How Brazil’s Music Hid Protest Inside Harmony – CHARLES CORNELL

The Subversive Songs of Bossa Nova:
Tom Jobim in the Era of Protest

Irna Priore and Chris Stover
Analytical Approaches to World Music
Vol. 3, No. 2. Published November 22, 2014.

BOSSA NOVA flourished in Brazil at the end of the 1950s. This was a time of rapid development and economic prosperity in the country, following President Jucelino Kubitschek’s 1956 proclamation of “fifty years of progress in five,” but after the 1964 coup d’état, when General Humberto Castello Branco’s military regime took control of Brazil, thepositive energy of the bossa nova era quickly dissipated. Soon after the 1964 coup the atmosphere changed: civil rights were suppressed, political dissent was silenced, and many outspoken singer-songwriters, authors and playwrights, journalists, and academics were censored, arrested, and imprisoned. First-generation bossa nova artists, however, were able to avoid such persecution because their music was generally perceived as apolitical. This essay challenges this perception by analyzing the ways in which iconic bossa nova composer Antônio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim inscribed subversive political thought through musical syntax and lyrical allegory in several of his post-1964 songs. We begin by providing a brief overview of the socio-political history of 1960s Brazil, considering some general features of the Brazilian protest song (canção engajada) before focusing on Chico Buarque’s anthemic “Roda viva” as an exemplar of that style. We then move to a detailed examination of the Jobim compositions “Sabiá” and “Ligia,” the lyrics to both of which speak of love, longing, and saudade in the manner of many bossa nova songs, but within which can be found incisive (if carefully coded) critiques of the Castello Branco government. In order to contextualize these works, we will consider aspects of Jobim’s composition studies and describe his affinity with and in corporation of tonal and post-tonal compositional techniques. Because Brazil’s musical landscape—including much of its popular music—was highly informed by European art music syntax, this kind of analysis is relevant; indeed we believe that a careful consideration of such relationships is necessary for a sensitive hermeneutic look at Brazilian popular music generally… [+]

Dr. Irna Priore (1963–2014), born in Brazil, was a tenured associate professor of music theory at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She earned her DMA in Flute Performance from the City University of New York and her PhD in Music Theory from the University of Iowa. During a time when voices of women and under-represented groups were suppressed, Dr. Priore advocated for embracing diversity in the academy. She foresaw the need for research in world music analysis in its inceptive stage and contributed a valuable study on popular music in Brazil. Dr. Priore endured a long battle with cancer, yet the disease never defeated her passion for music theory and teaching. Until the last stage of her life, she continued to participate in academic activities. This commitment to doing what she loved was the aspect of her remarkable spirit that she shared with members of our society. In addition to her academic accomplishments, it is for her brave, consistent passion for the discipline and her warm character that we remember Irna Priore as a respected theorist, flutist, revered teacher and beloved colleague. She will always be missed.

Chris Stover is Assistant Professor of Music in Theory and Composition at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.