil as the 20th century wore on. In the 1940s, armed with a deep voice and an accordion, Pernambucano musician Luíz Gonzaga was crowned the king of the baião, a plaintive bluesy style of music whose lyrics sang of the harsh life of Brazil’s poorest and most arid region.
Baião proved popular at local dance halls and paved the way for the more sophisticated forró, which to this today has become immensely popular throughout all of Brazil. Forró’s jaunty two-step is played by an accordion-led trio featuring a triangle and a zabumba (bass drum).
Tackling plaintive themes of lost love and betrayal, música sertaneja is a more contemporary, commercial (and often more schmaltzy) version of traditional música caipira (American-style country music), which is typical of the Brazilian interior. Popularized by cowboy duos with names such as Chitãozinho and Xororó and Leonardo and Leandro, música sertaneja is popular not only in the Northeast, but even more so in the Central-West and rural areas of Minas, São Paulo , and Paraná .
Although poor rural and urban areas alike have proved fertile for the germination of many of Brazil ’s musical styles, one of the genres most famously associated with Brazil was the product of an inspired mixture of samba and imported American jazz that grew out of jam sessions held at the swank Zona Sul apartments of Rio ’s artists and intellectuals during the 1950s. Bossa nova was the name given to the cool, urban, modernist style that was essentially a slowing down and breaking up of a classic samba rhythm.
The godfather of bossa nova was an eccentric and insanely talented Bahian composer/musician by the name of João Gilberto. Two equally talented men (and famous bon vivants)—the classically trained pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim and poet/diplomat Vinícius de Morais—set about writing bossa’s most famous hits, including “A Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), whose most unforgettable international version was crooned by Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto’s wife at the time.
Ironically, Astrud is quite unknown in Brazil, but Gilberto’s daughter, Bebel Gilberto, has picked up where her father left off and made an international career of doing slick lounge versions of bossa tunes for the iPod set. Meanwhile, bossa’s fresh jazziness allowed it to cross over into an immediate jazz standard, which was covered by American artists ranging from Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. Bossa put Brazilian music on the international map for the first time.
Because it was so overplayed, with the years bossa gained an elevator music aura abroad. However, in Brazil, the repertory of classics such as “Corcovado,” “Chega de Saudade,” and “Desafinado” have been, and continue to be, reverently covered by Brazil’s top singers, among them Nara Leão, Elis Regina (both tragically dead), and Gal Costa.
MPB stands for Música Popular Brasileira (Popular Brazilian Music) and is a rather generic and all-encompassing term that refers to all forms of Brazilian “popular” urban music—folk, pop, rock—created from the ’60s to contemporary times. MPB generally features original songwriting but can also include revisited classics (including samba-canções) from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Most often, songs are interpreted by the composer or by a singer/interpreter, and frequently accompanied by piano or guitar, along with other instruments.
The term MPB was coined during the early ’60s as Brazil  sought new and modern ways of revisiting its identity amid the growing oppressiveness of the military dictatorship. Brazilian television, at the time a very new medium, began to broadcast Festivais de Música Popular Brasileira. These live competitions featured up-and-coming singers, who performed songs by young composers in the hopes of landing recording contracts. Winners became overnight sensations.
The first of these festivals, held in 1965, was won by a tiny yet feisty 20-year singer from Rio Grande do Sul by the name of Elis Regina. Elis set the standard for MPB. Her rich voice and unbridled emotion tackled songs by a generation of talented young composers—including Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Edu Lobo, Ivan Lins, and João Bosco—up until her untimely death, by a drug overdose, in 1982.
Although there have been plenty of male MPB composers who also perform their songs (quite beautifully in the case of Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben Jor, and Roberto Carlos), the most famous interpreters of MPB have always been women. Aside from Elis, major figures of the last 30 years include Maysa, Nana Caymmi, Joyce, Simone, Zizi Possi, Angela Rô Rô, Marina Lima, Adriana Calcanhoto, Marisa Monte, and Ana Carolina (some of whom also compose their own music).
Two female interpreters who deserve special attention are Gal Costa and Maria Betânia, both from Bahia . Over the years, Gal has morphed from a sensual Janis Joplin into a technically impeccable diva, while low-voiced and ever-passionate Betânia has lately put out some provocative self-produced CDs featuring repertoires of little-known gems from musical eras of the past.
At the height of the military dictatorship of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Gal became the muse of a movement that became known as Tropicália. Revolving around the creative energies of young singer/composers extraordinaire Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Tom Zé (all of whom also hail from Bahia), Tropicália fused folksy flower-power with electric guitars and international influences such as the Beatles with regional styles such as baião and samba.
Aside from being master wordsmiths, Caetano and Gil were charismatic figures—so charismatic in fact, that both were arrested by the military government and then forced into exile in Europe (along with Chico Buarque). Back in Brazil since the mid-’70s, both have continued to evolve, traveling in new musical directions and creating a prolific body of work. Elected minister of culture (2002–2006), Gilberto Gil passed legislation that recognized samba (in all its forms) as a National Artistic Patrimony.
Tropicália’s more psychedelic tangent was represented by a way-out trio known as Os Mutantes (who insisted on singing many of their songs in English). Os Mutantes’s lead singer was a red-headed Paulistana (descended from American confederates) by the name of Rita Lee, who went on to have an original career as the always humorous and provocative “Queen of Brazilian Rock.”
Brazilian rock’s heyday, however, was during the 1980s. This decade was marked by the emergence of seminal bands such as Barão Vermelho, Legião Urbana, and Os Titãs, along with icons such as Cazuza, Renato Russo, and Cássia Eller (all of whom met with untimely deaths). Since then, Brazilian rock—which generally appeals to a young, white, middle-class urban crowd—has faded into the musical background, although most big cities have at least a small indie scene.
The 1990s also saw the emergence of Brazilian rap. Like its American counterparts, Brazilian rap was born in the favelas of Rio  and São Paulo  and featured young black Brazilians who tackled themes of social injustice and violence. A Carioca take on rap is funk, which attracts massive audiences and features lyrics that are so sexually explicit that you don’t know whether to be shocked or laugh yourself silly. Among the biggest names in rap are Gabriel O Pensador, MV Bill, Marcelo D2, and the Racionais MC.
In recent years, there has been a revived interest in traditional and regional forms of Brazilian music and their preservation. However, on the MPB front, no seminal creative figures have emerged that can rival the cultural and musical impact of the original talents forged during the 1960s and ’70s (many of whom—now in their 60s—still continue to produce eagerly anticipated new works).
This isn’t to say there are no interesting individuals who are carving out their own distinctive paths. Artists such as Zeca Baleiro and Lenine, both of whom merge pop with traditional musical styles from their native states of Maranhão and Pernambuco (respectively) produce challenging and provocative work. The contemporary takes on samba by Seu Jorge, who was raised in a Rio favela, have earned him international accolades, while in São Paulo, Fernanda Porta has been successful at deftly mixing samba with electronica and drum ’n’ bass.
Ultimately, what characterizes MPB today is a continued willingness towards musical mestizagem; the seamless blending of contemporary and international with traditional and local sounds to create hybrids that end up being distinctly Brazilian.