How to enjoy bossa nova

The Guardian - 27 June 2008

Step one, pour yourself a drink ...

Mark Collin explains how to bossa nova


You probably know more bossa nova tracks than you think you do. It's the soundtrack of hotels, of airports, of bars - of any public space! I would even go so far as to say that Girl from Ipanema is as instantly recognisable as Jingle Bells. The first thing to understand about bossa nova is that, although its rhythm comes from samba, it has never had any dance steps associated with it. This is cool, super-refined music. To listen to it, you need to find somewhere comfortable to sit of an evening, have a drink in your hand, and muse on love and beauty. With its roots in a time just before Beatlemania took over the world, bossa nova is the music to bring out your sophisticated, urbane side. But for me, bossa nova is also a very deep and melancholic music, and this feeling was something that I also recognised in the music of English new wave bands such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. This common melancholy gave me the idea for our first album, whose concept was to explore the two genres by covering new wave tracks in a bossa nova style. In fact, I even got the idea for the name of our band, Nouvelle Vague, when I realised that it was the French translation of bossa nova, and, as it happens, new wave in English.


How to play bossa nova

The bossa nova sound was invented by singer/guitarist João Gilberto, and the voice and guitar are pretty much all you need. It's played in 2/4 time, like samba, but much slower, and instead of a drum, the beat is given by the guitar playing. Later bossa nova tracks - especially collaborations with American jazz artists such as Stan Getz - brought in a little more percussion. The next essential element of a bossa nova track is a melody in a minor key. The slower you play it, the more beautiful it sounds. Feel free to add in a quirky chord change or two. What I love most about bossa nova is the incredible floating rhythm and the harmonic progression. The vocals should be minimal and modest with a kind of breathy delivery - this is definitely not the time or place to show off. Your lyrics, however, must be clever. I first really fell in love with bossa nova when I watched a documentary about João Gilberto that translated his lyrics into French. My favourite track of his, Desafinado by Tom Jobim and Newton Mendonça means "off key". On one level, it's a kind of manifesto for the bossa nova movement, but it's also a man trying to convince a woman to love him despite his dedication to the strange, new sound and artistic way of living.


How to understand bossa nova

It's difficult today to fully grasp what bossa nova meant to Brazil in its heyday between 1958 and 1966. Brazil in the 1950s was experiencing economic prosperity, national optimism was at an all-time high and Rio's growing urban middle class adopted the "new wave" as their official soundtrack. Such was its popularity and influence that the US State Department even sponsored trips to Brazil so that jazz artists such as Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz, who championed the new music back home, could learn first hand about bossa nova. But with the rise of rock'n'roll came the fall of bossa nova, and it faded into the background where it has stayed ever since, dismissed as "lounge music". However, it keeps coming back to engage the attentions of new generations of artists. We don't consider ourselves as a bossa nova outfit - and took a different direction with our second album Bande a Part - but I'm returning to a bossa nova feeling in my new project Hollywood Mon Amour, which revisits cult Hollywood movie soundtracks.


Our reception in Brazil proved that bossa nova is one of those super-genres. Our experience of taking the Nouvelle Vague sound to Brazil really sums it up best, and the concerts we did there were possibly our best ever, mainly because the audience was so receptive and enthusiastic. If two guys from Paris can play their bossa nova to a new audience in Rio, 50 years after the music's birth, and get a great response, it just shows what a revolutionary and timeless sound it is.



· Mark Collin is a member of Nouvelle Vague, who perform at the London bossa nova festival on the South Bank on July 6. Details: bossa-brazil.com

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