Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 3 (“Mas Que Nada,” and the Bossa Nova in General)

[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.

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Potpourri, June 18th (2013 edition)

[Continuing in what seems to have become an annual June 18 tradition, of commenting about whatever the heck I want to…]

[Video: Neil Gaiman signs 1200 copies of his newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.]

Medium-lukewarm: I’m still posting occasionally over at Medium. (Most recently, a brief appreciation of Carl Sagan.) But I still don’t get it, quite. The first time I posted there — the “Scribbling Books” piece — was right after receiving the invitation to contribute to Medium. My medium.com 'stats' page, as of the morning of June 18, 2013Within an hour or two of its posting, I got an email reporting that the thing had made a list of Editor’s Picks.

Exciting news, right? It certainly boosted the page’s view count (see image at right; click to enlarge.) And yet (as you can also glean from the image) there was little if any spillover to subsequent posts. I have no way to figure out why the drop-off, alas. All the possible reasons I can think of are sobering, if not depressing. If a post makes either the Editor’s Picks list, or a similar list of those most recommended by other Medium readers, you apparently can count on some good exposure. Otherwise…

Because of the way Medium is organized — very little information about those posting there — aside from their thumbnail photos (and, of course, the topics they choose to address) there is no way to know with any certainty the context in which they write. How old/young are they? What other sites, even what other Medium writers, do they read most often? (No blogrolls.) On what posts have they commented?

I can sorta tell that most of them are young, probably under 40 years of age. They tend to have professions rather than jobs. They’re politically astute. It’s almost charming how willingly they offer life advice: I’ve read numerous posts which begin, not in so many words, something like: Now that I’m 30 years old, I can say with assurance that X is true (whatever the X of the moment). I wonder if I ever had such confidence. (Probably not.)

Monkeys: Today’s Writer’s Almanac e-newsletter features this poem:

To Help the Monkey Cross the River,

which he must
cross, by swimming, for fruits and nuts,
to help him
I sit with my rifle on a platform
high in a tree, same side of the river
as the hungry monkey. How does this assist
him? When he swims for it
I look first upriver: predators move faster with
the current than against it.
If a crocodile is aimed from upriver to eat the monkey
and an anaconda from downriver burns
with the same ambition, I do
the math, algebra, angles, rate-of-monkey,
croc- and snake-speed, and if, if
it looks as though the anaconda or the croc
will reach the monkey
before he attains the river’s far bank,
I raise my rifle and fire
one, two, three, even four times into the river
just behind the monkey
to hurry him up a little.
Shoot the snake, the crocodile?
They’re just doing their jobs,
but the monkey, the monkey
has little hands like a child’s,
and the smart ones, in a cage, can be taught to smile.

(Thomas Lux [source])

Oh, to know which target to aim at…

Department of Conspicuous Consumption: So, The Missus has offered to get me a tablet device. All other considerations aside, for me this really boils down to a question of…

Well, it’s like Facebook. You know how everybody started getting on Facebook, and they’d say things like And you can do X, Y, and Z, and then you can do X and Z together, and… etc.? The big question back then was: Well, okay, but why would I want to do X, Y, and Z at all???

This is the same question I ask myself on the getting-a-tablet front. Of course, just as with Facebook, I can easily see myself no longer asking that question after a few months’ use.

Answer hazy. Try again later.

Sparkle someone else’s eyes: I’ve had a weird fascination for the 1970 song “American Woman” ever since I first heard it. It’s got a very distinctive sound — what the heck is that buzzing effect, anyhow? is that just a weirdly fuzzed-up electric guitar? — and its lyrics, as I thought then, were nicely incisive. But then I found out that the Guess Who — the band who recorded it — were Canadian… which really added some punch: this wasn’t just an American band, this was how outsiders see us. A lightbulb-over-the-head moment.

[Below, click Play button to begin American Woman. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 5:10 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

One further association with the song probably didn’t hurt its appeal for me:

The high school I attended had an annual spring tradition, called Sports Night, which pitted two teams of girls against each other in a variety of contests of one kind or another. These teams were named after the school colors, which were maroon and white, and (as I recall) girls remained with one team or the other for the entire four years of high school. For one such contest — at least that year — each team had to perform a group dance to a contemporary song. I favored the Maroon team, because all the girls I had multiple overlapping secret crushes on (crushes I’d nurtured for years) were Maroons. And guess which song they danced to? Yeah. I believe it was, in those pre-music video days, the first time I’d ever seen young women do anything so, well, sexy as members of a coordinated ensemble — certainly do it and get away with it. A lot of fanning of the self took place among the teenaged boys in the bleachers that night.

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