Home Entertainment & Arts What Does Bossa Nova Mean?

If you are not Brazilian, or a jazz aficionado ‘bossa nova’ may sound a bit obscure. Let’s find out what bossa nova is all about.

Bossa Nova Meaning

Literally, bossa nova means ‘new trend’, and particularly refers to a style of Brazilian jazz music characterized by a harmonic, poetic, flamboyant, yet soft interpretation of samba.

For Brazilians, the word ‘bossa’ means more than a tendency or ‘wave’. It is a slang denoting something done with enthusiasm and charm. The first usage of the phrase is noted in a samba song from 1932, ‘Coisas Nossas’ by Noel Rosa. According to the lyrics, ‘bossa’ is that special ‘something’ Brazilians have, which is an endearing quality and particular perspective on life. The lyrics sound like this: ‘O samba, a prontidão e outras bossas são nossas coisas, são coisas nossas.’ (‘The samba, the readiness and other bossas are our things, are things from us’).

in a bossa nova mood

No wonder Bossa Nova is internationally recognized as the Brazilian Popular Music, and as any jazz genre, it was initially associated with the poorer or middle-classes.

However, the origins of the phrase ‘bossa nova’ are still in a fog. According to Ruy Castro, the author of a book on Bossa Nova, the term was certainly used during the late 1950s to denote a new wave in Brazilian music. Bossa Nova later came to define a unique way of singing and playing samba. Influenced by American Jazz, the new style was born out of improvisation and it is an innovation brought to Brazilian traditional rhythms.

Bossa Nova: A Brief History

The beginnings of Bossa Nova as a movement in the history of Brazilian music go back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. Those were the golden years of ‘The New Wave’, characterized by a fizzy collaboration between artists. Singers, composers and poets like Tom Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and João Gilberto used to meet and exchange ideas and artistic experiences on the streets of Ipanema.

This smooth version of samba is said to have been greatly influenced by the work of the renowned songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim and the gifted guitarist João Gilberto. Pieces like ‘Girl From Ipanema’ and ‘Brazil’ brought Bossa Nova international recognition and conquered the attention of the American jazzmen Stan Getz.

The first official Bossa Nova LP dates from 1958. Entitled ‘Canção do Amor Demais’ (Song of Too Much Love), the vinyl was recorded by Elizabeth Cardoso, with music by Tom Jobim, lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes, and guitar accompaniment by João Gilberto.

If Bossa Nova was well received by listeners, it wasn’t highly praised by Brazilian critics. One of the main aspects criticized was the idiosyncratic interpretation of popular samba, translated into dissonant chords and pauses typically of jazz. As any other new wave in music, Bossa Nova was first perceived as highly provocative.  Other critics, though, embraced the new genre as one of the greatest innovations in Brazilian music.

Bossa Nova Notable Artists

These Rio bohemians are the quintessential figures of the ‘New Wave’:

  • Antonio Carlos Jobim or simply Tom Jobim was one of the leading figures and creators of Bossa Nova. He is internationally known for creating ‘Girl of Ipanema’, which he later recorded with Frank Sinatra while living in the States. His creations remain some of the best, most sophisticated and poetic works of the Bossa Nova movement. As a sign of appreciation, the Rio de Janeiro International Airport was renamed after Jobim in 1994, the year of his death.
  • Vinicius de Morães was a renowned Brazilian poet, who greatly contributed to the invention of Bossa Nova in collaboration with Tom Jobim. Together with the Gilberto couple they brought the new wave of Brazilian music into international light, and influenced the course of jazz music. Nowadays, the street where Vinicius and Tom used to meet, place which inspired them to create ‘Girl from Ipanema’, is named after de Morães.
  • João Gilberto was one of the fathers of Bossa Nova, praised for a poetic and charming vocal style, as well as for an innovative way of playing the acoustic guitar. With ‘Chega de Saudade’, Gilberto conquered Brazil, and soon after, the entire world.
  • Astrud Gilberto is the iconic singer of the new style of Brazilian music. She is best known for interpreting the Grammy-winning song ‘Girl of Ipanema’.
  • Roberto Menescal was a jazz guitar player and one of the most important creators of Bossa Nova.
  • Stan Getz is one of the greatest American jazz saxophonists. Although he was not Brazilian, Getz popularized the Bossa Nova movement.

Other Influential Bossa Nova Artists:


Nara Leão, Bebel Gilberto, Eliane Elias, Elis Regina, Sérgio Mendes, Baden Powell, Maria Rita, Sitti Navarro, Rosalia De Souza, Celso Fonseca, Luiz Bonfá, Carlos Lyra, Tamba Trio, Gal Costa, Seu Jorge.

Popular Bossa Nova Songs

‘Chega de Saudade’ translated as ‘No More Blues’ (1959)

  • Music by Tom Jobim, with lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes, and interpretation by João Gilberto.
  • Considered the first Bossa Nova song.

‘Desafinados’ translated as ‘Slightly Out of Tune’ (1959)

  • Composed by Tom Jobim, with lyrics by Newton Mendonça.
  • The title is emblematic for the Bossa Nova style.

‘Corcovado’ translated as ‘Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars’ (1960)

  • Composed by Tom Jobim.
  • The central reference is the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro.

 ‘Mas Que Nada’ known in English as ‘Come On!’ (1963)

  • Composed and performed by Jorge Ben, the song was inducted to the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame.
  • This song speaks of the legacy and influence of Bossa Nova as the version of Sérgio Mendes was released by the Black Eyed Peace in 2006.

‘Águas de Março’ translated as ‘Waters of March’(1974)

  • Written by Tom Jobim.
  • Nominated as the best Brazilian song in 2001.

‘Garota de Ipanema’ translated as ‘Girl From Ipanema’ (1975)

  • Music by Tom Jobim and lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes, performed by João Gilberto and Stan Getz.


Typical Bossa Nova Instruments

The typical Bossa Nova instruments are the classical guitar and drums, but you can also hear piano, acoustic bass and electronic sounds.

Emblematic for the Bossa Nova style, though, are the nylon-string classical guitar and the percussion instruments. João Gilberto is the artist exemplifying a new way of playing the guitar, applying rhythms specifically to samba.

Contemporary Bossa Nova

Over the years, Bossa Nova was eclipsed by other music genres, but it still lives today in a unique blend of jazz and lounge music.

Experience the charming rhythms of Brazil by listening to these three jazz radio online stations:

Bossa Nova

Smooth Bossa Nova

Fusion Lounge

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Georgette Movilé

Poetry lover and jazz addict, Georgette Movilé enjoys writing about art-related topics. With a background in Theatre and Literary Studies, once dreaming to be part of the ‘academia’, she now has a keen interest in cultural journalism and develops a great passion for arts management. Her style and taste are eclectic and she calls herself a hedonist open to, and ready to make the most of, the dazzling possibilities within the everyday. Want to meet the most starry-eyed-down-to-earth person you might ever encounter? Read her articles, get inspired and feel free to contact her.


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