Brazilian Music 101

Brazilian music is a unique blend of European harmony and melody, African rhythms along with Native American culture. How they all came together to form the distinctive sound that is today known as “Brazilian” music is a long story. Here is the short version. If you wish to learn more, you may start at our Resources Page.


The rhythmic vitality of Brazilian music stems from the Native Americans, who accompanied their religious rituals with an exotic blend of rattlers, shakers and panpipes. Starting in the 17th century, slaves from Africa brought along the hot, impassioned drumming of their candomble rituals. Slow, heartbreaking ballads were added by the first Portuguese colonists, who accompanied themselves with cavaquinhos (similarto the ukulele), the bandolim (mandolin), bagpipes and the Portuguese guitar.

From the very beginning, sensual body movement—inspired largely by the undulating dances of the African slaves—was incorporated into Brazilian music. Even European-imported dance rhythms like the polka and mazurka were eventually tropicalized into the maxixe, a flamboyant tango that became the rage during the 1920s.

Brazilian Music Goes International

Slowly a passion for gorgeous melody began to surface in Brazil. During the 1930s and 40s, romantic songs from Brazil began to appear in North America. In 1958, the brand-new sound called bossa nova rocked the Brazilian music scene and eventually the rest of the world.

Antonio Carlos Jobim was the master of the bossa nova movement. As a classically trained composer, he infused his sleepy, sensuous tunes with Ravel-inspired harmonies and unexpected blues notes. For 35 years his songs, often written with Vinicius de Moraes, one of Brazil’s greatest poets, would be recorded by literally thousands of musicians worldwide. The most prominent of them were Frank Sinatra and jazz saxophonist Stan Getz. One Brazilian singer whose name became a household term during the time was singer Astrud Gilberto.

Many consider the peak of bossa nova expression to have been the 1960 movie Black Orpheus, Jobim’s and Moraes’ musical play that retold the Orpheus myth through the eyes of two poor lovers during Carnaval. This movie actually did more to promote the exotic romanticism of Brazil than any organized campaigns to promote international tourism.