Top Five (or so) Samba Songs

I’m trying to get back into my walking routine, after having gotten off-track what with my stroke and long COVID, and that means listening to Pandora while I pound the pavement. And while I’m not sure which of my many stations is my official favorite, the “Astrud Gilberto” one has been getting a good bit of play.

And yeah, I know I’ve mentioned Astrud before several times. To evoke another form of pop music, I can’t help myself.

Most of my “Top Five” lists come from the very center of popular culture — predictable stuff. Like, you know, “Can’t Help Myself.” This is one that’s slightly to the side, the thing that gets me closest to being a jazz fan (and you know, they’re all cool). It may not interest you. (It may not have interested you the many times I’ve mentioned it before — but this is different; it’s a Top Five List!) If you’re not familiar with it, at least try listening to a song or two on the list. You may find yourself rewarded.

I was first exposed to it when I lived in South America. No, I didn’t hear it on the radio in Ecuador, or from the turntable when my parents had people over to dance. That was very different. I might have missed it completely except my Dad had to go to Rio for an international naval conference, and he brought back an album or two. Not having much access to the stuff in which I would be inundated when we came back to the States in 1965, I used to listen to my parents’ albums on the Telefunken — Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Patty Page, the Mills Brothers — and these new ones really grabbed me.

When I got back to the states, I found that folks here were really grabbed by the second song on my list, and Sergio Mendes was big, but that’s about all the samba I heard back here.

The list:

  1. Mas Que Nada — Had to put this at the top because I included it on my “slapdash ‘Top Ten (plus) Songs of All Time’ list.” To save myself some typing, here’s what I said then: “If you want to evoke the 1960s in the mind of someone who actually lived through them, you’ll play this perhaps even more readily than something by the Beatles or the Stones. That’s what Austin Powers did, and it worked. Coming from me, it also represents my love of samba music from that era.” But I could easily have chosen one or more of the following on that list…
  2. Girl from Ipanema — Which introduced me to Astrud. If you’d like to be introduced to the girl who actually inspired the song she sang, here she is at the right, below. Don’t you think it was really classy of me to use one in which she’s fully dressed? There are plenty of bikini shots on the web, but frankly it would kind of creep me out to post cheesecake picks of a 17-year-old, which is what she was at the time. Anyway, this is probably the best-known samba song ever in this country. About half the singers on the planet covered it. Anybody who lived through the period will find “Mas Que Nada” almost as familiar, but they probably can’t name it.

    Helo Pinheiro

  3. Desafinado — Another one with an extremely familiar tune, but most can’t name it. Hey, I might not be able to name it — or classics below such as Corcovado or Agua de Beber, if you just play the tune. But I’ll know them, and love them. I’m bad about that. Songs that I hear in Portuguese are like instrumentals to me. I’m terrible with instrumentals. I can tell you it’s John Phillip Sousa, but not which tune. And I’m terrible with Big Band music. I’ll say “Hey, is that Begin the Beguine?” and it’s “In the Mood.” Embarrassing. (Although I sometimes do better if it’s Ellington.) Anyway, Portuguese is enchanting to here in this form, but it might as well be instrumental. I grew up speaking Spanish, which is a great help in understanding Italian — but little help at all with Portuguese.
  4. One-Note Samba — I’ve brought this one up before, asking Phillip and other music wizards how in the world it works. He explained it. I still don’t understand it. I can’t tell you why I like the Beatles, either. When it works, music is magic to me. Maybe Gandalf would understand it, but I don’t.
  5. Corcovado — Some of my gringo friends may know this as “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.” But whatever you call it, it’s beautiful. It makes me want to go to there.
  6. Agua de Beber — And again, I don’t have a lot of commentary on this one. It’s just awesome.

Yeah, that’s six. But who’s doing math here? It’s samba. And I just couldn’t decide which one of these to drop. In fact, if I poked around a bit more, the list would be a lot longer. For instance, I can’t believe I left off the song in the video below. Some of you modernists may note that they’re all from the ’60s (and a couple date from 1959). Well, yeah. To me, that’s the era of samba.

By the way, before someone who knows way more about music than I do points to one of these and says, “Technically, that’s not samba!”… I thought I would go ahead and say I don’t pretend to be an expert. If it’s Brazilian, and from that era, I call it samba. If I get it wrong, don’t look at me. Blame it on the bossa nova.

I labored a bit to set up that bad joke, didn’t I?

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