[Video: “Bim-Bom,” by João Gilberto: generally understood to be the first bossa nova song written (although not the first recorded). The lyrics repeat those two syllables in various combinations, along with phrases whose English translation (per Wikipedia) simply say, “This is all of my song / And there’s nothing more / My heart has asked that it be this way.” If you’d prefer to listen to all nine of the songs featured in this post at one go, you can jump over all the background, right to the full playlist at the bottom.]
New York City has its “Swing Street,” a block of W. 52nd so named because of the profusion of jazz clubs which once lined the sidewalks there. Even if you’ve never been to Manhattan, you might have heard the name.
Lesser known is Rio de Janeiro’s counterpart: Beco das Garrafas (“Bottles Alley”). Like Swing Street, it’s “grown up” now, apparently with a Mercedes-Benz dealership on the corner and other upscale shops on either side. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Beco das Garrafas hosted the birth of the bossa nova.
While researching this post, I found one source which said the term “Bottles Alley” referred to the habit of residents, of hurling beer bottles into the street to silence the noise of the “Bohemians” who frequented the nightclubs there.
The Portuguese phrase doesn’t quite lack meaning, but the straight-up English translation — “new trend” or “new wave” — doesn’t exactly speak volumes, either. A better way to regard the term: recognizing that Brazilian Portuguese has its own slangy usages, and that as far back as the 1930s, as Wikipedia notes, bossa represented “old-fashioned slang for something that is done with particular charm, natural flair or innate ability.”
Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (first published in 1990) traces its origin as a term for this particular musical genre to an entertainment journalist named Moysés Fuks. Fuks was also “artistic director” for a musical group called Grupo Universitario Hebraico do Brasil, or GUHB: the (yes) University Hebrew Group of Brazil. Fuks had a colleague, one Ronaldo Bôscoli, to whom he offered GUHB’s auditorium for use in promoting some kind of concert. Apparently Fuks didn’t care exactly who was on the bill, other than GUHB; “He merely suggested they include someone ‘who had made a name of sorts.'”
Bôscoli’s first choice was a local street-and-club performer (one source describes him as “one of the biggest slackers in the business”) named João Gilberto. Gilberto himself wasn’t available on the chosen night, so they chose a solid alternative vocalist: Sylvinha Telles, who was familiar with GUHB’s music.
Fuks’s role in this? He printed up a program with the set list, and copied it for the band members. In it, “he promised a bossa nova evening.” He later insisted he had no idea why he’d used the term; whatever its significance to Moysés Fuks, it stuck to the music.