Music to the eyes: Bossa Nova’s art

Cover to cover: iconic designs of Brazil’s musical Golden Age are brought together in Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, a book launched by Soul Jazz.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a band with a great album must be in want of a great album cover. When done well, it becomes almost impossible to imagine Abbey Road, say, without The Fab Four on the pedestrian crossing, or The Velvet Underground without Warhol’s banana. But when done just right, cover art can go beyond individual albums, and come to represent an entire era.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Brazil during the late 50s and early 60s, where designs used by labels like Odeon and Elenco stand, alongside the music of João Gilberto and the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, as iconic symbols of the country’s age of Modernity.

A hand-picked selection of these remarkable designs is gathered for the first time in Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, the stunning new LP-sized book from Soul Jazz. Compiled by Stuart Baker and Gilles Peterson, it tells the story of the close relationship between the music, the art and the era and, according to Baker, it wasn’t hard to find the covers. “I’ve been collecting Brazilian music for 15-20 years, as has Gilles. We had all the records between us”.

More challenging, however, was exploring the way the music responded to society, how it turned from the groundbreaking Brazilian music of the 1950s into the elevator muzak of the 1970s. “Bossa was a radical modernist movement, completely in sync with the times. But abroad, the world took to it in a different way – seduced by its power to imagine tropical beaches, love and exotica”. But while for some the music has become a byword for bland, the distinctive visual style of Bossa Nova remains as show-stopping as ever.

Jungle caught up with Stuart Baker of Soul Jazz to find out a little bit more…

Where did the idea for the book originate from?
I have been collecting Brazilian records for 15-20 years, as has Gilles Peterson. We had worked together earlier on a book of jazz record covers so it was very esy to do the same with Brazilian music.

Did you have to do a lot of research and digging around? Or are these records that you already knew and loved?
Yes! We both had all the records between us and have known them for many years. It became clear that a lot of these records had never been seen outside of Brazil and so that was our objective. The research I did do was into the social and cultural conditions that created bossa nova in Brazil

Soul Jazz have had similar projects focused on jazz and Blaxploitation funk. How does bossa nova relate? What’s the common thread?
I am interested in all musical genres, how they come about, how they relate to the society they came from and how they relate to music and society today.

What’s significant about bossa as a development in Brazilian music? How/why was it radically different from what had come before?
Bossa nova was the first modernist music of Brazil created at the same time that Brazil was advancing into the first world at an exciting pace –  From the building of Brasilia to, for instance, the birth of the Brazilian automobile industry. It was a very exciting and optimistic period. Bossa nova came after 30 years of Samba, an equally exciting style that had become watered down over the years and tired by its musical reduction and also by government co-opting it as the national music.

How did the relationship between the music and the artwork function? Did designers like Cesar Villela intend to create a visual style that captured the aesthetic of bossa nova, or is it only later that the two have come to seem synonymous?
They were synonymous. Villela worked at Odeon in the 1950s before Elenco. His style developed over this period into brilliant modernist designs that matched the musical modernism of João Gilberto, the futurist architecture of Oscar Niemeyer and so on.

Have you got any particular favourites among the records featured in the book? Either in terms of the artwork, the music, or both?
Well I have to say I like all of them!

One last question: these days bossa nova for a lot of people (in the UK/USA at least) has come to evoke elevator music and ‘lounge’ bars. Any thoughts on why this is, or how something that was once so revolutionary has become seen as bland?
I agree with you! Bossa nova in Brazil was a radical modernist movement, completely in sync with the times. It developed musically and lyrically in the years 1958-64 adapting to the changes in political and social climate. By the time of the military coup in April ’64, the music was as radical and revolutionary as it was on arrival (but in a different form). Unfortunately abroad, the world took to bossa nova in a different way – seduced by its power to imagine tropical beaches, love and exotica. These were bossa nova’s original themes in 1958 when there was a period of optimism in Brazil. So when the military arrived on the streets of Rio in 1964, what did people abroad know about Brazil? – ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ which was at the top of the charts all around the world! An irony made even more extreme by recently declassified documents showing that the US government had offered support for the takeover.

I think if you seperate what Bossa Nova meant in Brazil at the start of the 1960s from what it became when it became an international musical style, it is quite easy to see it as revolutionary.

Interview and article by Tom Crookston

Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s
200 pages, RRP £25

Leave a Reply