Let The Games Begin: A Playlist For Rio : All Songs Considered As the Summer Olympics start, celebrate the glories of Brazilian music — from bossa nova to the rollicking Northeastern forró of Luiz Gonzaga and the classical mixology of Villa-Lobos.
NPR logo Let The Games Begin: A Playlist For Rio

Let The Games Begin: A Playlist For Rio

Album art for Brazilian band Bixiga 70's 2016 Record Store Day release, The Copan Connection: Bixiga 70 Meets Victor Rice. Courtesy of the artists hide caption

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Courtesy of the artists

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know that a few little sporting events are about to begin in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil's "Marvelous City" (Cidade Maravilhosa), as the locals call it, is rightly celebrated for beautiful beaches (and the beautiful people on those beaches), raucous Carnival and the spectacular view atop Corcovado Mountain. Over the next few weeks, as the Summer Olympics unfold, the focus will be on all things Brazilian. Here are an introduction to and playlist of what may be Brazil's most important commodity — its music.

A Brazilian Playlist

  • Antônio Carlos Jobim, 'Girl from Ipanema'

    One of Rio's great gifts to the world is the blithely sensual and sophisticated bossa nova — a blend of samba and jazz that captivated the world from the late 1950s forward. It was largely the creation of composer and pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), whose collaborations with Brazilian artists (João and Astrud Gilberto, Caetano Veloso) and foreigners (Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra) have a distinctively silky and seductive sound. Jobim's early "Desafinado," which became a hit for Getz and Charlie Byrd, helped establish the style, but the endlessly covered "Garota de Ipanema" (Girl from Ipanema) made Jobim an international presence. His music has been both lovingly parodied and imaginatively expanded, but the best response to it? Simply saying, "Aaah."—M.M.

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  • Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2, Toccata - 'O trenzinho do caipira'

    Early on, Heitor Villa-Lobos played cello in the cafes of his native Rio de Janeiro. He would become the most influential and innovative composer Brazil has ever known and a significant international figure. A musical tinkerer, Villa-Lobos brilliantly blended Brazilian folk with European classical music, producing a staggering number of works in a wide range of styles that still sound fresh today. His beloved series of nine Bachianas Brasileiras (1932-44) fused Baroque counterpoint with Brazilian melodies and rhythms. The final movement from the second of the Bachianas, "O trenzinho do caipira," evocatively depicts a locomotive chugging through the back country of Northeastern Brazil.—T.H.

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  • Brixiga 70, '100% 13'

    One newer band that revels in Brazil's cultural and musical cross-currents with Africa and Latin America is the 10-piece group Bixiga 70 ("bee-SHEE-gah seh-TAYN-tah"). Some hints about this instrumental band's thickly layered sound lie right in its name. The first half comes from their São Paulo neighborhood — rooting their music locally — and the number is a nod to the totemic importance of Fela Kuti and his Africa 70 band. And as fun as Bixiga 70 is on record, the group is even better live; its potent blend of Afrobeat, Brazilian baile funk, cumbia and other styles will definitely get you dancing.—A.T.

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  • Luiz Gonzaga, 'O Fole Roncou'

    The accordion, triangle and the bass drum called a zabumba place this rollicking song in Northeast Brazil — and make it sound not unlike Cajun or zydeco music. Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989), a farmer's son from a small town in the state of Pernambuco, was a pioneer in the forró style, with a career that spanned decades and led to his songs being covered by massively popular younger artists such as Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento. Listen for the deep breath that opens Gonzaga's vocal here — what follows is a broad, intensifying expression of pure joy as he rides the propulsive beat.—M.M.

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  • Carlos Gomes: Il Guarany - 'Sento una forza'

    There was a superstar of Brazilian classical music before Villa-Lobos and his name was Carlos Gomes. He enjoyed, according to Latin American ethnomusicologist Gerard Béhague, the "most brilliant career of any composer in the Southern Hemisphere in the 19th century." Gomes was Brazil's best opera composer, making his initial splash with Il Guarany — an opera that bravely tackled issues of race and love and cannibalism — in Italy, at Milan's La Scala, in 1870. Gomes would premiere three of his next five operas at that venerable opera house. His music attracted the world's biggest opera stars, including Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn, who made this stunning recording of the Act 1 love duet from Il Guarany, "Sento una forza," in 1914.—T.H.

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  • Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil in concert

    Individually, the careers of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil could each fill shelves of albums and books. We're talking about musical titans, two fathers of the 1960s Tropicalia movement, which gave Brazilian youth a voice through music that merged the country's homegrown sounds with rock, jazz and "the scandal of the electric guitar" — which infuriated the military junta controlling Brazil at the time. Of late, Veloso and Gil have been recording and touring together to celebrate their decades of friendship and musical fellowship — and of triumphing over the political forces that sought to stifle them, first in jail and then forcing them into exile. These days, they're treasured national heroes. Not only did Gil serve as the country's Minister of Culture (under former Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president under threat of a corruption trial), but the two are slated to take important roles in the Olympics opening ceremony Friday night.—A.T.

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